The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law put in place to protect people with disabilities from discrimination. The ADA’s Title II regulations prohibit discrimination by government, while Title III regulations prohibit discrimination in places of “public accommodations,” or places where the public is served.
A wide variety of businesses and organizations are required to comply with Title III regulations, including retail stores, hotels, restaurants, banks and doctors’ offices. These organizations must not give sub-par service – or no service at all – to anyone on the basis of their disability.
Thus, if there are barriers preventing a customer with a disability from doing business in a place of public accommodation, those barriers must be removed (as long as it’s not a great hardship to do so) in order to comply with the ADA. Barriers could be physical, such as a display rack that is out of reach. They could be in the form of discriminatory policies, like a “no animals allowed” rule that excludes people with guide dogs and other service animals. Barriers could also be digital, such as a public website or app that is not accessible to people with certain disabilities.
Website barriers weren’t on anyone’s radar when the ADA came into force in 1990. At that time, the Internet wasn’t an integral part of our day-to-day lives. Since then, however, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has made it clear that websites are nevertheless covered by this law. For instance, it has written: “Increasingly, private entities of all types are providing goods and services to the public through websites that operate as places of public accommodation under title III of the ADA. Many websites of public accommodations, however, render use by individuals with disabilities difficult or impossible due to barriers posed by websites designed without accessible features.”1
A few of these accessible features are provided in a checklist in the DOJ publication, “ADA Best Practices Tool Kit State and Local Governments.”2 One example in the list is written captions for online audio files, so that people who cannot hear the audio can understand what is being said. Another example is descriptive text (known as “alt text”) for all image files, so people with vision disabilities who are using screen readers can understand what’s in the images.
This checklist doesn’t come close to covering all the features that would be needed in order for a website to be fully accessible. But it’s a useful introduction to anyone who is trying to learn more about ADA website compliance.
Website Compliance Checkers
Another useful tool for ADA website compliance is an automated compliance checker. This is a software program that automatically checks whether certain conditions are met. A program used for testing ADA compliance might check whether all images do indeed have alt text, or whether the color contrast between the text and the background meets a certain minimum level. Some programs check multiple conditions at once, while others are designed to check just one accessibility feature. Some check whether they meet specific technical or legislated requirements, such as the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
A compliance checker produces a “true” or a “false” result (conditions are met or are not met), usually in the form of a report that is generated automatically after the program has completed the testing process.
If you’re specifically checking website compliance with the ADA, the best tool to use would be one that tests for the technical requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level A and AA. These are widely accepted as the most comprehensive and complete accessibility requirements for digital technology such as websites and electronic documents. WCAG 2.0 has even been published as an international standard by the International Organization for Standardization, and is written into anti-discrimination laws and policies in many jurisdictions and countries.
WCAG 2.0 is not currently mentioned within the Americans with Disabilities Act itself (although that may change), but in decisions and agreements, the Department of Justice routinely holds up WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the technical requirements for digital accessibility that should be followed. Organizations are encouraged to refer to WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA when striving for ADA website compliance.
There are many difference kinds of automated testing tools that can currently be used as ADA website compliance checkers. Some are free of charge, while others come with a cost. Some can be used online. Some must be downloaded and installed before use. The World Wide Web Consortium keeps an online database of checkers, called the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List, that can be filtered according to a web designer’s needs.2
Pros and Cons of a Website Compliance Checker
On the plus side, an automated checker can give you a general sense of your level of ADA compliance. You may be able to pinpoint which sections of your site are likely to need the most remediation. You may find a few problem areas that you can easily fix on your own.
Automated compliance checkers may, however, flag some accessibility barriers that don’t actually exist (false positives). Or they may flag barriers as “potential barriers” or “likely barriers” without stating definitively whether or not they are indeed barriers. That’s not too helpful for the accessibility novice. A person with expertise in digital barriers would be needed to determine whether these are actual barriers or not.
Furthermore, website compliance checkers cannot possibly identify every single barrier on a website that is in violation of the ADA. Some accessibility problems can only be found with thorough manual testing. Others can only be discovered through functional testing – people who have disabilities and/or use assistive technologies such as screen readers that systematically try out core website functions, such as filling out forms. If these kinds of testing aren’t carried out, it is likely that very significant barriers could go unnoticed, and the website would still not be compliant with the ADA.
That’s why compliance consultants will tell you that in professional accessibility audits, website compliance checkers are just one type of tool, and for an evaluation to be thorough, it must also include manual and functional testing by qualified individuals.
Don’t Forget Mobile Devices!
When you’re thinking about ADA web compliance, remember that it applies to more than just the desktop computer environment. Mobile devices are growing in popularity every year, and mobile commerce has gained a foothold in the economy. If your website is accessible on a computer, but barriers intrude when it’s viewed in a mobile environment, then it is still considered discrimination, and it’s a violation of the ADA. Furthermore, if your organization has developed a mobile app – as many companies have – to make it easier for customers to interact with your brand, then this, too, must be free of barriers in order to comply with the ADA. Online grocery delivery service Peapod and tax preparer H&R Block are two examples of companies that agreed, after ADA complaints were launched, to improve the accessibility of their mobile apps.4,5
There is much to be gained by improving the usability of your website or app in a mobile environment. The Total Retail Survey 2017 by Pricewaterhouse Coopers found that about a quarter (24%) of all online shoppers in the U.S. believe mobile sites are not easy to use.6 And according to Episerver’s Mobile Commerce Report 2015, 63% of online shoppers say they’ll leave a mobile site if they have difficulty using it. About one in five, or 22%, will immediately turn to a competitor.7 When an accessible mobile site or app is ADA compliant, it’s easier for everyone to use. It reduces the frustration of all consumers, not just those with disabilities.
ADA website compliance checkers are a place to start if you want to know more about the accessibility barriers in your digital properties. But a professional, qualified consultant can evaluate your website and apps more thoroughly, in both mobile and non-mobile environments. He or she will use the right combination of checkers, manual and functional testing, and expert judgment calls, to ensure your accessibility problems are found.
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 services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.
- Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Accessibility of Web Information and Services of Public Accommodations, Office of Information and Reulatory Affairs, 2015.
- Title II Checklist (Website Accessibility), ADA Best Practices Tool Kit for State and Local Governments, 2007.
- Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List, W3C, Web Accessibility Initiative, 2016.
- Settlement Agreement Between The United States of America and Ahold U.S.A., Inc, and Peapod, LLC, United States Deprtment of Justice Civl Rights Division, 2014.
- Justice Department Enters Consent Decree with National Tax Preparer H&R Block Requiring Accessibility of Websites and Mobile Apps Under Americans with Disabilities Act, The United States Deprtment of Justice, 2014.
- Total Retail Survey 2017, PWC Global, 2017.
- Home Depot Bags Highest Ratings in New Benchmarking Research Evaluating Best Mobile Shopping Experience, Episerver, 2017.