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Web Accessibility, WCAG & ADA Website Compliance Basics

Businesses and institutions are under legitimate pressure to ensure their websites, web apps and mobile apps are not violating people's civil rights to equal access under Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act (commercial websites) or Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (Gov and federally funded entities). Many also see an opportunity to better reach the 61 million people with disabilites in the US, as well as the 70 million aging baby boomers who all are eager to buy online. Whether by carrot or stick, website owners no longer have a choice when it comes to web accessibility.

Background to the ADA, WCAG and Website Accessibility Compliance

The Americans with Disabilities Act via Title III requires that all "public accommodations" (retailers, doctors, malls, restaurants, hotels, and ski resorts) provide facilities and equipment that are readily accessible to, and usable by, people with disabilities.  Through litigation, proponents have worked to extend access from the physical world to websites and mobile apps.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that all federal, state, and local agencies as well as those that take federal dollars (edu institutions) must ensure their websites, web apps, mobile apps and content are universally accessible.

While recent updates to Section 508 do explicitly cite the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the DOJ has so far abdicated its rule making responsibility to codify the WCAG as the standard for the ADA. That said, through the judicial system and many many lawsuits the WCAG is essentially established as the de facto standard for commercial digital properties and content.

The WCAG was developed and is managed by the W3C - the international standards organization for websites and digital content, and is recognized globally. The current version is WCAG 2.1. Version 2.2 is expected in late 2022 or early 2023. 

WCAG Standards for ADA Website Compliance

The standards break down to 4 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 all 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.


WCAG Levels for ADA Compliance

From W3C Directly:

"Conformance Level: One of the following levels of conformance is met in full.

  • Level A: For Level A conformance (the minimum level of conformance), the Web page satisfies all the Level A Success Criteria, or a conforming alternate version is provided.
  • Level AA: For Level AA conformance, the Web page satisfies all the Level A and Level AA Success Criteria, or a Level AA conforming alternate version is provided.
  • Level AAA: For Level AAA conformance, the Web page satisfies all the Level A, Level AA and Level AAA Success Criteria, or a Level AAA conforming alternate version is provided.

In practice, level AAA is not a requirement. They are best practices that should be adopted when possible. 


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. Avoid the temptation to only conduct an automated audit. Even the best can only detect ~50% of WCAG issues, because these issues are nuanced and interpretive. The best practice adds manual and assistive technology testing (screen readers, etc) of unique pages/templates to capture the other 50% of issues.

The quality and depth of the reporting is important also, and you should expect reporting to not only identify issue, but should also provide the remediation guidance to fix each. This is what we do, and we even include relevant screen-shots. Quality reporting at this level will greatly reduce the number of false positives, and well written remediation guidance will greatly reduce the time/cost impact on the remediation team. Learn more about our WCAG auditing services.

Step Two : WCAG Website Remediation 

The first question is who should do this work. Should you rely on your existing developmant team vs outsourcing to a credible website remediation company. The answer is largely one of resources, time, and risk tolerance (here is an article that answers the question in greater depth). While we do provide accessibility remediation services, if you have your own team, we recommend they conduct the remediation and keep the knowledget in-house.

The process begins with segmenting the audit results based on task category and then severity or priority. In our reporting, we indicate the severity of each item and then assign a priority level to guide project management. Issues then fall into three category buckets: design, content, development. 

Design issues will include items such as color, contrast, size, spacing, and page structure. 

Content issues will include items that can be addressed through the CMS. These would include items such as image labels (alt tags), or the structure of headings (H1, H2, H3, etc). The content team would also handle captioning video content. Content remediation is not technical but tedious and makes good work for interns. 

Development issues will include the bulk of issues found in the front-side code: the CSS/HTML/Javascript layer. The good news is that websites are built using templates, shared modules, global libraries, etc... so one issue found on every page in a header element for example can potentially be eliminated with one fix. If the audit reporting is thorough and provides strong remediation guidance, a team of experienced developers should be able to address most issues on their own. Otherwise you may want to consider bringing in a team of remediation specialists who are experts in both WCAG compliance and the code.


The Cost of Web Accessibility Auditing And Remediaiton

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" for which we conduct 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 an unknown until after the remediation team has been able to assess the results of the audit.


508 & ADA Testing & Remediation: What to Avoid

Responding the dream of fast and cheap, unfortunately there is a very aggressive breed of "solution" providers that will claim to make your website 100% ADA complaint using the magic of AI overnight. And given that there is typically an app or plugin for most things, one might easily fall for this. In this case, they cannot because these rely on automated tools which we know can only detect ~50% - regardless of AI.

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 Thougths & 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.