Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Compliance
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in physical spaces. While the specific language of the ADA does not mention digital accessibility, recent U.S. court rulings and legal precedent make it clear: if you operate a website, and it’s not accessible for people with disabilities, you are in violation of the ADA.
Interpreting the ADA: How we got here
The ADA was signed into law in 1990, before the internet went mainstream. So why are thousands of companies that operate inaccessible websites sued every year for lack of ADA compliance if the law isn’t explicitly clear? It comes down to Title III of the ADA and court interpretation.
ADA Title III prohibits discrimination in “places of public accommodations.” The Department of Justice (DOJ), the organization that enforces the ADA, has clearly stated it believes Title III applies to websites, and U.S. Federal Courts consistently agree. Perhaps the most notable web accessibility case is the Domino’s lawsuit that made its way to the Supreme Court. A blind man sued Domino’s claiming neither its website nor its mobile app were accessible for him. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, upholding the lower court’s decision that the ADA applies, handing a victory to the man who brought the suit. Domino’s eventually settled the case.
Other high-profile cases include those against Netflix, Nike, Amazon, Beyoncé, and more. As these rulings have accumulated, they have encouraged thousands more web-related lawsuits and hundreds of thousands of ADA legal demand letters, which are often a precursor to a lawsuit.
The best course of action to reduce risk of a web accessibility-related lawsuit is to make your website and web content accessible for people with disabilities.
How to make your website ADA compliant
When it comes to ADA compliance and making your website accessible, the best practice is to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG. WCAG is a set of technical standards that, when applied, make online content accessible for users of all abilities. At a high level, WCAG standards suggest a site should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust:
- Perceivable = Information and user interface components must be presented to users in ways that they can perceive. For example, it’s important to present information that can be perceived in different ways, where a user can adjust color contrast or font size, or view captions for videos.
- Operable = User interface components and navigation must be functional for users in ways they can operate. For example, a user must be able to perform required interactions using a keyboard or voice commands, not just using a mouse.
- Understandable = Information and user interface operation must be understandable. For example, information and instructions should be clear and navigation methods should be easy to understand and use.
- Robust = Content must be robust enough so that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of users and types of assistive technologies. As technologies evolve, code and content should remain accessible for users of common and current assistive devices and tools.
WCAG was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), with input from individuals and organizations from around the world. Updates to WCAG are reflected in the version number. For example, the first release was WCAG 1.0. Subsequent releases include 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2. Each version includes a set of specific success criteria, with each version building upon the version before.
As the shared global standard, WCAG is consistently referenced as the benchmark for accessibility. Conforming with the WCAG standards is the best practice for compliance with laws like the ADA, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), and others.
How well is your site meeting WCAG standards?
There are three levels of WCAG conformance: A, AA, and AAA. Each level builds on the previous level like a pyramid. So, in order to meet Level AA, you must meet all of Level A, and in order to meet Level AAA you must meet all of Level AA.
- Level A = This level represents the base level of conformance. Level A criteria affect the broadest group of users with the most benefits and are essential. But, with the base level of support, some barriers will still exist that impact certain groups of users.
- Level AA = This level is the most common target conformance level, often adopted in regulations or negotiated in legal settlements. The criteria at this level establish a level of accessibility that works for more users, including those who use assistive technology.
- Level AAA = This is the highest conformance level achievable, meaning it covers the success criteria of all three levels. However, level AAA is not applicable or realistic in all situations. Some organizations may choose to adopt specific criteria at this level.
Risks of non-compliance with the ADA
With more than 10,700 ADA lawsuits related to web accessibility filed from 2017 – 2021, and hundreds of thousands of demand letters issued every year, one of the most obvious risks of not meeting ADA requirements is a costly legal battle, which can also tarnish a company’s public reputation. If your website does not meet accessibility standards, and your company hasn’t yet received a legal complaint, it’s likely only a matter of time until you do.
Further, as equity and inclusion dominate headlines, savvy consumers take notice of brands that don’t prioritize accommodating the needs of every user. And they’re more likely to spend their money elsewhere, with brands that do.
Serve a wider audience with an accessible site
Beyond compliance, an accessible website serves a wider audience and demonstrates a commitment to inclusivity. The World Health Organization estimates there are more than one billion people worldwide living with a disability. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that one quarter of all U.S. adults are included in that group. When your website is designed and created in a way that meets ADA standards , you’re serving the widest possible consumer audience. Accessibility enhancements also foundationally improve the user experience for every visitor, enhance SEO, and publicly position your company as one that prioritizes equity and inclusivity.
Frequently asked questions
What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?
The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Title III of the law prohibits discrimination in “places of public accommodations,” which the Department of Justice (DOJ) has interpreted to include websites and web content. Courts have also ruled in favor of accessibility, making the DOJ’s stance and case law clear: websites that are not accessible are in violation of the ADA.
What is covered within the Americans with Disabilities Act?
The ADA exists to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Specifically, Title III of the ADA was written to ensure that “places of public accommodations” are accessible to people with disabilities. The law was established in 1990, before the widespread use of the internet, and originally focused on physical spaces. This could include everything from commercial spaces (stores) to public transportation (bus stops and train stations) or any space serving the public in some way.
However, now that the internet is mainstream and interaction takes place online, “places of public accommodations” has been interpreted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the US federal court system to include websites. If you operate a website to sell products or otherwise provide services to the public, the DOJ and case law have made it clear: the ADA applies to your website, and it must be accessible.
What is ADA compliance for a website?
In order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), digital content must be free of barriers, making it usable for everyone, including people with disabilities. To accomplish this, the best practice is to follow the success criteria of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG is a set of technical standards that, when applied, make online content accessible for users of all abilities. To read more about WCAG, visit our page on WCAG conformance.