The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is often associated with physical locations and accommodations certain businesses must make for people with disabilities. These accommodations typically include wheelchair accessibility and the use of braille for visually impaired customers. However, the ADA also extends to the digital realm, requiring businesses to ensure web content is accessible to all users.
What does an ADA-compliant website look like? No clear ADA regulations spell out precisely what compliant web content should entail. However, businesses that fall under ADA Title I or ADA Title III must develop websites offering “reasonable accessibility” to people with disabilities.
The ADA was passed in 1990. It prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities, ensuring they have the same rights and opportunities as those without disabilities. The act covers all sectors, from jobs and schools to transportation and places open to the public.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice passed the Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design, mandating all electronic and information technology, like websites, be accessible to those with disabilities, including vision impairment and hearing loss.
The first thing to understand about the ADA is which businesses must comply.
If your business falls under Title I or Title III of the ADA and you do not believe you are compliant, consult with a disability lawyer to explore your options.
While the ADA doesn’t offer set guidelines for website compliance, many organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in their business websites. WCAG isn’t a legal requirement; it’s a reference point for organizations looking to improve their digital accessibility.
There are three versions of WCAG: 1.0, 2.0 and 2.1. Version 2.0 replaced version 1.0, while 2.1 exists as an extension of 2.0. There are also three levels of conformance: A (bare minimum level of accessibility), AA (target level of accessibility meeting legal requirements) and AAA (exceeds accessibility requirements).
The WCAG 2.1 guidelines ensure your web content is:
Meeting these standards improves your website’s accessibility to individuals with vision or hearing impairments or cognitive, language or learning disabilities. If you follow these guidelines to at least level AA, ADA compliance shouldn’t be an issue for your company.
Regarding full legal ADA website compliance, there are no clear rules or online business laws to guide organizations. However, this doesn’t let businesses off the hook; they still must provide an accessible website that accommodates users with disabilities.
“As far as websites go, there is no federally codified direction on how to make websites comply,” explained David Engelhardt, a New York City-based small business attorney. “We only know that the ADA does apply to websites based on cases such as [Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc.].”
What’s the best way to build an ADA-compliant website without a clear definition of what that means? You can take several actions to get on the right path toward ADA compliance – or at least help demonstrate that your business has made a good-faith effort toward accommodation.
Several strategies can help you improve website accessibility for visually impaired and deaf and hard-of-hearing people or those who must navigate by voice – including some that aren’t immediately obvious.
“A business’s IT department must design its corporate website so that those who are disabled can access it easily,” said Steven Mitchell Sack, an employment law attorney based in Long Island and New York City. “For example, if someone is sight impaired, the web designer can install certain technologies, such as screen readers, in which a voice reads the text on the screen back to the web visitor. Refreshable braille text for touchscreens can also be used.”
In lieu of regulatory guidance, business owners consult regulations that govern federal agencies’ websites and related case law to better understand compliance.
“There is no regulatory guidance on this issue – yet – for commercial entities,” explained Nancy Del Pizzo, a partner at the law firm Rivkin Radler. “Thus, there are no regulations or statutes that define ‘ADA compliance’ as to websites. There are, however, requirements for federal websites, as well as some detailed legal decisions that can be used as guidance, including opinions that have held that ‘reasonable’ accessibility is key.”
Here are some common ways businesses can address accessibility issues associated with their web content:
Businesses can create an accessible website for users with disabilities in many ways. Consulting with an attorney who specializes in disability law is a must for businesses concerned about ADA compliance. However, if you’re looking for a place to get started on your own, reading the ADA requirements is an essential first step.
Failing to comply with the ADA means your business is susceptible to lawsuits, and according to Engelhardt, the costs of an ADA lawsuit can add up quickly.
“Other than a business being forced to comply, which is costly, the business will have to pay attorneys’ fees, which can be tens of thousands of dollars,” Engelhardt said. “Depending on the state, the business owner can be looking at a $50,000 bill.”
Beyond regulatory consequences, failure to provide accessibility to users with disabilities means losing out on business. If users cannot navigate your website or fill out online forms, you’re potentially missing out on increased sales. Further, ADA compliance makes it easier for search engines to crawl and index your website, pushing it up in the rankings and getting your web content in front of more users.
“If users with disabilities struggle to complete forms and make purchases on your website, you could be losing out on potential customers,” said Laura Ferruggia, marketing strategy director for Miles Technologies. “Plus, many of the rules for ADA compliance also help websites with search engine optimization.”
An ADA lawsuit can cost your business around $50,000. This is significantly more money than it costs to make your website ADA-compliant in the first place.
While ADA website compliance is a bit subjective, it’s not too difficult to discern what is meant by “reasonable accessibility.”
By making a good-faith effort to achieve reasonable accessibility for users with disabilities, businesses can get ahead of the regulatory curve in developing a compliant website and avoiding lawsuits. Moreover, designing a compliant website can lead to more sales and better search engine rankings.
To find out more about ADA website compliance and how you can protect your business, consider consulting with a disability attorney.
Max Freedman and Adam Uzialko contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.