Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Compliance
The ADA and web accessibility
If you operate a website, and it’s not accessible for individuals with disabilities, you are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to recent court rulings and legal precedent.
Every year, thousands of companies are sued over ADA compliance. Everything from small business sites to global enterprises are at risk. And these numbers don’t include the flurry of legal demand letters issued, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, which are often a precursor to a lawsuit.
So when it comes to ADA compliance and your website, case law is abundantly clear: if you operate a site that’s inaccessible, you’re in violation of the ADA.
Interpreting the ADA: How we got here
The ADA was written to prohibit discrimination in physical spaces but doesn’t specifically mention accessibility in the digital space since it was signed in 1990, before websites.
Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination in “places of public accommodation.” The Department of Justice has clearly stated it believes Title III applies to websites, and U.S. Federal Courts overwhelmingly agree. Perhaps the most notable case is the Domino’s lawsuit that made its way to the Supreme Court. A blind man sued Domino’s claiming neither its website nor its mobile app were accessible. The Court refused to hear the case, upholding the lower court’s decision that the ADA applied.
Other high-profile cases include those against Netflix, Nike, Amazon, Beyoncé, and more. As these rulings have accumulated, they have encouraged more and more web-related lawsuits and legal demand letters.
How to make your website ADA compliant
When it comes to ADA compliance and making your website accessible, the best practice is to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG. WCAG is a set of technical standards that, when applied, make online content accessible for users of all abilities. At a high level, WCAG standards suggest a site should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust:
- Perceivable = It’s important to present information that can be perceived in different ways, where a user can adjust color contrast or font size, or view captions for videos.
- Operable = If someone can’t use a mouse, for example, they can use a keyboard or voice command.
- Understandable = Information and instructions are clear and navigation methods are easy to understand and use.
- Robust = Content must be robust enough so that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of users and types of assistive technologies.
WCAG was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), with input from individuals and organizations from around the world. Updates to WCAG are reflected in the version number. For example, the first release was WCAG 1.0. Subsequent releases include 2.0, 2.1, and we anticipate 2.2 updates in the coming months.
As the shared global standard, WCAG is consistently referenced as the benchmark for accessibility. Conform with the WCAG standards, and you’re compliant with laws like the ADA, Section 508, AODA, and others.
How well is your site meeting WCAG standards?
There are three levels of WCAG conformance: A, AA, and AAA:
- Level A = minimum WCAG conformance has been met, with web page and content satisfying all Level A success criteria (or a conforming alternate version is provided)
- Level AA = the web page satisfies all WCAG Level A and Level AA Success Criteria (or a Level AA conforming alternate version is provided)
- Level AAA = the web page satisfies all the Level A, Level AA and Level AAA Success Criteria (or a Level AAA conforming alternate version is provided)
Most web accessibility legislation requires WCAG 2.0 conformance of Level A or Level AA.
Legal and reputational risks of non-compliance with the ADA
With more than 10,000 ADA lawsuits already filed related to web accessibility, and hundreds of thousands of demand letters issued, one of the most obvious risks of non-ADA compliance is a costly legal battle, which can also tarnish a company’s public reputation. If your website isn’t accessible, and your company hasn’t yet received a legal complaint, it’s likely only a matter of time until you do.
Further, as equity and inclusion issues dominate headlines, savvy consumers take notice of brands that don’t prioritize accommodating the needs of every user. And they’re more likely to spend their money elsewhere.
Serve a wider audience with an accessible site
The World Health Organization estimates there are one billion people worldwide living with a disability. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that one quarter of all U.S. adults are included in that group. When your website is coded in a way that meets the needs of these individuals, you’re serving the widest possible consumer audience. Accessibility enhancements also foundationally improve the user experience for every visitor, enhance your SEO, and publicly position your company as one that truly prioritizes inclusivity.
Frequently asked questions
What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?
The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Title III of the law prohibits discrimination in “places of public accommodation,” which the Department of Justice (DOJ) has interpreted to include websites and web content. Courts have also ruled in favor of accessibility, making the DOJ’s stance and case law clear: Websites that are not accessible are in violation of the ADA.
What is covered within the Americans with Disabilities Act?
The ADA exists to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Specifically, Title III of the ADA was written to ensure that “places of public accommodation” are accessible to people with disabilities. The law was established in 1990, before the widespread use of the internet, and originally focused on physical spaces. This could include everything from commercial spaces (stores) to public transportation (bus stops and train stations) or any space serving the public in some way.
However, now that the internet is mainstream and interaction takes place online, “places of public accommodation” has been interpreted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the US federal court system to include websites. If you operate a website to sell products or otherwise provide services to the public, the DOJ and case law have made it clear: the ADA applies to your website and it must be accessible.
What is ADA compliance for a website?
In order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), digital content must be free of barriers, making it usable for everyone, including people with disabilities. To accomplish this, the best practice is to follow the success criteria of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG is a set of technical standards that, when applied, make online content accessible for users of all abilities. Read more about about WCAG, visit our page on WCAG conformance.