2023 ADA Web Accessibility Standards & Requirements
Today nearly all websites must comply with current web accessibility standards and requirements for ADA compliance, yet very few are. The fact is, unless a website is specifically designed and built for web accessibility and ADA compliance, it simply isn't. Ignoring these requirements puts your website at risk of lawsuits, brand tarnish, and missed opportunities. In this post, we'll discuss ADA compliance standards and WCAG requirements for websites in 2023.
How ADA Compliance Requirements Apply to Websites
Although the The Americans With 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.
This evolution also introduced a new legal cottage industry that has used the court system to hold website owners accountable. While some of these legal actions have come from legitimate plaintiffs, most have come from serial plaintiffs and law firms to extort easy settlements that never reach the courts. Such copy-and-paste demand letters and lawsuits alleging websites violate the ADA have flooded the US - particularly in New York, California, and Florida.
Why Is Website Accessibility Important?
Legal - Almost all websites are covered by either the ADA or Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. And in addition to legitimate plaintiffs and advocacy groups actively defending web accessibility rights, there is also a throng of serial plaintiffs and attorneys seeking easy settlements.
DEI - Diversity, Equity and digital Inclusion, includes the rights of people with disabilities to access digital as well as physical places of public accommodation. Nothing has highlighted the value of digital access and the disparity of access better than the pandemic, when the world turned inward to the Web for nearly everything.
Opportunity - Not only are there 61M people with a disability in the US, but also consider the 71M Boomers carrying $548 BILLION in discretionary spending and who also share similar challenges with vision, hearing, cognition and fine motor skills.
It's 2023! Isn't Our Website Already Compliant?
Surprisingly, the answer is very likely no. For the past three years Utah State University’s Web AIM Million Project has tested the top one million homepages. In 2023, they reported that 96.3% of homepages were not compliant, with an average of 50.0 barriers per homepage. This demonstrates both the breadth and depth of this problem.
What Are the WCAG 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 on 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 is WCAG 2.1 A, AA in the United States (and Canada). Vesion 2.2 is expected later this year 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.
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. AI or not, automated tools can only detect ~30% of WCAG issues. AI can read code, but it cannot view the screen. Therefore, human testing is essential.
- Automated WCAG Testing - Entire website crawl to capture low-hanging fruit
- Manual WCAG Testing - Human review of code and use-cases for unique pages
- Assistive Technology Testing - Using screen readers and other 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 may have such a preference, but ability will not affect the quality or thoroughness. What's important is that the auditor has not only the experience and qualifications as a WCAG auditor, but to also has a command of website code in order to provide technical remediation guidance. In our case, our team are all ability-agnostic and have extensive experience and training to provide effective cross-ability testing, as well as code-level guidance.
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".
How to Reduce Audit Costs
For some website owners, the cost for a full audit of all "unique pages", may total more than the original cost of the website. We offer to sub-levels. The first is a "keypage" audit where we simply reduce the number of pages that received human auditing to meet your budget, with a $5K threshold. The last step would be an automated-only audit.
We would recommend the keypage audit, even if that only covers a few human tested pages. Human auditing of the header (navigation), footer and a few keypages will supply so much feedback that developers can extrapolate from and apply downstream. Automated-only will leave you too exposed. 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 Overlay Widgets!!!!!
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.
Maintaining Web Accessibility and ADA Compliance
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.
photo credit : Farzad @unsplash