The Americans with Disabilities Act, which has been in effect since 1990, compels businesses to meet the accessibility needs of the customers they serve. In other words, businesses are not permitted to discriminate against people with disabilities by offering services that are inaccessible.
Since commerce and information-sharing increasingly take place online, current interpretations of the ADA have expanded to include websites. This means that to be in compliance with the ADA, the websites cannot contain barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating.
The ADA itself does not mention specific web accessibility standards. However, the Department of Justice has acknowledged that under Title III of the ADA, places of public accommodation must either ensure their websites are accessible, or provide “an accessible alternative.”
Currently, the Department of Justice judges web accessibility by whether or not it meets the technical requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, Level AA.
If they choose to provide an alternative, it must be a fair one. Thus if a bookstore allows customers without disabilities to browse book titles and descriptions on its website at any hour of the day or night, then the “accessible alternative” must somehow offer the same information to people with disabilities during the same hours. (If your alternative is a customer service rep who assists callers over the phone, that rep must be reachable 24 hours a day!)
Considering there are methods to make websites accessible, it’s often much easier to comply with the ADA simply by removing online barriers.
WCAG 2.0 is widely used and has been recognized as an international standard (ISO ISO/IEC 40500:2012)1. Web accessibility policies around the world have been written to harmonize with WCAG 2.0 requirements. An example is EN 301 549, the new European standard for accessibility in information and communication technology (ICT) procured by the public sector. Even the update to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, governing ICT accessibility in federal agencies, harmonizes with WCAG 2.0.
Three Compliance Levels
The technical requirements of WCAG 2.0 are grouped under three levels: A, AA and AAA. Each conformance level has an increasingly higher standard of accessibility. WCAG 2.0 was designed with three levels in order to provide more flexibility for different situations. For example, an internal policy in a government department may require the highest possible standard of accessibility – that would be Level AAA. In other situations, it may be enough to meet level AA requirements.
Don’t Stop at Level A
Level A of WCAG 2.0 is the most basic level of web accessibility. If you meet Level A and stop there, you’re unlikely to be compliant with the ADA. That’s because Level A leaves many barriers in place for people with disabilities. These barriers are not onerous to remove.
For example, a Level A requirement of Guideline 1.4 is that “color is not used as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element.2” In other words, on your “News” page, you don’t rely on red-colored fonts to show which items are urgent. This is to accommodate people who can’t distinguish easily between colors.
However, a Level AA requirement of Guideline 1.4 also addresses the dark/light contrast between the text and background colors3. That’s because better contrast makes it easier to read the text if you have a disability that affects vision (or, might we add, if you forgot your glasses at the office, or you’re looking at your screen in bright sunlight).
Over 13 million American adults have some kind of vision disability. According to the CDC, this number may double by 20304. If you only aim for Level A of this guideline, you’ll end up discriminating against the millions of people who will still be unable to use your website.
It’s a loss for them – but it’s also a loss for you, as you’ll miss out on their business if they can’t interact with you online.
Should You Strive for Level AAA?
According to the World Wide Web Consortium, which develops WCAG 2.0, “It is not recommended that Level AAA conformance be required as a general policy for entire sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content.5” In other words, some requirements, like sign language interpretation for live web events, may not always be easily put into place.
But most other Level AAA requirements are perfectly achievable. For example, when it comes to the guideline for avoiding the use of flashing or blinking content that could trigger a seizure, there isn’t actually much difference between the Level A and Level AAA requirements. It’s not difficult to ensure that there isn’t anything on your web page that flashes more than three times per second.
To be confident you’re compliant with the ADA, you should ensure you’re meeting Level AA of WCAG 2.0. Your digital accessibility partner will be able to work with you and help you achieve and maintain compliance with this level.
However, if your goal is to be as accessible as possible, you should strive for as many Level AAA requirements as you can. You’ll end up benefiting a wider variety of people, in a wider variety of settings and environments. These will people with and without disabilities, but they’ll have at least one thing in common: They’ll all feel welcomed by your organization.
An Innovative Solution
eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation and remediation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.
- ISO/IEC 40500:2012 (W3C) Information Technology – W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 International Organization for Standardization, 2012
- Use of Color: Understanding SC 1.4.1 W3C, 2016
- Contrast (Minimum): Understanding SC 1.4.3 W3C, 2016
- Blindness and Vision Impairment CDC, 2017
- Conformance Requirements: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 W3C, 2008