Does My Website Need to Be ADA Compliant?

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With an uptick in business litigation lawsuits surrounding ADA compliance for websites, more companies are sounding the alarm and wondering if their site needs to be ADA compliant and what they can do to avoid such lawsuits.

It should be your desire to not only avoid a lawsuit and hefty fines, but to ensure your website allows all people, especially those with disabilities, to use it as intended. But to answer the debated question about if your website needs to be ADA compliant, we need to first establish some background information that will help us understand why this question is so relevant today.

What is ADA?

americans with disabilities act website compliance graphic

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. The purpose of this law is to ensure any person with disabilities has the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. Similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of age, race, color, gender, national origin, and religion, the ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities. That was the summary version – the full version of the ADA can be read here.

Does ADA Apply to Websites?

The ADA was signed into law in 1990 but only focused on physical properties like buildings, stores, restaurants, offices, etc. It does not mention digital properties like websites. However, just because it doesn’t explicitly mention websites, the ADA has been interpreted to extend to digital properties like websites.

The increasing litigation over alleged ADA website compliance violations has frustrated the courts. Neither Congress nor the Department of Justice (DOJ), the primary federal government agency responsible for enforcing the ADA, have adequately clarified the scope of the ADA in terms of website accessibility compliance for private companies.

The DOJ has issued, and then abandoned, several phases of guidance that attempted to articulate a uniform position regarding ADA website accessibility. Congress also failed to update legislation for clarity surrounding ADA guidelines for digital properties, leaving the courts to make their own interpretations. While the DOJ’s guidance has been a bit uneven and stunted, it has consistently stated that websites must be accessible to disabled persons. So, the short answer to the question, “Does ADA apply to websites?” is, “yes”.

What Makes a Website ADA Compliant?

If ADA applies to websites, then what does it take to make a website ADA compliant? That is another great question that also leaves a bit of uncertainty surrounding the answer. That’s when people start referencing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The WCAG is a set of established guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) with a goal of providing a standard for web content accessibility for all users including those with disabilities. So, is following the WCAG actually what makes a website ADA compliant? Remember, there is no mention in the entire context of the Americans with Disability Act about what makes a website ADA compliant since it doesn’t even mention digital properties.

In 2017, a high-profile court ruling for the Gil vs. Winn Dixie case stated Winn Dixie’s website violated the ADA because it was not sufficiently accessible to visually impaired customers, and issued injunctive relief stating that the website must conform to the criteria in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Because of this, the WCAG has been commonly used as the web standard guideline for ADA compliance. However, the Department of Justice declined to endorse the WCAG as a legal standard.

Which Websites Must be ADA Compliant?

There are several sections, or “titles”, to the Americans with Disabilities Act that spell out who must be ADA compliant:

Title I – Equal Employment Opportunity

Perhaps one of the most popular sections is Title 1, which focuses on equal opportunities of employment for qualified persons with disabilities. This is only for businesses with 15 full-time employees or more. If your company has less than 15 full-time employees, then this title shouldn’t apply to you.

Title II – State and Local Government

This section prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all programs, activities, and services of public entities. It applies to all state and local governments, their departments, and their agencies. If you are a state or local government, then yes, you are called out by name to comply.

Title III – Public Accommodations

This is the section that many companies fall into. This title prohibits private places of public accommodation from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Examples of public accommodations include privately-owned, leased, or operated facilities like restaurants, hotels, retail stores, doctor’s offices, day care centers, health clubs, golf courses, sports stadiums, movie theaters, etc. The legal consensus is that if Title III applies to your organization, then they also apply to your website.

Title IV – Telecommunications

This title requires telephone and other telecommunication companies to provide a nationwide system of relay services that allows individuals with hearing and speech disabilities to communicate over the devices. This doesn’t apply to you unless you are in this industry.

Title V – Miscellaneous Provisions

This final title contains a variety of provisions relating to the ADA as a whole, including its relationship to other laws. There’s nothing to really dig into here.

How to Tell if My Website is ADA Compliant?

website ada compliance checklist

If your company falls into one of the above categories, then you should ensure your website is ADA compliant to avoid possible lawsuits against your organization. How can you tell if your website is ADA compliant?

From the information shared above, it seems safe to use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the standard to measure your website for ADA compliance. Although it is common for professionally developed websites to follow best practices with the guidelines set forth in the WCAG, the list is rather exhaustive and almost all sites fail to be 100% compliant. The complete list of guidelines can be found here.

There are some great online tools you can use to check how your website fares. The World Web Consortium (W3C) has a long list of tools you can use for ADA testing. Some of these are websites, some are browser extensions, and some are developer tools. A website that is quick and easy to use is WAVE, which also has a browser extension. The downside is it only checks one page/URL at a time, however, it should give you a good idea of what all needs fixed.

How Can I Get My Website ADA Compliant?

There are three ways you can get your website compliant for the ADA:

  1. DIY — Use the above tools and manually fix everything on the website yourself if you know how.
  2. Agency — Hire a professional web development agency to manually go through every page of your website, fixing all the issues that seem to fail compliance testing.
  3. Widget — Install a 3rd party widget/tool on your website that allows users to control things like readability.

The third option (widget) is the easiest and most cost effective. Most ADA widgets allow your website visitors to change font size, contrast, readability, and make other adjustments to accommodate their disability. Please note, though, that the widget doesn’t technically make your website ADA compliant. However, it does demonstrate that you took reasonable measures to make accommodations for website users with disabilities.

Businesses that fall under ADA Title I or ADA Title III are required to ensure their website offers “reasonable accessibility” to people with disabilities. Title III directs businesses to make “reasonable modifications” to their usual ways of doing things when serving people with disabilities. It also requires that they take the necessary steps to communicate effectively with customers that have vision, hearing, and speech disabilities.

What Do You Recommend?

Considering federal law allows fines of up to $75,000 for the first violation and $150,000 for additional ADA violations, it seems logical to invest a little money to protect your business from fines like this. But as equally important is that you should want all people, especially those with disabilities, to be able to use your website as intended.

To truly make your website 100% ADA compliant, it could require manual fixes to every page of your website. It could almost cost as much as your website initially did to get it 100% compliant! And any future updates or changes to your website can easily result in a failing grade again. You should really subscribe to a 3rd party monitoring service that frequently scans your website for ADA violations to stay on top of your compliance. These subscriptions can easily be $100+/month. When there is a violation, it will need to be manually fixed again. For instance, if you upload a picture to your website and fail to label the image with “alt text” that describes what the picture is for people who are blind, you are in violation. This solution might be best for your organization and something to consider. However, we believe the ADA Widget might be the more realistic option and one that pleases all parties involved.

An ADA widget places a little disability icon on your screen that allows users to click it to adjust their disability settings (look for it on our website). The downside to this (if there is one) is it shows to everyone that accesses your website and stays there unless you manually elect to hide it. Perhaps a small nuisance to avoid a hefty lawsuit.

WebTek is a professional website development agency, here to help you get your website ADA compliant to whatever degree you desire. For more information on website ADA compliance – click here!

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