sailboats with spinnakers - metaphor for ADA standards and requirements for website accessibility

2021 ADA Website Accessibility Standards

Although the The American Disabilities Act was designed before the Internet, its designers intentionally designed it to evolve. The notion of “places or public accommodation” is a core element of the law and a perfect example of its flexibility. As technology has evolved, we today find that websites and mobile apps are essential places to shop, learn, share, and connect, and thus protected by the ADA. But many are not clear about what the actual standards and requirements are for website ADA compliance.

The passing of the ADA brought a new legal cottage industry that has used the court system to hold businesses accountable. Many of these legal actions have been legitimate. Others have been used to by lawyers to simply make easy money. This is ever-more the case today as legal actions alleging websites or mobile apps violate the ADA have flooded the US. 

Truth is, these cases have merit. For the past two years, the WebAIM project at the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State, has run accessibility tests on homepages of the top million websites. The 2020 report revealed that 98.1% of homepages had detectable WCAG 2 failures. The fact is, unless a website is specifically designed and built to enable accessibility, it just isn't. And the growing awareness that digital accessibility as a civil right is putting greater pressure on website owners to address these issues, or face legal actions. While it would be nice for website owners to voluntarily comply with the ADA, the reality is that legal actions have been required to force compliance. 


What Are the Requirements for Website Accessibility and ADA Compliance?

The Department of Justice is charged with rulemaking to provide clear requirements for compliance of laws. However, in this case, the DOJ has abdicated its role - not only under the Trump administration - but going back to 2010. The department took steps toward establishing these rules and was very close to adopting the Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG 2.0 A, AA), however the Trump administration suspended all rulemaking - despite the call from business groups and advocates alike. This gap has been left to the courts and state legislatures to fill. While it is uncertain, most expect the Biden administration's DOJ to adopt rules based on the Web Content Accessibility Guideline.


The Web Content Accessibility Guideline: De Facto Standard for Digital Accessibility

The WCAG is an internationally recognized set of guidelines for digital accessibility. It was established and is managed by the international web standards group, the W3C. The WCAG is currently in version 2.1 and comes in 3 levels: A, AA, AA. The de facto standard in the US - recognized (yet not set) by the DOJ, the courts, and advocates is the WCAG 2.0 A, AA. Version 2.1 emerged in 2018 and website owners are now being held to this standard. These are the requirements that virtually all demand letters, federal and state lawsuits, DOJ, and Dept of Education actions have called for. Regardless of how firm this standard may technically be, in practice, if you wish to avoid litigation and wish to make your website accessible, the working standard for digital accessibility in 2020 is WCAG 2.1 A, AA in the United States (and Canada).


WCAG Website Compliance Standards

Website accessibility standards break down to four basic principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, Robust. The following overview includes limited examples for the sake of providing an "overview". Refer to the WCAG 2.1 for details

Perceivable - Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
This means that users must be able to perceive the information being presented (it can't be invisible to all of their senses)

  • Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
  • Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.
  • Create content that can be presented in different ways, including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning.
  • Make it easier for users to see and hear content.

Operable - User interface components and navigation must be operable.
This means that users must be able to operate the interface (the interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform)

  • Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  • Give users enough time to read and use content.
  • Do not use content that causes seizures.
  • Help users navigate and find content.

Understandable - Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
This means that users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface (the content or operation cannot be beyond their understanding)

  • Make text readable and understandable.
  • Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
  • Help users avoid and correct mistakes.

Robust - Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.
This means that users must be able to access the content as technologies advance (as technologies and user agents evolve, the content should remain accessible)

  • Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.


Is My Website ADA Compliant?

If you’re asking the question, the quick answer is no. Unless a website is very specifically designed and built to be accessible and ADA compliant, it simply isn’t. You can verify by testing any page using automated tools such as WebAIM, and be sure to consider that such tools can only detect roughly 30% of WCAG issues… at best. 


How Do I Make My Website ADA Compliant?

The path to website accessibility is a two step process. The first step is a website audit and the second step is website remediation based on the audit results. 


ADA Compliance Audit Best Practices

The best practice is a 3-factor WCAG 2.1 A, AA audit. You cannot rely solely on automated audits because the WCAG is nuanced and interpretive. Automated tools can only detect ~30% of WCAG issues. 

  1. Automated WCAG Testing - Entire website crawl to capture low-hanging fruit
  2. Manual WCAG Testing - Manual review of code and use-cases for unique pages
  3. Assistive Technology Testing - Using tools that people with disabilities use for use-cases on unique pages.

The challenge is to find an accessibility expert with deep broad enough experience to be qualified.  Such an accessibility consultant must have expertise in all of the following in order to provide useful and trusted guidance for remediation. 

  • The many combinations of use-cases for users with disabilities
  • The assistive technologies used by people with disabilities
  • The website code
  • The WCAG 
  • The legal awareness of which issues have greatest likelihood of triggering legal actions.

The key is to receive an in-depth WCAG audit report that not only identifies what and where WCAG violations are, but most importantly, how to fix them.


ADA Website Remediation

With the audit in-hand the design, development, and content teams can break-down the tasks and implement the recommended solutions. If the reporting is good enough, this may be all your team needs. Else, you may also require on-going guidance from an accessibility specialist.


Beware. Avoid Overlays or Alternate Accessible Websites

Naturally, there is great demand for a quick and inexpensive solution. And even if one doesn't exist, that won't stop some from claiming such. Avoid what are known as "overlay solutions". These sites have injected code that adds a little blue disabilty icon in the corner that triggers a toolbar with accessibility adjustment options. These claim to make your website 100% ADA compliant overnight using artifical intelligence and javascript to inject corrective code over the existing code. Yet such websites are still getting sued because overlays cannot correct the underlying code, which is left exposed by default to any trolling lawyer. AI or not, automated tools cannot even detect 70% of WCAG issues, so these fail the sniff test right off the bat. The even claim to provide guarantees - however they will not indemnify. Beware.

Also avoid alternate "accessible" or "assistive" websites.  These are seperate websites that are not tied in with the core websites content management system and tend to provide different content and reduced functionality. The ADA states that people with disabilties are entitled to "full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations" that a publich accommodation (website) provides to its customers. This path risks crossing the line of discrimination and should be avoided.

More details on these with links to supporting articles.


ADA Website Maintenance

Websites are in constant flux. New content is always being added (one should hope), and the design interface is fine-tuned over time. In order to maintain accessibility, periodic WCAG audits should be scheduled. Until significant changes to the interface are made, you can use automated auditing tools to check on new pages, products, and blog posts. Once significant changes are made, manual and assistive technology testing should be conducted on affected pages/templates.


While the path to ADA website compliance may appear daunting. Understand that it can be approached in phases. Please reach out to us and we can help formulate a pragmatic plan that balances the legal risks and the costs to help you reach ADA compliance.