2024 Guide to ADA Compliance & Web Accessibility Requirements
This blog post provides basic understanding of digital accessibility for non-technical decision makers. In this post, I will often refer to “web accessibility” which also applies to web apps (SaaS) and mobile apps.
Businesses and institutions are under increasing pressure to ensure their websites, web apps/Saas and mobile apps are not violating the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, as well as state laws such as those in California and New York. Many also see an opportunity to better reach the 61 million people with disabilities in the US, plus the 70 million aging Baby Boomers with significant disposable income. Whether by carrot or stick, website owners no longer have a choice when it comes to web accessibility.
Benefits of Web Accessibility
Several compelling reasons exist to prioritize web accessibility and ADA compliance, both ethically and from a business viewpoint. Here are some key considerations:
Web accessibility is not only a moral obligation, but also a legal one. The number of web-related ADA lawsuits rise every year (summary of 2022 web related ADA lawsuit statistics). And with more than 96% of websites failing WCAG conformity, it could not be easier for trolling plaintiffs and lawyers to make easy money flooding businesses with demand letters, and state and federal lawsuits.
Meeting DEI Commitments
Committing to web accessibility affirms your respect for the rights and dignity of individuals with disabilities and seniors, underlining your dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This commitment is increasingly valued by customers, employees, and stakeholders.
Aligning with ADA compliance best practices can significantly enhance your website's search engine optimization (SEO). Clear headings, alt text, captions, and structured markup not only make your site more accessible but also improve its visibility to search engines, thereby expanding your audience reach.
Enhancing Usability and Customer Satisfaction
Accessible websites benefit all users, not just those with disabilities. By improving ease of use, navigation, comprehension, and interaction, you elevate the overall user experience, fostering customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Expanding Market Reach and Sales
Consider this: the U.S. is home to 61 million individuals with disabilities and 71 million Baby Boomers who collectively wield $548 billion in discretionary spending. As people age, challenges with vision, hearing, cognition, and motor skills become more common.
This point is especially crucial. Baby Boomers represent the first generation of digital seniors. From personal experience, I've seen how they struggle with complex digital interfaces. Catering to this demographic not only expands your market but also supports their digital engagement.
New for 2024: The Rise of AIO - Artificial Intelligence Optimization
As we witness a shift from traditional search engines to AI-driven platforms like Bing and ChatGPT, Artificial Intelligence Optimization becomes crucial. These advanced systems, much like assistive technologies, encounter similar access barriers. Adhering to WCAG not only aids these technologies but also redefines AIO's role in digital marketing, enhancing WCAG compliance's value.
The Legal Landscape for Web Accessibility Compliance
Digital ADA Compliance for Websites and Apps
Let’s begin with the ADA, as this law is the most impactful to businesses and many institutions. ADA Title III requires that all "places of public accommodations" (retailers, doctors, malls, restaurants, hotels, and ski resorts) provide effective communication and full and equal enjoyment of such places. Through litigation, proponents have successfully extended this definition to include digital spaces: websites, web apps and mobile apps and their content.
While plaintiffs cannot collect court appointed damages, they are afforded legal fees. However in practice, such lawsuits never see the inside of a courtroom. Almost all are settled out of court, which allows plaintiffs to collect whatever amount is agreed to. Typically, settlements range in the $5K-$20K range.
Section 508 Compliance for Websites and Apps
Since its “refresh” that took effect in January 2018, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act has required that all federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding ensure their electronic and information (EIT) is accessible to people with disabilities. This impacts educational institutions in particular, as well as contractors selling digital products and services to the federal government.
State Digital Accessibility Laws: New York and California
Starting in May 2023, New York agencies and contractors providing websites must comply with WCAG 2.1 AA. While New York’s rules only apply to state government ICT, California’s Unruh Act is much broader. While not specifying the WCAG standard, it prohibits discrimination based on ability. The Unruh Act does enable plaintiffs to collect statutory damages with a minimum amount of $4K per offense (not for each individual violation).
Accessibility Laws Abroad: European Accessibility Act
The EU plus 6 other countries have laws that can affect US companies with websites accessible in such countries. While cases are few, what's on the horizon promises to be impactful. The EU's European Accessibility Act will come online in 2025. Remember the impact that the EU's GDPR privacy law on companies around the world? The EAA is the next GDPR. More on the EAA and other accessibility laws abroad.
508 & ADA Standards for Web Accessibility: WCAG
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines serve as the standard for digital accessibility across the US. These guidelines have also been adopted in part or whole by most other countries that have laws that protect people with disabilities. The standards break down to 4 basic principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, Robust.
WCAG 2.2 dropped in Q3 2023 and should be adopted. It adds only 9 additional criteria. That said, we don't expect to see WCAG 2.2 to become the established standard for a few years. Latest guide on WCAG 2.2.
WCAG Levels for ADA Compliance
The WCAG establish three levels of conformance to help ensure websites are accessible to individuals with disabilities. These levels are:
Level A (Minimum Level):
- This is the most basic level of web accessibility.
- Level A includes essential accessibility features that must be incorporated into a website.
