Web accessibility isn’t a burden; it’s a series of principles that opens up a website to a considerably larger audience while improving core functionality for all visitors. With that said, many organizations have logical questions about compliance: Does a site really need to be accessible? Will a site with poor accessibility violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and if so, are there ways to ensure compliance?
For businesses, the answers are increasingly straightforward and the accessibility of their websites is required. For non-profit organizations, simple answers might seem difficult to find, but a few recent precedents and concepts can provide some clarity.
First, nonprofits certainly need to comply with the ADA
Title III of the ADA prohibits disability-based discrimination for places of public accommodation. That includes businesses — and nonprofits — that are open to the public. Organizations must make reasonable accommodations to allow people with disabilities to access their services, and nonprofits are not exempt due to their structure. Regardless of whether a nonprofit receives federal funds, it needs to comply with the ADA.
As for whether this section of the ADA applies to websites, direction from the Department of Justice and thousands of plaintiff-favored accessibility lawsuits make the answer an overwhelming "yes." The Americans with Disabilities Act wasn’t written with the internet in mind — when it became law in 1990, the internet didn’t really exist (or, at least, not in its current form), and the 2008 update doesn’t lay out specific requirements for digital content.
However, numerous federal lawsuits have been filed against government offices and businesses alleging that their websites violate the ADA. The Department of Justice has indicated that the law’s language is broad enough to apply to digital content, and there’s a strong legal consensus to that effect.
In one notable 2019 ruling (Robles v. Domino’s Pizza LLC), a federal appeals court found that the ADA applies to both websites and apps. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion detailing a lower court’s ruling that because “the ADA applies to the services of a public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation,” websites that connected customers to goods and services must make reasonable accommodations to individuals who are blind. (Read a more thorough synopsis of the court case here).
The primary takeaway: Courts have indicated that the ADA applies to websites, and unless a Supreme Court decision reverses those rulings, organizations should assume that websites need to be accessible to prevent litigation. Nonprofits may reasonably assume that they should maintain accessible websites to ensure compliance.
WCAG guidelines provide an excellent framework for creating an accessible website.
The next logical question is whether or not there’s a set of guidelines that can ensure compliance with the ADA. There isn’t — at least, not officially, as the Department of Justice hasn’t provided direct guidance.
With that said, the DOJ has cited Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) positively. That’s not to say that WCAG is a legal framework. In a 2018 letter, the DOJ declined to specifically endorse any set of technical requirements for websites, stating that “public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication.”
Even without official endorsement, WCAG standards have several notable benefits:
- WCAG is regularly updated. These updates allow web developers to improve accessibility for an ever-expanding group of users with disabilities.
- WCAG is widely used worldwide. The guidelines are drafted in English, but numerous authorized and unauthorized translations are available. The guidelines are frequently cited or used as a basis for web accessibility laws throughout the world.
- WCAG outlines clear success criteria. The guidelines identify three compliance levels: A, AA, and AAA. Websites that meet the criteria of levels A and AA are usually considered to be reasonably accessible for people with disabilities.
- WCAG isn’t a simple checklist. Accessibility requires an appropriate mindset, and the WCAG guidelines can help developers develop the right perspective to build a more accessible internet.
By following WCAG standards and committing to accessibility as early as possible, nonprofits may be able to demonstrate reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, thereby fulfilling their obligations under the ADA.
Of course, web accessibility isn’t just about meeting legal requirements — the accessibility mindset has numerous practical benefits, as an accessible website will often benefit from improved search engine rankings, a wider audience base, and an improved experience for all users. Nonprofits can expand their reach considerably by catering to a diverse group of users, and accessibility is a crucial component of any organization’s digital outreach strategy.