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

2022 ADA Web Accessibility Standards & Requirements

Although the The American Disabilities Act was established 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 simply been lawyers looking to 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, most cases have merit. For the past three 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 2021 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 and public scrutiny. 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 so far abdicated its role - not only under the Trump administration - but going back to 2010. Under the Biden administration its become clear that there is renewed focus. Although it falls short of providing specific technical standards, its March 18, 2022 "Guidance onf Web Accessibility and the ADA" shows a return to the Obama-era view that commercial websites are subject to Title III of the ADA - to also include website-only businesses.

 

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). Vesion 2.2 is expected in 2022 and WCAG 3.0 is on the horizon. 

 

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's WAVE page tester, but 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. Therefore, human testing is essential.

  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.

 

Is it essential to have my website audited by people with disabilities?

This is debatable. Some accessibility providers in the space have people with disabilities on staff or in management. Such providers use this as a perceived competitive advantage. Others will say that no such ability or disability would effect the depth or quality of reporting of any properly trained and experienced auditor. In fact, one could suggest that a person with a specific disability may have unconscious bias or less awareness of issues for people with different disabilities. In our case, our team are all ability-agnostic and have extensive experience and training to provide effective cross-ability testing.

 

How Much Does A WCAG Audit Cost?

The cost of an audit will depend on not only the size and complexity of your website or app, but also your goals. Do you want to just do the minimum to avoid a lawsuit, or are you committed to ensuring maximum inclusion? Ultimately the amount you will spend will basically come down to the amount you're willing to spend to avoid ongoing legal risk and to ensure your website is accessible to the widest range of visitors. This can range from $3K or less up to $30K for the majority of websites, but you can also take a phased approach and spread costs over more than one budget cycle. There are multiple approachs to take, just be sure to include some degree of human testing and avoid any AI overlay "solutions". Here is a guide on web accessibility costs that includes pragmatic ways to reduce the cost of reaching your accessibility goals.

 

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. 

Although our Propeller Media Works web design team is capable of providing web accessibility remediation, we always recommend that you have your existing web team perform this work. Its a crucial learning experience that is best to retain.

 

Beware. Avoid Overlays Widgets, Toolbars, Etc.

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, toolbars, or widgets". Sites using these are marked by an accessibility icon in the corner that triggers a toolbar with accessibility adjustment options. These providers claim to make your website 100% ADA compliant overnight using their favorite buzzword: artifical intelligence. They use javascript to inject corrective code over the existing code - hence "overlay". However, since even the best automated tools can only detect 30% of WCAG issues, their claims are flatly false. Not only do they fail to provide adequate accessibility access or tools for people with disabilities, they also fail to provide legal protection - regardless of their claims of guarantees. In practice websites that use overlays are getting specifically targeted. Since overlays cannot correct the underlying code, and provide only a leaky bandaid, trolling lawyers know they are not compliant and are now targeting these sites. More details on why overlay solutions fail and increase legal risk 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.