- Some of the key requirements include providing text alternatives for non-text content (like images), ensuring basic navigation can be accomplished via keyboard, and using simple language or providing definitions for any unusual words.
- Without meeting Level A standards, it's likely that some users will find it impossible to access information on a website.
Level AA (Mid Range):
- This level includes all Level A criteria and adds more requirements to improve accessibility.
- Level AA is generally regarded as the industry standard for most websites and is often the target for compliance due to its balance between implementation complexity and accessibility improvement.
- Key requirements at this level include providing alternatives for audio and video (like captions), creating content that can be presented in different ways without losing information or structure (like ensuring proper heading structures), and ensuring text and background have sufficient contrast to be easily seen.
Level AAA (Highest Level):
- This level includes all Level A and AA criteria and adds even more stringent requirements.
- Level AAA standards are the most demanding and can be difficult to implement on some types of content.
- It's generally not required for entire sites but may be appropriate for certain content or resources within a site.
- Requirements at this level include more detailed guidance on text and visual presentation, more advanced audio and video alternatives, and greater navigation assistance.
It's important to note that achieving full compliance with each higher level inherently includes meeting all criteria of the lower levels. Also, while Level AAA provides the highest standard of accessibility, it may not be practical or necessary for all websites. Most organizations aim for Level AA compliance to meet legal requirements and ensure a high degree of accessibility for users with disabilities.
How to Make Your Website ADA Compliant
Step One : Automated + Manual Website Audit with Human Auditors
The path to digital accessibility begins with a 3-step audit that combines the results of automated, manual, and assistive technologies into one comprehensive audit report. Avoid the temptation to only conduct an automated audit. Even the best can only detect ~30% of WCAG issues, because these issues are nuanced and interpretive, and there are many criteria that machines just cannot test for, such as keyboard only usability. At this time, AI has yet to be fully integrated into toolsets, but we can expect this to change. Even when that does occur, human testing is still expected to provide necessary assurance of accessibility. Hire a qualified and experienced website accessibility consultant that provides human manual website audits for a true assessment of the website's accessibility and legal WCAG compliance with ADA, 508, plus CA & NY state laws.
Step Two : WCAG Website Remediation
The first question is who should do this work. Should you rely on your existing development team vs outsourcing to a credible website remediation company. The answer is largely one of resources, time, and risk tolerance. In our case, where we have a web development team that compliments our web accessibility consultancy, we always first recommend having your in-house team conduct the remediation to keep all the lessons and resulting knowledge in-house.
If your team will be conducting the remediation, the project manager will break down the audit reports by priority. Then design, development, and content teams will remediate using the instructions in the audit report.
Be sure to have the accessibility consultants return to conduct a final WCAG verification audit.
The Cost of Web Accessibility Auditing
Yes. Following best practices for the auditing process is not cheap. Often this can range in the $10K - $30K range for information sites and basic ecommerce sites. To get that cost down, our method is to reduce the number of "unique pages" requiring human testing. We call this a Keypage Audit. By going deep on just 5-10 pages, you can get into that $5K-$10K zone. And the results of just a few pages (plus automated testing on the rest), will reveal the majority of systemic errors.
The cost of remediation will be unknown until after the remediation team has been able to assess the results of the audit.
Demonstrating ADA or 508 Compliance: VPATs & ACRs
A Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is used to evaluate a product's accessibility against standards like Section 508, ADA, and WCAG. It details the product's compliance across various criteria. VPAT 2.5 recently launched and should be adopted. More on VPAT 2.5 for current WCAG compliance reporting.
VPATs come in multiple editions, each tailored to different accessibility standards and regulations. These editions include templates specific to U.S. laws like Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, international guidelines like WCAG, and other global standards. The variations ensure that organizations can document their compliance with the relevant accessibility requirements applicable to their region or industry.
An Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR) is essentially a completed VPAT, providing a formal report on the product's adherence to these standards. Together, they help vendors demonstrate accessibility compliance and assist buyers in making informed purchasing decisions.
An ACR will be required for projects with government agencies. Their use in the commercial space is also growing. In the higher education space in particular.
Accessibility Solutions to Avoid
There is a very aggressive breed of "solution" providers that will claim to make your website 100% ADA compliant using the magic of AI overnight. These are known as overlay widgets, plugins, or toolbars. These fail to provide legal protection despite their guarantees and claims. They also fail to adequately assist people with disabilities. They interfere with their native screen readers, and often introduce new barriers.
In truth, they fail to deliver what they say or save website owners from lawsuits. In fact, many believe they are responsible for attracting trolling plaintiffs.
More about Overlays with plenty of documentation and references
Final Thoughts & Silver Linings
Web accessibility is simply a cost of doing business online that cannot be avoided - especially for any mission-driven brands. Taking shortcuts will just get you into trouble and fail to provide actual accessibility or legal protection. You also do not want to be labeled as discriminatory towards people with disabilities.
The good news is that an accessible website will be more user friendly to all users... and search engines. Plus accessibility will open your website to millions of potential customers.
Good luck and let us help.