If you operate a website, you have a legal responsibility to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to all places of public accommodation — and for more than 20 years, the Department of Justice has interpreted the ADA as applicable to websites.
Unfortunately, the ADA doesn’t include specific standards for web content. In ADA claims, plaintiffs must demonstrate how websites create unreasonable barriers that limit access for people with disabilities. That’s not always difficult: The vast majority of websites fail basic accessibility tests.
Below, we’ll look at a few common issues that are frequently cited in ADA website claims; however, this isn’t a comprehensive list, and this article isn’t intended as legal advice.
ADA claims detail specific accessibility issues that affect people with disabilities
Typical ADA claims will include information about these types of barriers, along with descriptions of how the barriers affected the plaintiff. Since the ADA does not include specific standards for websites, many claims have directly referenced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the most widely cited international standards for digital accessibility.
Many of the most high-profile ADA lawsuits have involved plaintiffs with visual impairments. People who are blind may use screen readers, software that converts on-screen content to audio or braille output. When content creators fail to consider screen reader users, they can create barriers that prevent websites from functioning as intended. For instance:
- A website may not have alternative text (also called alt text) for non-text content. People with visual impairments may not be able to interpret content without a text alternative.
- Forms may have accessibility issues that make them unusable with assistive technologies. For instance, a form may create a “keyboard trap" that prevents keyboard-only users from proceeding to the next step of a process.
- If link text is ambiguous, screen reader users might not understand the function of a certain link. This could lead to accidental orders and other frustrating issues.
- Many online forms expire (or “time-out") after a certain amount of time. People who use assistive technologies may need more time to complete the form; if they don’t have the option to turn off the timer or extend the time limit, they may not be able to complete the process.
Screen reader users have filed many high-profile ADA claims, but website accessibility isn’t just about accommodating blind and low-vision users. In 2021, the National Association of the Deaf filed a lawsuit against Netflix, alleging that the streaming service failed to provide closed captioning for much of its “Watch Instantly" content. That lawsuit helped to establish the precedent that the ADA applies to web-only businesses; the parties ultimately reached a settlement.
Read: U.S. Businesses Potentially Spent Billions on Legal Fees for Inaccessible Websites in 2020
WCAG provides a framework for preventing ADA compliance issues
To avoid ADA claims, webmasters need to consider the full spectrum of disabilities. Websites should make reasonable accommodations for people with neurocognitive, visual, and hearing-related disabilities — along with other conditions that may affect how people use the internet. Over one billion people worldwide live with some form of disability, and while accommodating every user may be impractical, brands need to make a good-faith effort to provide access to as many people as possible.
WCAG provides an excellent foundation for making those types of improvements. The document contains dozens of success criteria organized by the four principles of accessibility: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. By conforming with the latest version of WCAG (currently, WCAG 2.1), businesses can demonstrate an effort to offer a better experience to people with disabilities.
The guidelines are frequently referenced in court cases and structured settlements for a simple reason: WCAG a reasonable set of standards for accessible web design. While WCAG conformance is voluntary, businesses that follow the framework can reduce their chances of ADA claims and demand letters.
By following the guidance in WCAG, you can also reach a much wider audience, build a more positive brand image, and improve your site’s search presence. To learn more — and to start enjoying the benefits of an accessible approach — download The Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility.