What does ADA compliance mean for websites?

Posted on April 17, 2019 • Written by Ben Smith
What ADA compliance means for websites

If you are a webmaster, you may be wondering: does your website have to be ADA compliant? Legally, it is a surprisingly complicated question, fraught with ambiguity and still being argued in ongoing court cases. However, even if legal precedent is still developing, there are a number of practical benefits which can be reaped by ensuring that your website meets web accessibility standards. The reasons relate not only to the ADA, but encompass greater principles of consumer-friendliness and Search Engine Optimization principles. Read on to learn about the history of website ADA compliance, what it entails, and how you can benefit from it.

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A Brief History of the ADA’s Application to Websites

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or ADA for short, was a law designed to prevent discrimination against the disabled. It set out rules requiring that public services be equally accessible to disabled people. While initially focused on physical accommodations like wheelchair ramps, the increasing importance of the Internet to daily life has led to the ADA being applied to websites as well.

Officially, the language of the ADA itself has not been updated to include language relating to websites and online applications. Federal, state, and local governments are bound under Section 508 of the act to make their websites accessible, but the picture is murkier when it comes to private websites. In the US and the UK, non-government websites are classified as public sector entities, and are therefore potentially subject to lawsuits by disabled individuals under Title III of the ADA if they are not accessible. However, the Department of Justice has issued the following official statement:

“Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.”

In other words, since there are no enforceable legal standards for website accessibility detailed within the ADA, it is a business’s own choice which specific guidelines they choose to follow.

Consequence of Failure to Comply with the ADA

While the lack of official federal requirements for website accessibility may allow businesses a great deal of flexibility in choosing how to comply with the ADA, it doesn’t mean that they are allowed to ignore the ADA altogether. While there may be no federal law setting standards for accessibility, a number of states have had their own legal decisions setting precedents which require businesses to conform to certain standards. Most significantly, the 2017 case Gil v. Winn-Dixie in Florida resulted in Winn-Dixie being required to pay $250,000 to make its website comply with the website accessibility standards set out in the Web Consortium Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG. The EU also holds its member states to a strict standard, requiring all public sector websites and applications to implement, enforce, and maintain accessibility standards or risk fines and legal penalties.

In jurisdictions which do not yet have a strict legal precedent, a popular guideline has emerged for businesses to follow in order to minimize their risk of lawsuit: if there is a physical store that must legally meet accessibility requirements for public access, then any website version of that store should also do so.

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Benefits of Website Accessibility

Even if your business is in a location which does not yet enforce strict accessibility guidelines, there are a number of benefits which can be gained by ensuring your website is accessible to all.

First, it provides a safeguard against future lawsuits. As previously mentioned, legal precedent involving the application of the ADA to websites is still currently evolving, with a number of still-active cases working their way through the courts. By ensuring your site meets accessibility standards now, you can avoid being caught by surprise by any future legal developments.

Second, it just makes good business sense. If people with disabilities can’t use your website, then they can’t buy from you. With a population of 53 million American adults with disabilities, half of whom use the Internet regularly, that’s a significant market segment you may be cutting yourself off from. Conforming to accessibility guidelines also demonstrates social responsibility, which can foster positive opinion and public goodwill towards your company.

And finally, making your website accessible can have SEO benefits. While Google does not officially list accessibility to the disabled as a ranking factor for their search algorithm, many of the things which make a website accessible do align with their recommendations.

What Does Web Accessibility Mean?

While there is no federal definition of what constitutes accessibility, a set of guidelines which most people fall back on are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines created by the Web Accessibility Initiative. These are the guidelines which Winn-Dixie was ordered to make its website conform to in the precedent-setting legal case Gil v. Winn-Dixie. The WCAG is divided into four main principles which websites must adhere to in order to be considered accessible: they must be Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust.

  • Perceivable: “Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.” This principle dictates that content should be easy to see or hear regardless of disability, and should be available in multiple forms for those who are incapable of perceiving one form. Examples of implementing this principle include giving images alt text, providing alternative options for CAPTCHA, and providing subtitles, transcripts, and captions for all media content.
  • Operable: “User interface components and navigation must be operable.” This principle dictates that anyone should be capable of easily using a website regardless of disability, and should not run into problems like limited functionality or time limits. Examples of implementing this principle include ensuring users can navigate the site using only their keyboard, and have the ability to pause scrolling text.
  • Understandable: “Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.” This principle dictates that websites should be easily readable and understandable by those with disabilities. Examples of implementing this principle include having consistent navigation on all pages of a site, provided instructions for all user input fields, and allowing a user to confirm any financial transaction before submitting their order.
  • Robust: “Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.” This principle dictates that websites should be compatible with the technologies which disabled people use to assist them. Examples of implementing this principle include providing start and end tags on HTML documents, and allowing users to programmatically determine the name and role of a user interface form.

Some Advice for Getting Started

Here are some tips for how to make your website accessible, in line with the four principles of the WCAG.

First, avoid having autoplay media on your site. Automatically playing sound or video can interfere with autoreaders, and it can be difficult for people relying on such assistive technology to figure out how to pause or mute them.

Second, avoid having automatically advancing carousels and slideshows. It can take longer for those relying on assistive technology to read a webpage, and so carousels often advance before they have had time to process all the information they present.

Third, if you are using dynamic content – that is, if the content displayed on the page changes without the page reloading – make sure that it informs assistive tools of the change. Most screen readers, for instance, only read out the content which is displayed on a page when it first loads, and thus can miss any dynamically updated content unless it is informed of the change. This can be done with ARIA landmarks.

Finally, keep in mind that there are many different types of disability. While the previous advice has focused mainly on providing subtitles and transcripts for the fear or ensuring compatibility with assistive tools for the blind, people can experience problems with websites because of other issues such as colorblindness and photosensitive epilepsy. Ensure that there is sufficient contrast between the colors of the text and background on your site so that the colorblind do not have difficulty reading it, and avoid using any flashing images which might trigger seizures.

Conclusion

As public sector entities, websites are required to comply with the ADA in providing accommodations for individuals with disabilities. In the absence of federal guidelines for compliance, it is up to individual businesses to determine on their own how to make such accommodations; but based on existing legal precedent, the WCAG is considered a good set of guidelines. Not only can doing so protect you from possible legal consequences, but it can broaden your potential customer base, improve your company image, and improve your search engine optimization.

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References

“10 Ways to Make Your Website Accessible” by Ellice. DreamHost Blog. July 24, 2018.  https://www.dreamhost.com/blog/make-your-website-accessible/

“Give Your SEO a Boost With These 12 Accessibility Improvements” by Tamar Weinberg. Search Engine Journal. June 26, 2017. https://www.searchenginejournal.com/seo-web-accessibility/199500/

“Website Accessibility & the Law: Why Your Website Must Be Compliant” by Kim Krause Berg. Search Engine Journal. January 9, 2019. https://www.searchenginejournal.com/website-accessibility-law/285199/

“Your Overview to ADA Compliance for Websites in 2018” by Craig Kazda. Quantum Dynamix. December 6, 2017. https://www.quantumdynamix.net/blog/overview-ada-compliance-websites-2018/

Ben Smith

Written by Ben Smith

Ben Smith is a Researcher at Fruition, specializing in Google's Algorithm changes. Ben is a graduate of the University of Denver’s Mathematics program, and he enjoys learning about Google’s search algorithm updates. He's a vital asset of the Fruition team, and he one day hopes to publish a book. In his free time, you can find Ben enjoying the outdoors of Colorado.

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