For U.S. businesses, digital accessibility isn’t optional. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability within places of public accommodation, and according to the Department of Justice — and numerous court decisions — websites are places of public accommodation.
Website owners have a legal responsibility to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, most websites have serious accessibility issues that could be reasonably interpreted as ADA violations. In recent years, businesses have seen a rise in ADA accessibility demand letters, and by some estimates, brands spend billions of dollars each year responding to accessibility concerns.
If you’re concerned about your website’s accessibility, you’ll need to audit your content for ADA compliance. To accurately determine whether you’re accommodating users with disabilities, you’ll need an appropriate testing strategy.
ADA website audits should use established standards
The ADA was originally written in 1990, so it doesn’t contain technical specifications for websites or mobile applications. Despite bipartisan efforts to create national standards for digital accessibility, the ADA is currently the law of the land — and it doesn’t provide much guidance for webmasters.
Fortunately, the best practices of digital accessibility are well established. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a principle-based framework that provides guidance for accommodating users with disabilities; while businesses don’t have a legal requirement to follow the guidelines, WCAG serves as a reference for ADA compliance.
WCAG is frequently cited in ADA digital accessibility lawsuits, and businesses that demonstrate an effort to follow the standards may limit their chances of litigation. The WCAG framework includes three levels of conformance: Level A (least strict), Level AA, and Level AAA (most strict). By testing for conformance with WCAG Level AA — and using the latest version of WCAG — brands can comply with their legal obligations under the ADA.
Automated ADA testing may not demonstrate compliance
Businesses often make the mistake of trusting automated tests to ensure compliance with ADA Title III. That’s an understandable impulse — automated tests are intuitive, and in many cases, they’re free to use. In fact, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers free automated website analysis using our powerful A11Y® platform, and we recommend running automated tests during the first phase of an accessibility initiative.
However, no automated test can ensure WCAG conformance or ADA compliance. While many testing platforms use WCAG checkpoints, they can miss common accessibility barriers that affect real users.
- Automated testing can’t determine whether image alternative text (also called alt text) is descriptive and useful.
- Most automated tests won’t detect whether a website uses color to convey information, which can affect the browsing experience for users with vision-related disabilities.
- While automated systems might be able to identify elements that are missing labels, they can’t provide feedback for labeling those elements correctly.
- If website links lead off-site to inaccessible content (such as an uncaptioned video), automated tools usually won’t report the issue.
These issues can prevent a website from conforming with WCAG 2.1 Level AA, and more importantly, they prevent real-world users from navigating your content. Human testing plays a crucial role in website ADA testing, and if you’re relying on automated tools to keep your website accessible, you may miss compliance issues.
Auditing for ADA compliance can provide an excellent return on investment
Many businesses adopt accessibility initiatives to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but WCAG conformance has other major benefits. By building and maintaining an accessible website, your brand can deliver a better experience for all users while saving on long-term development costs. Accessible design naturally incorporates the best practices of search engine optimization (SEO), and many businesses see more organic traffic after remediating issues.
By performing a comprehensive accessibility audit, you can create a better website — and ensure compliance with the ADA and other accessibility laws. We recommend using both manual and automated testing methodology, and our four-point hybrid testing methodology provides an excellent path forward.
For more ADA compliance resources, visit our Compliance Roadmap.