The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits disability-based discrimination. Title III of the ADA specifically mentions the prohibition of this type of discrimination in “places of public accommodation.”
In the 90s, many ADA lawsuits focused on physical barriers that impeded the access and navigation of public facilities. Think of accessibility issues like wheelchair ramps and braille signage.
Today, ADA lawsuits also cover digital accessibility, including websites. The law considers websites places of public accommodation. And making websites accessible to everyone, regardless of ability level, is what ADA web compliance is all about.
What Is an ADA Compliant Website?
An ADA compliant website is a site with web content that’s accessible to users who engage with and navigate web content by voice, screen readers, or other assistive technology.
But ADA web compliance can be a bit of a gray area. That’s because the letter of the ADA compliant website law doesn’t provide much technical guidance. At present, there are no explicit ADA technical web accessibility guidelines issued by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for commercial websites.
But the spirit of the law is clear. Publishers of public websites must take reasonable steps to make their web content as accessible as possible to those with disabilities.
“Alright, well, how do I do that, U.S. government?” you may understandably ask.
What Does ADA Compliant Mean for Websites?
There are technical web accessibility guidelines for ADA website accessibility, they’re just not authored by the government. The legislation smartly doesn’t get into technical details because technology is a moving target. Any technical legislation would quickly become obsolete.
But if you look over past ADA Title III legal actions, one of the best ways to build an ADA compliant website is to conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA. The WCAG was created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as an international recommendation for web accessibility. In the absence of explicit ADA website accessibility guidelines, many businesses use and rely on the WCAG 2.0 AA.
This all means that there is some flexibility in implementing ADA web compliance. The general idea is for websites to comply with the spirit of the law. That digital content be accessible to the differently-abled. And there’s more than one way to get there
It doesn’t have to be by observing WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines. Those just happen to be the most detailed and historically successful ADA website accessibility guidelines out there right now. The vast majority of website accessibility statements reference the WCAG.
Do Websites Have to Be ADA Compliant?
Yes, websites have to be ADA compliant. The litany of lost ADA lawsuits proves that. But, as we discussed, “ADA compliant” can be a gray area. In practice, it looks different for different websites.
Being ADA web compliant means that your business has done everything it reasonably can to make its web content easily accessible for those using assistive technology. That’s typically screen readers, screen magnification software, and alternative input devices.
Implementing that access may look different for an online ordering portal as opposed to a blog. But if you identify as many ADA website accessibility changes as you can make, and make them, you’re likely going to be ADA web compliant. Though, of course, the best way to know for sure that you have an ADA compliant website is to run it past a lawyer with ADA web compliance experience.
ADA Website Compliance Guidelines and Requirements
ADA Requirements for Websites
We know there is no official set of ADA requirements for websites. We know the ADA provides no checklist of technical tasks to complete that, once finished, results in ADA compliance.
But, thankfully, the ADA does list some common and problematic areas with ADA website accessibility. ADA accessible website guidelines, if you will. And ADA compliance checkers check against the following guidelines and more. If a website adheres to the following ADA accessible website guidelines, it goes a long way to ensuring ADA web compliance.
ADA Website Accessibility Guidelines
Provide Text Equivalents For Images
Visually impaired users use screen readers to engage with text on websites. These screen readers either speak the words out loud or refresh a touchable braille display. In either case, they can’t recognize and communicate images. Unless, of course, those images are described in text.
This text equivalent is often an “alt” tag—short for alternative text—in the HTML of an image element. Let’s say, for example, that your website shows a picture of a dog balancing a hot dog on its nose. The alt text could be “A dog balancing a hot dog on its nose.” The alt text need not be long; about 125 characters maximum. All it has to do is accurately summarize the image.
But sometimes an image summary must be long. In these cases, the “longdesc” attribute is used instead of “alt.”
