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Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Compliance

You’re probably at least somewhat familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark U.S. civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. But did you know the ADA doesn’t just apply to physical spaces, like buildings? It also has implications for the digital world.

If your website isn’t accessible to people with disabilities, you may be in violation of the ADA.

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Web accessibility and ADA compliance

The ADA was signed into law in 1990, before the internet went mainstream.As a result, the law itself doesn’t include explicit language requiring web accessibility. So why are thousands of companies that operate inaccessible websites sued every year for lack of ADA compliance?

It comes down to court interpretation of Title III of the ADA, which 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.

One of the most notable cases concerning web accessibility and the ADA was a lawsuit against Domino’s, which made its way to the Supreme Court. A blind man sued Domino’s claiming neither its website nor its mobile app was accessible for him. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision that the ADA applies, andDomino’s eventually settled the case.

Other high-profile ADA compliance cases around web accessibility have involved Netflix, Nike, and Amazon. As these rulings have accumulated, they have encouraged thousands more web-related lawsuits and hundreds of thousands of ADA demand letters, which are often a precursor to a lawsuit.

How to make your website ADA compliant

The best course of action to reduce your organization’s risk of a web-related ADA compliance lawsuit is to make your website accessible. In practice, that means following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

WCAG is a set of technical standards that, when applied, make online content accessible for all users, including people with disabilities. At a high level, WCAG standards suggest a site should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust:

  • Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways 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 that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of users and 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, building upon the version before. There are also three levels of WCAG conformance: A, AA, and AAA. A represents minimum conformance, and AAA represents the highest conformance level achievable.

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, and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

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Risks of non-compliance with the ADA

The primary risk of non-compliance with the ADA is a costly legal battle. And costs aside, legal action can tarnish a company’s public reputation. As equity and inclusion dominate headlines, savvy consumers take notice of brands that don’t prioritize the needs of every user. And they’re more likely to spend their money elsewhere, with brands that do.

More than 14,000 ADA lawsuits were filed from 2017 to 2022, and hundreds of thousands of demand letters are issued every year. If your website doesn’t meet accessibility standards, and your company hasn’t yet received a legal complaint, it’s likely only a matter of time until you do. By taking action to ensure web accessibility, you can safeguard your brand from legal risks and demonstrate a commitment to inclusion.

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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.

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.

To comply with the DOJ’s interpretation of 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.

Is your website ADA compliant? Visit webaccessibility.com, a free ADA website compliance checker, to test your site. Each URL entered will include more than 200 automated tests run. You will instantly receive a Compliance Score and a list of accessibility issues that need remediation. These automated tests are a starting point to understand your level of compliance. They will reveal many—but not all—violations. Manual testing is required to ensure a site is truly accessible.