The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a landmark federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. For U.S. businesses and government offices, ADA compliance is crucial — and organizations that fail to comply may face stiff penalties.
Most business owners are willing to make reasonable accommodations to reach new customers, and since 1 in 4 U.S. adults lives with a disability, many accessibility accommodations (such as wheelchair ramps and braille menus) are often correctly seen as an investment in long-term business growth. However, digital accessibility doesn’t always receive the same recognition and that can have profound consequences for some enterprises.
The legal consensus is that the ADA’s Title II and Title III are applicable to websites:
- Title II of the ADA prohibits disability-based discrimination on the part of state and local governments.
- Title III prohibits discrimination for private businesses that are open to the public.
Title III specifically prohibits this discrimination “in the activities of places of public accommodation,” and courts have reaffirmed that websites — and other internet-accessible content like smartphone apps — are places of public accommodation. In other words, ADA testing needs to be a priority throughout web development, regardless of your business’s size or industry.
U.S. courts have affirmed that the ADA applies to websites
In recent years, a growing number of ADA lawsuits have brought attention to the importance of web accessibility. Relevant court cases include:
- In 2019, singer Beyonce’s company, Parkwood Entertainment, faced a lawsuit for alleged accessibility issues impacting blind and visually-impaired users.
- Also in 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark ruling preventing a dismissal of an ADA lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza, LLC. The case alleges that the Domino’s website and app were not accessible to blind or visually-impaired users.
- In 2016, plaintiff Sean Gorecki, who is blind, filed litigation against Dave & Buster’s, Inc., alleging that the restaurant chain’s website was incompatible with his screen reader.
- In 2020, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) settled a lawsuit alleging that their website was inaccessible to people with hearing disabilities. The lawsuit cited Title III of the ADA along with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
We’ll note here that we’re not legal experts, and this blog is not intended as legal advice. Nevertheless, accessibility demand letters are on the rise, and courts have upheld arguments that website accessibility falls under Title II of the ADA.
WCAG provides a framework for ADA compliance
Businesses must comply with the ADA when creating publicly accessible content, but the ADA doesn’t define a technical specification for accessibility. However, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the consensus standard for digital accessibility. Published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is frequently referenced in accessibility judgments and settlements. A number of accessibility laws are based on WCAG, and some have explicit requirements for conformance.
Some members of Congress have pushed for an ADA amendment that would declare WCAG as an official standard for ADA compliance. The most recent attempt at this legislation was the Online Accessibility Act, which did not pass during the 116th session of Congress despite bipartisan support.
Nevertheless, WCAG conformance — along with an accurate accessibility statement — may help businesses demonstrate compliance with the ADA.
All websites should test their content for ADA compliance
For webmasters, ADA compliance might seem like an overwhelming challenge. The goal of digital accessibility is to provide better content for all users — not just one specific group of people with disabilities — and accommodating the full spectrum of abilities can be daunting.
Fortunately, the WCAG framework is designed to address these concerns. Accessibility experts can help you incorporate the best practices of WCAG and understand why they’re important for your users. Testing can identify barriers and aid in remediation, and we strongly recommend performing regular ADA audits.
Some considerations to keep in mind when testing your website for ADA compliance:
- Accessibility audits should utilize the latest official version of the WCAG framework. At the time of writing, the most recent version of the guidelines is WCAG 2.1.
- Automated accessibility tools, while helpful, are not a comprehensive solution for ADA testing. Software can identify some barriers, but manual testing is crucial for ensuring compliance.
- Test for custom use cases. Web users may access your site in a variety of ways, so an accessible home page doesn’t guarantee ADA compliance. Custom use case testing can reduce barriers by assessing each and every element of your website.
While every website has a legal and ethical responsibility to accommodate people with disabilities, the focus should not be solely on legal compliance. Accessible websites benefit from improved search engine rankings, improved customer retention, and lower bounce rates. By creating accessible content for your entire audience, you can see an immediate return on your investment.
If you’re researching website accessibility for the first time, download our free website accessibility checklist for additional guidance.