What Businesses Need to Know About ADA Compliance

Updated Oct 7, 2019: Domino’s Pizza lost its web accessibility lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court left in place the ruling that the Domino’s website must be accessible to Americans with disabilities, setting a strong legal precedent that all websites must be ADA compliant. (read more)

Is Your Website Accessible to Everyone?

If you asked marketers if their brand’s website was accessible to all users, a majority would say ‘yes’. If you asked them if a blind person could successfully browse the site, most would say ‘no’ and believe it to be an unrealistic expectation. Little do they know, there’s a law out there requiring all businesses open to the public, and their websites, to be accessible to everyone. That law is known as ADA Compliance.

What is ADA Compliance?

Signed in 1990, when the Internet was in its infancy, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disability. It mandates that all “places of public accommodation” are legally required to remove any “access barriers” that would hinder a disabled person’s access to that business’s goods or services. ADA Compliance is the reason we have wheelchair ramps, handicapped parking spaces, and braille writing on signs.

As the internet and technology became integral parts of everyday life, especially for people with disabilities, legal precedent evolved to include new forms of technology and communications – like websites.

ADA Compliance For Websites

Starting January 18, 2018, ADA compliance for websites is now federally regulated. A website’s ADA compliance is measured through a worldwide technical standard known as the Web Content Accessibility Guide 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) which outlines criteria across four categories: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

Why is it Suddenly a Big Deal?

In the rush to create an eye-catching website, accessibility can get lost. Failing to comply with ADA means exposing your business to lawsuits. At least 814 ADA federal lawsuits were filed in 2017 alone by attorneys seeking out non-compliant businesses both in the physical and digital space.

While lawsuits might be the biggest reason to get compliant, making sure your site is accessible to users with disabilities and visual impairments is good customer service and is good for business. Not only does accessibility expand your customer base, but it also dovetails nicely with Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques and can help your ranking.

What Marketers Need to Know

The WCAG 2.0 specification defines three distinct levels of compliance: A, AA, AAA. The World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, wrote the spec and defines conformance to the levels as follows:

  • Level A: For Level A conformance (the minimum level of conformance), the Web page satisfies all the Level A Success Criteria, or a conforming alternate version is provided.
  • Level AA: For Level AA conformance, the Web page satisfies all the Level A and Level AA Success Criteria, or a Level AA conforming alternate version is provided.
  • Level AAA: For Level AAA conformance, the Web page satisfies all the Level A, Level AA and Level AAA Success Criteria, or a Level AAA conforming alternate version is provided.

(see: https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/#conformance for more detail)

Which Level of Conformance Is Mandatory For Your Site?

At the end of the day, that is really a question of risk tolerance and process improvement, but recent court cases have indicated that WCAG 2.0 Level AA is the minimum bar for which ADA compliance is set. The first trial in a website accessibility lawsuit took place in 2017. Florida U.S. District Judge Scola presided over this bench trial and concluded that grocer Winn Dixie had violated Title III of the ADA by having an inaccessible website. Judge Scola also found that the $250,000 cost to remediate Winn Dixie’s website was not an “undue burden” and ordered Winn Dixie to make its website conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA (WCAG 2.0 AA).

If you have never thought about ADA before, then the best place to start is the beginning, then go on until you come to the end (to paraphrase Lewis Carroll). In other words, there are many ways to take corrective action on your site that will show progress and deter frivolous lawsuits while also making your site more accessible. Then, over time, continue to incorporate well-known ADA techniques into your designs and code base and keep improving the level of conformance. Of course, the best approach is to consider ADA accessibility from the initial design phase, but even then this is not a one-and-done situation. You will need to monitor and occasionally re-test the site to make sure you are still compliant.

One way to shore things up on the legal front and provide a system of benchmarking your compliance is to use a third-party testing service. This type of provider will perform compliance testing using various techniques such as automated scripts and manual test cases via several tools (like color contrast checkers and screen readers) to generate a list of issues to be addressed. This list can be used by all departments to highlight shortcomings of the agency process. If you are using an agile development process, then, later on, the list can be used after a re-test to show progress and help determine velocity.

A few of the WCAG 2.0 requirements relevant to digital marketers are listed below.

  1. Create alternative text—invisible code used by Screen Reader Software (“SRS”)
  2. Make sure graphics, links, headings, functions, forms are fully readable and compatible with SRS so images on the website are explained to the user
  3. Convey the meaning and structure of a site’s content with more than just visuals
  4. Add topic or purpose descriptions to web page titles
  5. Provide a text equivalent for every non-text element

Compliance is something that needs to be taken into account from the start of a website build. It can be added to a website, but it is a difficult process to add retroactively. The best way to ensure your website is ADA-compliant is to work with a digital agency that has in-depth knowledge of ADA compliance rules and best practices.