It is a generally accepted belief that the Internet should be accessible to every person because access to knowledge is a basic human right. Yet, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the minority of people living with disabilities and how this affects their capacity to use the Internet. Learn everything you need to know about making your organization’s website ADA compliant.
You may be asking,what exactly is the ADA? The ADA stands for Americans With Disabilities Act.
Read on for our complete guide on ADA compliance.
What is the ADA?
On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law, a civil rights achievement granting those with disabilities three key rights:
- Right to job opportunities
- Right to accessible services
- Right to living accommodations.
In 2008, the government amended the ADA to expand the interpretation scope of the term “disability.” This made the ADA more inclusive by analyzing cases more closely for discrimination versus a person qualified based on impairment.
The current law covers the following categories:
- Employment, transportation
- Public accommodations
- Access to state and local government programs and services.
The U.S Department of Justice enforces the ADA, but Title IV is regulated by the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC). At a first glance through the legislation, it may seem that the ADA doesn’t apply to virtual environments. However, courts determined that the right to communication and Title III encompass websites under “places of public accommodation.”
What Businesses Must Have ADA Compliant Websites
If you look at the legal verbiage used, it would seem that not all companies have to have ADA compliant websites. Title I addresses employment discrimination and Title III targets discrimination in the public domain, such as restaurants or movie theaters. For government entities, it’s more concise. According to Title I and III, state entities must comply if:
- They are operating 20 or more weeks per year with at least 15 full-time employees
- They fall under the “public accommodation” category.
- They are local or state government
- Employment agencies or unions
But the vague way in which the ADA applies to websites makes the legal implications for private sector businesses confusing. For example, what about non-profits or small businesses that lack the resources to invest in accessible website technology? The problem is that websites are considered public places and, as such, regardless of the number of employees, you should have an ADA compliant website. For many businesses, the “public accommodation” clause acts as a catch-all caveat to prevent discrimination in the public sphere.
The bottom line is that if possible, every company should try to make their websites as accessible as possible.
ADA Compliance Requirements
When approaching ADA website compliance, it’s best to break the process down into two categories:
- The technical approach
- The legal approach.
Since the ADA doesn’t specifically reference websites, it stands to reason that it provides no
actual specifications for how to achieve website compliance. However, the generally
referenced standard is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA. The
WCAG includes 38 criteria.
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What Is WCAG Compliance?
The World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) started the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to provide more constructive website adaptability guidelines. The resulting WCAG is now on its second version and draws on the expertise of disability organizations, government entities, and research programs. The WCAG fills the technical gap in the ADA documentation. The WCAG breaks compliance measures down into four categories:
Within these categories the WC3 provides technical modifications categorized by levels (Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA). A higher “A” level means the modification will be more complex or take longer to implement. Below are a few examples from various categories that fall into the three levels. A more comprehensive breakdown of technical modifications can be found on the WCAG homepage.
- Text and non-text alternatives
- Prerecorded audio-only/video-only alternatives
- Prerecorded captions
- Sensory characteristics
- Basic keyboard input modifications
- Live caption
- Audio descriptions
- Status messages
- Consistent navigation and identification
- Sign language prerecorded
- Full keyboard functionality
- Context-sensitive help
Steps To Become WCAG Compliant
Step 1 : Before implementing any new technical modifications, conduct a website audit to ascertain your existing level of compliance. The resulting accessibility audit report will highlight areas your development team need to adjust.
Step 2: Fix the problems identified in the audit by conveying to the development team how images, videos, or other multimedia needs to change. If you don’t have an internal team, third party developers may be necessary. In that case, it’s important to be upfront about your budget and discuss how to make the modifications in a way that best fits your company’s size and budget.
Step 3: Compile a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) report. This
self-disclosing document highlights how a company’s website complies with Section 508
Standards and can be used as proof that your website is compliant, or at the very least attempted to be compliant, should legal issues arise.
The Legal Angle
Notable, the ADA is the law while the WCAG is an unofficial reference that provides a
very good baseline for technical accessibility standards. Besides legal case precedents,
there are limited legal specifications until you end up getting sued. The best courses of
action are to:
- Fulfill as many of the WCAG recommendations as possible.
- Determine if the accessibility level of your website is logical. Does it allow disabled people to use the website for its main purpose? For example, if you are an online food ordering website, can people with disabilities order?
- Keep tabs on legal cases and the outcomes as they will determine how you develop and maintain a ADA compliant website.
ADA Compliance Requirements
When approaching ADA website compliance, break the process down into two categories — technical considerations and legal considerations.
Since the ADA doesn’t specifically reference websites, it stands to reason that it provides no actual specifications for how to achieve website compliance. However, the generally referenced standard is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA. The WCAG includes 38 criteria.
