DOJ releases formal guidance: ADA requires web accessibility

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The Department of Justice (DOJ) has clarified what has largely been a gray area for web accessibility compliance: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires the accessibility of websites. The DOJ released this announcement on March 18, 2022 in a press release accompanied by a formal guidance statement.

Gavel lying on a laptop keyboard.

According to the DOJ, “This guidance will assist the public in understanding how to ensure that websites are accessible to people with disabilities.” It goes on to explain how state and local governments, as well as businesses open to the public, can make sure their websites are accessible “in line with the ADA’s requirements.”

This is a significant step forward for digital accessibility advocates, since, until now, the DOJ had yet to formally take a stance on whether the ADA applies to websites. In this piece, we break down the importance and implications of this announcement.

The DOJ and the ADA

The DOJ is the agency that regulates and enforces the ADA. Until now, web accessibility compliance requirements have been unclear because the ADA, which was signed into law in 1990, does not specifically address the accessibility of modern digital properties, including websites, mobile apps, digital products, and software. Over the years, the DOJ has failed to enact web accessibility regulations, despite being under intense pressure to take action. A recent example of this public pressure came on February 28, 2022. The American Council for the Blind wrote an open letter to the DOJ, undersigned by 180 other disability organizations urging “the Department of Justice to promulgate enforceable online accessibility standards.”

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In the DOJ’s recent announcement, Kristen Clark, the Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, recognized this call for clarity, saying, “We have heard the calls from the public on the need for more guidance on web accessibility, particularly as our economy and society become increasingly digitized.”

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She adds, “People with disabilities deserve to have an equal opportunity to access the services, goods and programs provided by government and businesses, including when offered or communicated through websites.”

Although this guidance does not serve as formal law, it does reaffirm the DOJ’s longstanding position that the “ADA’s requirements apply to all the goods, services, privileges, or activities offered by public accommodations, including those offered on the web.”

The DOJ and WCAG

While in this guidance the DOJ does mention the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as existing technical standards to help ensure the accessibility of websites, it once again reiterates that businesses that serve the public, and state and local governments have flexibility in how they comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination.

The statement reads, in part, “Businesses and state and local governments can currently choose how they will ensure that the programs, services, and goods they provide online are accessible to people with disabilities.”

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The DOJ’s flexibility position brings us back to a familiar place, which is, there is no definitively stated standard for web accessibility other than the ADA’s general standard of effective communication.

The likely reason the DOJ stops short of adopting a version of WCAG as an official standard is because some technical violations of WCAG may not actually amount to a barrier to access. Minor failures may result in a suboptimal experience, but may not render a site inaccessible. Further, some WCAG requirements are subjective in terms of whether a WCAG success criterion has been met.

Barriers to accessibility

While it doesn’t adopt WCAG in its entirety, what is particularly insightful in the DOJ’s guidance statement are the examples of website accessibility barriers it does specifically list:

  • Poor color contrast
  • Use of color alone to give information
  • Lack of text alternatives (“alt text”) on images
  • No captions on videos
  • Inaccessible online forms
  • Mouse-only navigation (lack of keyboard navigation)
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These examples are noteworthy because now that the DOJ has specifically identified them as barriers, if left unaddressed, they could trigger legal action, citing a violation of the ADA. As a result, the examples provided should become a minimum priority for any business or organization operating a website.

eSSENTIAL Accessibility: Your guide to compliance

If your digital experience is not accessible for individuals with disabilities, the DOJ’s stance is clear: you are at risk of an ADA lawsuit. But eSSENTIAL Accessibility will work with you to achieve compliance. We evaluate websites, mobile apps, digital products, and software using WCAG 2.1 AA as a benchmark, which includes the six examples of barriers the DOJ identifies, listed above. Our Accessibility-as-a-Service approach combines automation, manual testing, tools, training, and legal support, all in a simple, fixed-fee pricing model. Request a demo today.

What to do next

We can help you meet WCAG standards and maintain ADA and AODA compliance:

  1. Connect with us today to learn more about our comprehensive approach to digital accessibility, including our automated and manual auditing capabilities and extensive range of managed services.
  2. Visit our resources section to download free white papers and webinars, and find our newest blogs on industry trends.
  3. Connect with us to continue the conversation on Linkedin, Twitter, or Facebook.

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