What is ADA Website Accessibility?

March 21, 2022

If you’re confused about ADA website compliance, you’re not alone. According to a 2021 report from non-profit organization WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), 97.4% of the top one million home pages on the internet have detectable accessibility issues — and many of those issues could be interpreted as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Under the ADA, businesses and public agencies must provide reasonable accommodations to persons with disabilities in “places of public accommodation.” That certainly applies to websites, as the Department of Justice has repeatedly confirmed. 

Businesses have strong incentives to maintain digital compliance. Accessible design saves money over time and improves the key metrics that drive successful websites. However, most organizations adopt accessible practices to maintain compliance with the ADA and other non-discrimination laws. 

In this article, we’ll explain how the ADA applies to websites and how businesses can demonstrate compliance. If you’re trying to determine whether your website is currently compliant, we recommend starting with a free automated web accessibility report

The ADA requires websites to accommodate users with disabilities

For businesses, the most relevant section of the ADA for web accessibility is Title III, which prohibits disability-based discrimination for places of public accommodation, including private businesses that are open to the public. Here’s what the Department of Justice said (PDF) about Title III and website accessibility in a 2018 letter to Congress: 

The Department first articulated its interpretation that the ADA applies to public accommodations' websites over 20 years ago. This interpretation is consistent with the ADA’s Title III requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities.

In the letter, the Justice Department notes that the ADA doesn’t include technical guidance for web designers and developers. Of course, the law passed in 1990, so if it did contain technical guidance relevant to the internet in 2022, that would be remarkable. Instead, the legislation simply requires “reasonable accommodations,” and while the United States government may eventually set technical standards, that’s not currently the case.

Related: Why Website ADA Compliance Testing is Essential

Demonstrating ADA Compliance with WCAG Conformance

However, businesses have resources for demonstrating compliance. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a set of principles and recommendations created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the internet’s main international standards organization. The document is organized into three levels of voluntary conformance: Level A (least strict), Level AA, and Level AAA (most strict).  Level AA conformance is generally considered reasonably accessible for most people with disabilities.

WCAG is frequently referenced in ADA lawsuits, and in numerous cases, the Department of Justice has required businesses and government agencies to achieve conformance with WCAG. In December 2021, the Justice Department reached a settlement agreement with supermarket chain Hy-Vee, Inc. The agreement required the company to update its COVID-19 Vaccine Registration Portal to conform with WCAG 2.1 Level AA. 

Related: Is Website Accessibility Required Under the ADA?

How can I make sure my website complies with the ADA?

For business owners, here’s the bottom line: If a website can earn Level AA conformance with the latest version of WCAG, it’s compliant with the ADA. 

However, the W3C doesn’t test websites. Any website can claim WCAG conformance, but if those claims are inaccurate, the business can face litigation under the ADA and other laws. In order to limit legal liability — and provide users with the best possible experience —- your business should take the following steps: 

  • Communicate the importance of accessibility to your team. To make the case to managers and decision makers, read about the strong business case for an accessible website
  • Set a timeline for earning WCAG Level AA conformance and make sure that every member of your staff plays a role in making the necessary changes.
  • Publish an accessibility statement on your website and give users a way to submit feedback about accessibility issues.
  • Test your content frequently using both automated and manual audits.

We strongly recommend working with an accessibility partner to earn and maintain ADA compliance. With that said, many websites can become compliant with minimal investment, and your business can take the first steps towards digital accessibility on its own. For more guidance and free resources, visit our Compliance Roadmap.

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