According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires digital accessibility. However, while the DOJ has published basic guidance for web accessibility, the Department has stopped short of issuing specific guidelines.
For business owners, that can be frustrating. Private companies have a responsibility to provide accessible web content, but the DOJ doesn’t have clear rules for what makes a website ADA compliant. Fortunately, digital accessibility has clear, objective standards: the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
By following WCAG, you can improve compliance — and significantly reduce the risk of a web accessibility lawsuit. If you’re building a strategy for ADA compliance, here’s what you need to know.
WCAG is voluntary, but virtually essential for ADA compliance
The Justice Department notes that “businesses and state and local governments have flexibility in how they comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication.”
That doesn’t mean that compliance is optional. The DOJ has the power to investigate alleged ADA claims, and any individual with disabilities may file a lawsuit if a business denies them “full and equal enjoyment" of goods or services.
In recent years, the number of web accessibility lawsuits has steadily increased (that’s our conservative way of saying “skyrocketed"). Some key statistics to keep in mind:
- Per one analysis from Accessibility.com, 2,352 web accessibility lawsuits were filed against U.S. organizations in 2021 — an increase of 14.3% from the previous year.
- For small businesses, responding to an ADA demand letter costs about $25,000 on average.
- More than 56% of all web accessibility lawsuits in 2021 were filed by six law firms. Most lawsuits were filed in New York or California.
Needless to say, digital accessibility should be a priority for every business. Following WCAG may reduce legal exposure, provided that your organization follows a clear strategy.
What level of WCAG conformance is necessary for ADA compliance?
WCAG outlines three levels of conformance: Level A (the least strict and most essential guidelines), Level AA, and Level AAA (the most strict guidelines). Websites that meet all Level AA and Level A guidelines are generally considered to be reasonably accessible for most individuals with disabilities.
In fact, the government’s own Revised Section 508 standards are essentially identical to WCAG 2.0’s Level AA guidelines. WCAG Level AA also serves as a framework for other disability non-discrimination laws such as the European Union Web Accessibility Directive and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
The bottom line: WCAG conformance is voluntary — but if your goal is to ensure compliance, WCAG provides the best path for finding (and fixing) potential compliance issues.
How Following WCAG Removes Web Accessibility Barriers
WCAG contains technical requirements called success criteria, which are presented as pass-or-fail statements. Each criterion addresses a potential accessibility barrier.
While WCAG is a technical document, the success criteria are fairly straightforward. They establish requirements for adding image alternative text (also called alt text) and providing closed captions, which may help to accommodate users with vision or hearing disabilities.
Success criteria also address keyboard navigation, responsive design, and other fundamentals — but if you’ve got a large or complex website, addressing each criterion individually may be impractical. A thorough accessibility audit can make the process much easier.
Some quick tips for building an ADA accessible website with WCAG:
- Start with an automated audit. Automated testing can identify many accessibility issues that don’t require human judgment (for example, missing alt text).
- Support automated audits with manual testing. Ideally, these tests should be performed by people who have experience with screen readers and other assistive technology (AT).
- Publish an accessibility statement. An accessibility statement establishes your organization’s commitment to accessibility and provides feedback options for users with disabilities. Read about the best practices for writing an accessibility statement.
- Be consistent. Web accessibility should be a long-term priority, and for optimal digital compliance, you’ll need to test your content regularly — and communicate the importance of accessibility to your entire team.
If you’re ready to get started, we’re here to help. Send us a message to connect with an expert or get started with our free, confidential WCAG 2.1 Level AA graded report.