The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not contain technical guidelines for websites. That’s understandable, given that the ADA became law in 1990 — but for business owners, the lack of specific guidance has been frustrating, to say the least.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) attempted to address that issue in March 2022 by launching Guidance on Web Accessibility and the ADA, a website with tips for testing content for compliance.
But while that guidance is certainly helpful, it’s not an official set of rules. As the DOJ notes:
Businesses and state and local governments have flexibility in how they comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. But they must comply with the ADA’s requirements.
So, why doesn’t the ADA have clear rules? For starters, the DOJ may not have the ability to establish highly specific requirements for private businesses — and Congress has failed to update the ADA with relevant standards.
New ADA web accessibility requirements are on the way…eventually
In the near future, the legal landscape may change. The DOJ has announced a proposed rule that would add standards to Title II of the ADA. Title II applies to government agencies, while Title III applies to private businesses and other “places of public accommodation.”
While new Title II rules wouldn’t immediately affect private businesses, they would serve as a framework for Title III compliance (and, most likely, Title III web accessibility lawsuits).
Congress could also pass requirements, but recent attempts at establishing Title III standards have failed. In January 2021, the Online Accessibility Act failed to pass despite bipartisan support. That bill would have mandated conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), though the language of the law failed to clarify which version of WCAG.
Nevertheless, in the digital accessibility community, there’s a strong belief that either Congress or the DOJ will eventually establish standards for Title III. And given the history of digital accessibility laws, we have a fairly good idea of what those requirements will look like.
WCAG remains the international standard for accessibility
The failed Online Accessibility Act referenced WCAG for a simple reason: It’s already an established standard.
Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is a fairly straightforward document built on four principles: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Read more about the four categories of accessibility.
Many laws already reference WCAG, including the U.S. government’s own Revised Section 508 standards. And the DOJ’s Title III guidance recommends using WCAG to test content (while noting that the standards aren’t an official requirement for ADA compliance — at least, not yet).
With that in mind, we can make some basic predictions for what ADA web accessibility standards will eventually look like:
- New standards will probably incorporate WCAG by reference.
- The standards will likely use the latest version of WCAG (currently, WCAG 2.1), or at least WCAG 2.1, which introduced important requirements for mobile websites and apps.
- The standards will probably require conformance with WCAG’s Level A/AA requirements, but not Level AAA. Some Level AAA requirements are quite strict, and certain types of content cannot conform to Level AAA. Read more about the differences between WCAG levels.
The bottom line: If you’re building a website — or trying to address accessibility issues to improve compliance with the ADA — you can safely use the latest version of WCAG to audit your content.
To test content for ADA compliance, have a long-term strategy
Building accessible content requires commitment. That’s especially true if your goal is to realize the enormous business benefits of accessible design. Remember, compliance — while important — isn’t the only reason to embrace inclusivity.
For long-term success, your web accessibility strategy should include:
- Regular manual and automated audits. Automated tools can test for many common accessibility barriers at scale, while manual audits can identify issues that require human judgment.
- Accessibility training. When designers, developers, and content creators understand the principles of accessibility, your accessibility debt stops growing — and your products become much more robust.
- Outreach. Publish an accessibility statement and communicate your commitment to your audience.
If you’re ready to design a self-sustainable digital compliance strategy, we’re ready to help. Send us a message to connect with an expert or get started with a free automated web accessibility report.