In March 2022, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a statement clarifying the technical requirements of digital accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
For the accessibility community, the statement didn’t provide much new information. The DOJ reiterated the view that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are considered a reasonable standard for ADA compliance, but stopped short of officially declaring that websites must follow WCAG.
Even so, the DOJ’s press release brought new attention to the importance of digital accessibility. An accompanying website (Guidance on Web Accessibility and the ADA) may help some webmasters adopt ADA-compliant practices.
That could prove important: With the number of web accessibility lawsuits, more businesses will need to take steps to accommodate users with disabilities in the coming years. Unfortunately, the vast majority of websites have serious accessibility barriers that could compromise ADA compliance — and negatively affect the experiences of consumers.
Related: New Department of Justice ADA Web Accessibility Statement: Clear Guidance or More of the Same?
Research indicates that most websites fail basic accessibility checks
Each year, accessibility advocacy organization WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) conducts an analysis of the top 1 million home pages on the internet. This report, the WebAIM Million, provides an overview of the state of digital accessibility.
WebAIM uses automated methods to test for WCAG failures, and while automated checks aren’t perfect, they’re useful for measuring long-term trends. Unfortunately, the 2022 WebAIM Million update is a mixed bag:
- 96.8% of homepages had accessibility barriers that prevented conformance with WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines. This was a slight improvement from 97.4% in 2021 and 98.1% in 2020.
- On average, each homepage had 50.8 detectable accessibility errors. This was a slight improvement from 51.4 errors in 2021.
- More homepages are using heading tags properly, but issues like low contrast text and missing image alternative text are still common. 84% of homepages had low contrast text.
Overall, web accessibility is trending in the right direction — very, very slowly.
For internet users with disabilities, change isn’t happening quickly enough. Many accessibility issues can make a site unusable for people who use screen readers (software that converts text to audio or braille) or other assistive technologies. Even when a website is functional, certain barriers can create a poor user experience.
And since Title III of the ADA requires U.S. businesses to provide accessible digital resources — as the DOJ has repeatedly noted in statements, investigations, and settlements — webmasters need to take immediate action.
Related: ADA Website Lawsuits Rise Under Biden Administration
Most accessibility issues fall into six categories
WCAG 2.1, the latest version of the international standards for digital accessibility, contains a total of 78 success criteria. To maintain a reasonable level of accessibility, websites should follow all Level AA success criteria. Learn more about WCAG levels here.
But while every success criteria could potentially impact users with disabilities, WebAIM’s analysis identified six issues that are especially common on the internet’s top homepages:
- Low Contrast Text - The contrast of text doesn’t meet WCAG’s requirements for color contrast ratio, which may make text difficult to read for people with low vision and other disabilities.
- Missing Alternative Text - Images (or other elements) do not contain a text alternative that provides an equivalent experience for non-visual web users.
- Empty Links - Hyperlinks do not contain any text content to indicate their purpose.
- Missing Form Input Labels - The <label> tag is present within the form and associated with an input, but doesn’t contain any text to describe its purpose.
- Empty Buttons - Buttons do not have text, ARIA labels, or other attributes to describe their purpose.
- Missing Document Language - The page doesn’t contain an HTML language attribute, which may prevent assistive technologies from rendering the page correctly.
These errors constituted 96.5% of all errors detected by WebAIM. In other words, if you’re concerned about ADA compliance, evaluating your website for these six issues is an excellent first step.
Related: The Most Common Web Accessibility Issues to Avoid
Getting Started: Testing for ADA Web Accessibility
The benefits of web accessibility are immense. Following WCAG can demonstrate compliance with the ADA and other non-discrimination laws, but an accessible website is also a more effective tool for marketing. WCAG conformance can improve brand loyalty, increase customer retention, and even improve search engine optimization (SEO) efforts.
For businesses, the first step is to test web content against the latest version of WCAG’s Level AA guidelines (currently, WCAG 2.1, with WCAG 2.2 expected for release later this year). Automated accessibility tests are useful for finding certain types of issues — including the six common barriers listed above — but a well-rounded accessibility strategy should also include manual testing involving real people with disabilities.
Additionally, it’s important to maintain the right mindset: For long-term compliance, every member of your web design team should understand the importance of accessibility.
If you’re beginning a web accessibility initiative, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help. Download our Essential Guide to ADA Compliance for Websites or get started with a free automated accessibility analysis.