Provide Accessible Document Formats
Screen readers and other assistive technologies work best with text-based formats. One particularly prevalent non-text-based format is the PDF, or Portable Document Format. PDF QR code generators, for example, are one of the most popular tools out there right now. But while a PDF often displays text, a PDF is an image. It’s basically a picture of text.
Imagine someone texting you a phone number, but they don’t type the number in the text message. They send you a screenshot of the phone number. You can’t click the number to copy it or dial it, you can only interact with the image as a whole.
It’s similar with PDFs. Assistive technology can’t parse through sentences and words if shown an image of the words. It needs to crawl through a document’s structure to analyze its components.
That’s why every PDF or non-text-based document must either be remediated (you can read more about 508 remediation) or supplemented with a text-based document like .docx, HTML, RTF, or others. It’s known as PDF accessibility and it’s a big deal. You can even estimate the cost of ada remediation for menus with our calculator.
Make Font Sizes and Colors Adjustable
Design teams have historically put aesthetics first when creating websites. That usually means hard-coding the colors and the text size in. But some people with disabilities can’t see the entire display at once. Or they can’t see text or images of certain sizes. Some may not be able to see certain colors.
That’s why those with low vision tend to use specific font and color settings when online. This may mean high-contrast settings like bright white letters on dark backgrounds—or it could mean the opposite. There are as many ways to see out there as there are people seeing. These users need to be able to change the colors and fonts in their browsers, and some websites make that impossible.
ADA compliant websites should be designed so users with low vision can specify text and background colors, along with font sizes.
Include Audio Descriptions and Video Captions
Someone that’s deaf or has hearing impairment may not be able to hear a video’s audio. Or visually impaired people may not be able to see a video, though they can hear the audio.
To account for both scenarios, all videos and other multimedia assets should include both detailed audio descriptions that narrate the totality of each scene—settings and all—along with full captions.
What Happens If Your Website Is Not ADA Compliant?
Well, first, you lose out on a lot of potential customers because they can’t interact with your content. Even if this was the only consequence, ensuring your website’s ADA compliance would still be a smart business decision.
But it’s not the only consequence. There are legal consequences, too.
If you don't have an ADA compliant website, you leave yourself just as open to an ADA lawsuit as a restaurant with no wheelchair ramp.
From 2017 to 2019, the number of ADA website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal court grew from 814 to 2,256—an increase of 177%. Losing or defending yourself against such a lawsuit has massive financial and brand implications. Bills for getting sites up to code and attorney’s fees routinely exceed $50,000.
And, finally, ADA compliance actually has search engine optimization (SEO) benefits. Websites with relevant, organized, and accessible content dominate search engine results. That’s because assistive technology and search engine crawlers both depend on clear and intuitive website structure. That’s how this sort of technology understands content, by progressing systematically through its structure. The more organized the structure is, the easier it is for artificial intelligence to interact with it.
ADA Web Compliance: Next Steps
ADA compliance can seem confusing. It’s a law, but there are no explicit, technological instructions for complying with it.
But there’s a reason for that.
Technology is changing so quickly that web accessibility guidelines are bound to evolve just as rapidly. Web content types, channels, and delivery methods will be different next year, and again the next. Making that content accessible is a moving target.
That’s why the ADA doesn’t tell you exactly what to do. Rather, it makes law that your business engage in a good-faith effort to achieve adequate accessibility for any users with disabilities.
For many businesses that good-faith effort starts with making changes to your website based on an ADA compliance website checklist or ADA compliant website test. And that checklist is, in turn, based on some of the things the ADA has said, successful ADA legal defenses, and the WCAG 2.0 AA.
Going through checklists like these and enacting as many changes as you can puts you on the right side of ADA regulations. And it also gives you content that more people can interact with and ranks higher in search engines. There’s no reason not to.
Alternatively, if you’re a bar or restaurant, you can upgrade your single use menu or PDF menu to an ADA compliant QR code menu and be eligible for up to $10,000 in disabled access credits from the government for doing so.