As pointed out, the ADA is the law while the WCAG is an unofficial reference that provides a very good baseline for technical accessibility standards. Besides legal case precedents, there are limited legal specifications until you end up getting sued. The best courses of action are to:
- fulfill as many of the WCAG recommendations as possible
- determine if the accessibility of your website fulfills what the main point of what your website is supposed to do (logically). For example, if you are an online food ordering website, can people with disabilities order?
How to Make a Website ADA Compliant
Using websites as informational hubs, registration platforms, and virtual services allows consumers to access what they need at any time of day around the world, rather than relying on a physical presence. While government entities and private sector companies cannot provide devices to every disabled consumer, they can implement an ADA compliant website
which uses software to expand accessibility for those with disabilities. At first glance these adjustments may appear time consuming and expensive, but simple changes like allowing users to change color schemes, contrast settings, and font sizes, can significantly help those with disabilities. According to ADA.gov, some commonly implemented compliance options include the following.
Screen Readers – a computer program that speaks written text. It allows a person to listen to the written text on a webpage or in a computer program. Screen readers read only text; they cannot describe pictures or other images, even if the images are pictures of text.
HTML Tags – specific instructions understood by a web browser or screen reader. One type of HTML tag, called an “alt” tag (short for “alternative text”), is used to provide brief text descriptions of images that screen readers can understand and
speak. Another type of HTML tag, called a “longdesc” tag (short for “long description”), is used to provide long text descriptions that can be spoken by screen readers.
Refreshable Braille Display – an electronic device that translates standard text into Braille characters and uses devices such as rounded pins on a refreshable display to create Braille text that can be read by touch.
How to Avoid Common ADA Website Compliance Mistakes
The ADA.gov provides examples of common problems. Below are a few tips to help avoid those problems and ensure that those with disabilities understand the key points on a website.
Don’t Forget About Images
Technology like Refreshable Braille displays and screen readers cannot interpret images. Adding captions or HTML tags to describe what the image is trying to convey will enable those with vision impairments to receive a translation. Some images, like a map, will require more informational tags compared to images of people or places.
Use Text-Based Formats
PDFs may retain their format if consumers choose to download a page, but they are less compatible with assistive technologies. Rich Text Format (RTF) and HTML work better with screen readers or text enlargement programs.
Don’t Prioritize Visually Pleasing over Accessibility
Website designers often have an idea of how they want their webpage to look and may not want users to be able to adjust settings. But for those with disabilities, screen contrast, color, and font size adjustments are necessary. Making those adjustment options clearly available is important, as those with disabilities should not have to search all over a website to make such changes.
Make Multimedia Accessible
Videos make information more digestible and tend to hold people’s attention much better than long blocks of text. For deaf or blind individuals, these videos present a challenge. Captions enable those with poor hearing to follow along with the video images. Similarly, audio descriptions of what’s going on in the video (not just the standard audio) provide clarity
to those with vision impairments.
Penalties for Non-Compliance
Under Title III of the ADA, those with disabilities possess the right to file lawsuits for inaccessible websites. Since many small to mid-sized companies may not be aware of the requirements, lawyers can exploit the law for a relatively easy win. Using the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and other anti-discrimination laws, law firms have been suing companies for discrimination across the board. From 2017 to 2018, there was a 177 percent increase in lawsuits, according to Seyfarth.
ADA Legal Ambiguity
Since the website applicability of the ADA isn’t clearly stated, courts have a significant amount of leeway in interpretation. Some debates in the past focused on websites linked to a physical presence, like a restaurant, versus online only services. In 2016, the Netflix case addressed this issue. Although Netflix is primarily an online only service, a Massachusetts judge ruled that the ADA was designed to adapt as technology evolved.
Loss of reputation
Not all companies rely heavily on customer ratings or public opinion. But, for those that do, a messy, high-profile legal battle can seriously damage a brand’s image. People believe that everyone deserves basic rights, including accessibility to technology and information. If a company is seen as preferential or inconsiderate of those with disabilities, people may turn to other similar services that are ADA compliant.
In terms of the law itself, Section 504/Section 508 reference fines if a website is deemed noncompliant. The first violation will result in a $55,000 and any subsequent violations would be $110,000 each. In addition to that, companies may face demand letters, settlements, attorney fees, and expenses for updating a website. Lastly, companies receiving federal funding may find that funding in jeopardy if their website is noncompliant.
Just as facilities need access ramps, websites need virtual ramps to give disabled individuals equal access to online services. The many technical specifications listed on the WCAG website may seem daunting, but it’s important to remember that not all websites are the same. Some may require only a few simple changes to become ADA compliant, while others may need a development overhaul. Regardless of which level your website is at, RSI can help you take stock of your website’s compliance deficiencies and assist you throughout the remediation process.
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