The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.
But how does that affect your website? Obviously, you’re not trying to discriminate against anyone.
Unfortunately, most websites have issues that make them hard to access for people with disabilities. For example, if you rely on videos with no audio, visually impaired people won’t be able to consume your content.
These barriers are seldom intentional on the part of the website owners, but they’re still a problem.
Plus, you want to reach as many people as possible with your website or online store. Complying with ADA standards will lead to a bigger audience.
This article lays out what ADA compliance means for your website and how you can achieve it.
What is ADA compliance?
ADA is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has confirmed more than once that the ADA applies to websites. So, making your website accessible to all people is the law.
How exactly do you do that?
This is where things can get a little confusing. The ADA doesn’t actually outline the technical requirements for compliance.
In fact, the DOJ said in a 2017 letter that the way a website complies is flexible:
“Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication.”
But the number of lawsuits focused on non-accessible websites and apps is growing, so we need some ground rules.
The courts generally accept Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) published by the World Wide Web Consortium as a reasonable standard. When companies talk about making their websites ADA compliant, they’re usually referring to following WCAG.
If your website or blog needs some work to achieve ADA compliance, you’re not alone. 97.4% of homepages have detectable WCAG failures.
When does your website need to comply with ADA?
The ADA states that “places of public accommodation” have to comply with the ADA. The courts have often (but not always) ruled that websites can be considered places of public accommodation.
Determining which websites that applies to can be murky. Some court cases have held that compliance only matters for businesses with a physical location, while others say that all websites have to be accessible.
The safest bet for any website is to comply with the ADA.
Even if you’re not worried about lawsuits, it’s a good idea to work on ADA compliance. That will mean more users can access your website — always a good thing.
What are the principles of ADA compliance?
As we discussed above, WCAG is the standard most often used for ADA compliance. The most current version of WCAG is 2.1.
WCAG 2.1 is organized into four principles.
Your website must be:
- Perceivable — Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. In other words, information can’t be hidden from someone with a particular disability.
- Operable — User interface components and navigation must be operable. This means that navigation can’t be impossible to perform for anyone, regardless of ability or disability.
- Understandable — Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable. An understandable website uses language and functionality that’s clear and easy to comprehend.
- Robust — Content must be robust enough to be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. The website should work across various platforms and browsers and be readable by assistive technology like a screen reader.
How do you become ADA compliant?
We’ve looked at some ways that ADA compliance for websites can be unclear.
Fortunately, WCAG standards are very straightforward. The World Wide Web Consortium has compiled a checklist that makes it easy to understand exactly what you need to do.
The WCAG checklist includes three levels of compliance:
- Level A — Must have
- Level AA — Should have
- Level AAA — Good to have
Most businesses should try to meet AA requirements.
Compliance guidelines checklist for websites (WCAG 2.1 level AA)
This is the level AA checklist for WCAG compliance. The levels are progressive, so before you start on AA, you should make sure you’ve taken care of the level A items.
- Captions (live) — Live audio content must have captions.
- Audio descriptions (pre-recorded) — Pre-recorded videos should have audio descriptions.
- Orientation — Content shouldn’t be restricted to a single orientation, such as portrait or landscape.
- Identify input purpose — If you’re collecting information from users on a form, the purpose of the input field needs to be identifiable to anyone using assistive technology.
- Contrast — Any text or images of text need a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1.
- Resize text — Text should be resizable up to 200%.
- Images of text — Avoid images of text except when it’s essential to convey information or when the image is customizable by the user.
- Reflow — Content can’t require scrolling in two dimensions (vertically and horizontally) unless it’s required to convey meaning. For example, it’s OK for a map.
- Non-text contrast — Non-text content has to have a contrast ratio of at least 3:1 against adjacent colors.
- Text spacing — Text must be able to be set to the following specifications without losing functionality: line height of 1.5 times the font size, paragraph spacing of two times the font size, letter spacing of 0.12 times the font size, and word spacing of 0.16 the font size.
- Content on hover or focus — This applies to content that you “trigger,” like popups and drop-down menus. The user needs to be able to dismiss it by means other than the mouse. When the content appears, it must remain visible for as long as the mouse is over the trigger or the content itself, unless the user dismisses it.
- Multiple ways — There must be more than one way to locate a page on your site, for example, through search or through internal links.
- Headings and labels — Headings and labels should clearly describe their purpose.
- Focus visible — If someone is using a keyboard to operate the website rather than a mouse, it has to be clear where the keyboard is focused at all times.
- Language of parts — The language of each phrase can be programmatically determined. In other words, assistive technology knows whether it’s reading French or English.
- Consistent navigation — Navigation should be consistent across each page of your site.
- Consistent identification — When components of your website have the same functionality, they should be labeled the same way. For example, the text alternative for every “download” icon should be the same.
- Error suggestion — Give suggestions to solve input errors. For example, if an input field calls for the name of a month and the user enters “5,” they should be given the suggestion of “May” or instructions to enter the full name.
- Error prevention — If a website allows the user to make legal commitments or financial transactions, they must be reversible. The user must also have the chance to review and confirm them.
- Status messages — Status messages must be readable by assistive technology. For example, if users complete a search, they’ll hear “12 results returned” through the screen reader.
What if you don’t comply with ADA?
Until a few years ago, it was very rare for the ADA to be enforced for websites.
That’s no longer the case.
In 2020, 2,058 website accessibility lawsuits were filed. It’s also estimated that 265,000 demand letters were sent in 2020.
If your website isn’t ADA compliant, you could be sued and required to pay a fine.
It’s impossible to say how much your business would have to pay, but federal law allows fines of up to $75,000 for the first ADA violation and $150,000 for additional violations.
Building an ADA-compliant website can be daunting.
WCAG’s accessibility standards are straightforward, but there are a lot of pieces to deal with. Many website owners find that it’s worth working with an agency that understands web content and website design.
After all, hiring ADA compliance services is much more affordable than a $75,000 fine. For help updating your website to meet ADA requirements, look at our top web design companies.