The Americans with Disabilities Act was instituted in 1990 in an effort to end discrimination based on differing abilities. Drawing heavily from the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which established protections against discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin, the ADA went a step further by requiring organizations to provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities.
This was a fairly revolutionary addition that led to the widespread adoption of wheelchair access ramps, accessible restroom facilities, and many other equal-access accommodations that have become a regular part of most American workplaces. In 1990, however, legislators had no way of knowing that the then-infant internet would soon become not just a key element of doing business, but the very backbone of global commerce.
The ADA’s relationship with websites has been a complicated and often confusing story. The ADA does not explicitly address online compliance, even after undergoing several amendments in the far more web-oriented era of 2008. With no specific coverage under the law, it usually falls to the courts to determine how ADA standards apply to websites—or whether they do at all.
Title III of the ADA requires that every owner, lessor, or operator of a “place of public accommodation” provide equal access to users who meet ADA standards for disability. With roughly 1.66 billion people around the world making online purchases in 2017, one might reasonably presume that this concept extends to websites, but from a legal standpoint, there is a surprising amount of grey area.
Various courts around America have ruled that commercial websites are places of public accommodation and thus subject to ADA rules. Other cases have concluded that websites are bound by ADA regulations if there is a close “nexus” between the site and a physical location, the most famous example being the ruling against the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain for not making its site accessible to users with low vision. Other courts have decided that the ADA as written simply does not offer any protections for online users. With no overarching federal rules in place, it’s difficult to make a definitive statement about whether or not any given website is governed by ADA accessibility rules.
Let’s clear up two terms that are closely intertwined but distinct: ADA website compliance vs. website accessibility.
The law that primarily governs accessibility is The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Even though it doesn’t mention websites anywhere, Title III of the ADA has been interpreted by US courts to apply to websites.
For company websites to be ADA compliant, they need to be accessible.
Website accessibility can mean two things depending on the context: 1) the process of making your website so that its content and functions are accessible to those with disabilities, or 2) how accessible your website is.
Think of it this way:
The ADA is the legal side, are you in compliance with the law? And accessibility is the technical or developmental side, how well can persons with disabilities access your website?
The next question is how you make your corporate websites accessible.
The answer is to make it so people with disabilities can enjoy the full use of your website; they can access content, navigate your website successfully, engage with different elements, etc.
U.S. courts and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have frequently referenced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA success criteria as a standard to gauge whether websites are accessible. The WCAG 2.0 AA success criteria are comprised of 38 requirements, individually referred to as success criterion.
If your website meets all 38 of those success criteria, you’re in great shape. But, even if you don’t, your website can still be accessible. The most important thing is that you take care of the big ticket items:
- For instance, if you have a video that displays the benefits of your product, but it doesn’t have captions, then people who are deaf or hard of hearing will not get to find out how great your product is. The same goes for when you have images with no alternate text. The point of the alternate text is to allow screen reading tools to describe the image to someone who is blind, so if you don’t have that text, some of your audience will miss out. Similarly, it’s important to ensure your website is fully accessible without a mouse so that people with physical limitations can use it.
- ADA Compliance Improves Your SEO (Search Engine Optimization) Efforts. Now more than ever, search engines are evolving to crawl pages with more human intention. A key element of WCAG is accessibility to screen readers, and these readers crawl your website pages similarly to search engines. If your website meets the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, it will likely appeal to users, search engines, and screen readers alike, ultimately improving your SEO endeavors. For this reason, meta tagging, alternative image text, and video transcripts should be seriously considered.
- ADA Compliance May Help Your Reputation. The fact that an ADA compliant website can increase your target audience by millions is just one reason to make your site more accessible. Another benefit is that not only will you get more customers, but those customers will also know how valuable they are to your business. After all, they might have gone to a few other websites that were not ADA compliant, disappointed each time that they couldn’t access the content, until they got to your website.And once those new customers tell their friends and relatives how they found your website, more people will know you made sure to make it ADA compliant. The fact that you put this effort into ensuring everyone was included will set you apart from your competitors. Therefore, making your site ADA compliant is a great way to get some positive press for your business.
- ADA Compliance Means Overall Better Website Usability. Creating a more operable and navigable website will ultimately benefit all users while still meeting WCAG guidelines. Making your web pages easier to comprehend will allow everyone – disabled or non – to find what they’re looking for quickly. If you decide to follow the guidelines, your website will likely convert more leads across the board because users will trust that they can always easily find the content they need.
- You Can Avoid Penalties. The text in the ADA did not originally mention websites since this technology was not widely used in 1990. But now that most businesses have a website, they need to make sure it’s accessible to everyone. Since we’re past the ruling date, all updated pages on your website are required to be at least grade A complaint, with grade AAA being the highest.
Dozens of esteemed brands have been hit with significant lawsuits in recent years, before the guidelines were even set in stone. Businesses including Fordham University, Foot Locker, Brooks Brothers, and even Kylie Jenner have been sued for the lack of ADA compliant websites.
Remember, the best course of action is to attack website accessibility NOW. Do not wait on this or it could cost you.
And here’s the kicker, if you do get hit with a demand letter and end up settling, you still have to make your website accessible.
Want another kicker? Just because you’re sued once doesn’t mean you can’t get sued again by someone else. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a strict liability law which means THERE ARE NO EXCUSES to non-compliance!
Working diligently on your accessibility but still missing a few things? Too bad, you lose. Pay up.
Hired a reputable web development agency last week? Too bad, you lose. Pay up.
Just heard website accessibility was a thing yesterday? Too bad, you lose. Pay up.
Strict liability means the only saving grace is compliance which means your website is currently a sitting duck as-is.
Corporations and small businesses alike are being targeted.
Obviously deep pockets are a target but you may wonder why small businesses are also pursued. It’s because they’re easy wins and can’t afford to put up much of a fight.
Again, get started. NOW.
If you’re unsure where to get started, the ADA’s website has some tips. You can also contact a web design agency to find out if your website is currently ADA compliant and how you can change it if it’s not.