When the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, modern communications technologies such as the Internet were still in their infancy. The past few decades, however, have seen the rise of new channels such as websites and mobile applications, raising questions about the ADA’s original mission to make U.S. society more accessible to people with disabilities.
Although it doesn’t explicitly mention them, the ADA has been widely interpreted to extend to websites. In this article, we’ll provide an overview of how web accessibility is a requirement under the ADA.
What Does the ADA Require for Web Accessibility?
Title II and Title III of the ADA are the two sections that are most relevant for questions of web accessibility:
- Title II prohibits disability-based discrimination on the part of state and local governments.
- Title III prohibits disability-based discrimination for “places of public accommodations”: private businesses that are open to the public, such as restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, museums, and doctor’s offices.
The U.S. Department of Justice has repeatedly held that while the ADA does not specifically address the question of web accessibility, its language is still broad enough to include websites as part of your business operations. The legal consensus is that if Title II or Title III apply to your organization, then they also apply to your website.
Because the ADA does not specifically mention websites, it also does not outline standards for how organizations can make their websites accessible. However, the DOJ has frequently cited recommendations such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as acceptable metrics for accessibility. WCAG 2.0 includes many different criteria at three different “success levels” of accessibility, ranging from high-contrast color schemes to closed captions for video content.
The ADA and Web Accessibility Lawsuits
Recent years have seen an uptick in federal lawsuits filed against businesses and governments, alleging that their website violates the ADA by being insufficiently accessible to people with disabilities. In 2017, there were at least 814 such lawsuits against organizations in a variety of industries, from banks and credit unions to restaurants and e-commerce websites. The defendants include small businesses as well as major corporations such as Nike, Burger King, and the Hershey Company.
The Trump administration’s DOJ had previously promised to begin using WCAG 2.0 as its formal standard for web accessibility. However, the DOJ recently included this action as part of the department’s “inactive list,” which means that it’s not likely to be adopted in the near future. As a result, a clear standard to judge an organizations’ web accessibility will continue to be interpreted, and the number of ADA website lawsuits is not expected to slow down any time soon.
Testing Your Website for ADA Compliance
To ensure that your website is compliant with accessibility standards such as WCAG 2.0, it’s best to use a combination of manual and automated testing in order to benefit from the strengths of both approaches.
For example, you may have thousands of images on your website that need to be checked for the presence of “alt text,” which is a requirement under WCAG 2.0. This is a task for automated testing software, which can perform the job much faster than any human. While automated tools can detect if the images on your website have alt text, however, they aren’t able to determine whether the text is correct and meaningful—which is a job for human testers.
Interested in how your website measures up? The Bureau of Internet Access offers a free scan and graded report that measures your site’s performance against WCAG 2.0 checkpoints.