When it comes to web accessibility lawsuits, most resources you’ll find online lump Web Content Accessibility Guidelines  (WCAG) standards in with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance. In reality, these are two separate sets of guidelines.  In practice, avoiding a web accessibility lawsuit means adhering to both WCAG and ADA compliance standards, or perhaps the requirements of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), if you’re a Canadian business. 

It’s easy to assume that WCAG is an extension of the ADA/AODA, and that WCAG and ADA compliance go hand in hand, but this isn’t the case. While ADA compliance and WCAG conformance have become almost synonymous, often grouped together as “WCAG and ADA compliance,” we think it’s important to understand the distinction. In this article, we talk more about how the law and WCAG differ yet support each other as we explore WCAG and ADA compliance.

The current law: ADA and AODA

In the U.S., Title III of the ADA prohibits the discrimination of those with disabilities in “places of public accommodations” or places that are open to the general public. The ADA provides examples of places of public accommodation including hotels, restaurants, theaters, lecture halls, grocery stores, banks, and more public establishments owned and/or operated by private and public entities. In recent years, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S. Courts have frequently interpreted places of public accommodations to include websites and mobile apps.

Similarly, the AODA websites and web content requirements apply to both the public and private sector.  The Government of Ontario, Legislative Assembly, and designated public sector organizations must all remediate their website and web content conform to WCAG 2.0 AA.

Large organizations with 50 or more employees in Ontario must update their website and web content to be conformant with WCAG 2.0 AA.

While the web content portion of the AODA only became mandatory for private entities in 2021, the ADA has been continually interpreted to apply to private entities in the U.S. for several years.  Thousands of lawsuits against organizations with website accessibility issues have been brought in the last five years, prompting website and app owners to make their digital assets WCAG conformant.

That’s where WCAG comes in.

What is WCAG?

Under their Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), the non-profit, non-governmental international community World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has created WCAG to outline specific success criteria website owners should achieve in order to make their websites accessible.

WCAG has evolved several times since its conception. The latest version, WCAG 2.2, builds on previous versions and was released in October 2023. 

Each version of WCAG contains testable success criteria — i.e., guidelines to follow — that fall under three conformance levels: A, AA, and AAA. Each conformance level contains the standards outlined in the lower level, so if you are in conformance with level AA — the level relevant for the vast majority of entities — you are automatically in conformance with level A.

Consider level A the bare minimum tier of accessibility; it will not meet legal requirements. Level AAA, on the other hand, is only relevant for certain specific entities, though incorporating some AAA criteria is recommended to the extent possible. Finally, level AA is the globally accepted and recommended tier of accessibility, and will meet legal requirements.

To learn more about what’s new in WCAG 2.2., read our summary and checklist for WCAG 2.2 AA conformance.

How WCAG conformance supports legal compliance

As we’ve illustrated earlier, accessibility laws set the destination — i.e., web accessibility for all — while WCAG maps out how to get there. Since WCAG itself is not a law, there is no such thing as “compliance” with WCAG. 

However, WCAG can be and has been incorporated into the law. In fact, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was recently updated to include WCAG 2.0 AA as the official technical standard for web accessibility.

In sum: While WCAG conformance is not the same as legal compliance, the success criteria included in WCAG are designed to help website owners achieve the level of accessibility that is required by laws such as ADA and AODA. This is why, globally, WCAG conformance is the gold standard for web accessibility and is considered a best practice.

Achieving WCAG and ADA compliance long-term

Making your website, web content, and/or apps accessible is a must for any business operating online — not only to avoid lawsuits, but also to serve your customers equitably. And while WCAG conformance is absolutely attainable, it’s an ongoing process in which one-and-done solutions won’t suffice.

That’s why Level Access provides audits, user testing, documents in accessible format, accessibility policies and plans, training, and legal support to help website owners make web accessibility part of the foundation of their businesses. Learn more about how Level Access can help make your digital experiences WCAG and ADA compliant.