Mobile app and mobile website must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is applicable to all “places of public accommodation,” and mobile products and services — while not specifically listed in the text of the ADA — must provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.
Unfortunately, the ADA was written before mobile technologies became an important part of the digital landscape, and the law doesn’t specify standards for what constitutes “accessible.” However, numerous judgments and structured settlements have accepted conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a reasonable standard.
Below, we’ll discuss some of the finer points of mobile accessibility and ADA compliance. To determine whether your content makes reasonable accommodations for accessibility, download our free mobile accessibility checklist.
The ADA requires accessibility for mobile apps
In recent years, major brands have faced lawsuits for alleged ADA violations related to their mobile content. One of the most high-profile examples was Robles v. Domino's Pizza, LLC. In that case, a person with vision disabilities alleged that Domino’s Pizza app and mobile website were not accessible with a screen reader.
The pizza chain contended that since the Department of Justice has not issued formalized digital accessibility regulations, the lawsuit violated the company’s due process rights. However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that the ADA remains applicable.
In a summary opinion, the court wrote:
"The [Americans with Disabilities Act] mandates that places of public accommodation, like Domino's, provide auxiliary aids and services to make visual materials available to individuals who are blind. Even though customers primarily accessed the website and app away from Domino's physical restaurants, the panel stated that the ADA applies to the services of a public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation. The panel stated that the website and app connected customers to the goods and services of Domino's physical restaurants."
And while the Department of Justice has not specified standards for web accessibility, assistant attorney general Stephen E. Boyd reaffirmed the Department’s interpretation of the ADA in a 2018 letter.
“The Department [of Justice] first articulated its interpretation that the ADA applies to public accommodations' websites over 20 years ago,” Boyd wrote. "..The Department has consistently taken the position that the absence of a specific regulation does not serve as a basis for noncompliance with a statute’s requirements.”
Of course, the “absence of a specific regulation" can be frustrating for business owners. However, while the ADA doesn’t specify a set of standards for websites and mobile apps, businesses can limit their chances of ADA litigation by following widely accepted guidelines.
WCAG provides consensus standards for mobile accessibility
Published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is the most widely cited set of standards for digital accessibility. Internationally, WCAG forms the basis for many digital accessibility laws, including the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and the European Accessibility Act (EAA).
By following WCAG’s principle-oriented approach, content creators can remove many of the barriers that affect people with disabilities. WCAG provides guidance for many issues frequently cited in ADA lawsuits including:
- Missing alternative text (also called alt text) for graphics and media.
- “Keyboard traps" and other user interface issues that prevent people from interacting with the app or website.
- Empty or unclear form labels.
- Layout issues that prevent people from controlling the app comfortably when using devices with small screens.
- Color contrast issues that prevent users from reading text.
It’s important to note that a business could theoretically offer an accessible mobile experience without following WCAG (as the Department of Justice notes in the 2018 letter discussed above). However, WCAG is frequently referenced in ADA claims as a baseline for digital accessibility, and voluntary conformance with the latest version of WCAG may help an organization avoid ADA compliance violations.
Plan for accessibility when creating mobile content
Designing accessible mobile content isn’t necessarily easy, but mobile content creators face additional challenges. If you’re designing a native app, you’ll need to understand the accessibility features of the app’s platform, and you’ll need to prioritize accessibility from the first stages of development.
While WCAG conformance is voluntary, ADA compliance is mandatory. The WCAG framework provides the best roadmap for designing mobile content with an accessible mindset. By adopting WCAG, you can ensure that your app or website provides the best possible experience — and given the strong business case for digital accessibility, you’ll enjoy an excellent return on investment.