What is Website ADA Compliance?


So you’ve heard recently that your website needs to be ADA compliant, but you’re not sure quite what means. You’ve been told that blind people need to be able to use your website, but how can that possibly be? If there’s one thing you know is that the ADA has been around for about 30 years, which is long before there ever was a thing called a website, so how can a 30 year old law apply to something so new? And maybe you’ve also heard that you can get sued for many thousands of dollars if your website is not ADA compliant. Is that true? We will answer your “What is Website ADA Compliance” question, and more, right here.

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The ADA is a law passed in 1990 that that protects people with disabilities from discrimination. It is separated into five “Titles”, each of which has to do with different parts of society. These titles are: 

  • Title I: Employment
  • Title II: State and Local Government
  • Title III: Public Accommodations
  • Title IV: Telecommunications
  • Title V: Miscellaneous

So you might think that Title IV about Telecommunications is the part that regulates websites, but that’s not actually the case. It has more to do with providing telecommunications services for the deaf and those with speech or hearing disabilities to help them communicate over the telephone. Title IV is regulated by the FCC.

Title III is the part that regulates business and commerce, and is the part we care about. It says that…

“No individual may be discriminated against on the basis of disability with regards to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation.”

And then it defines places of public accommodations, which includes most places of lodging, so hotels, motels, any kind of facility for recreation, theaters, transportation, education, restaurants, stores, service providers, care providers, stadiums, shopping malls and so on. Just about any commercial enterprise or place where people gather or do business.

The ADA is why there are requirements for handicapped parking spaces, wheelchair ramps next to steps in buildings, traffic lights that make sounds, wide doors in office buildings, low mirrors in public bathrooms, and so on.

What Does the ADA Say About Websites?

So you might be wondering “What does the ADA say about Websites?” The answer is actually…nothing. Not a word. The ADA was passed in 1990 and has not been updated since then. And that is where the confusion lies.

While some laws are established by legislation, and some by bureaucratic regulation, other laws are established by case law. In other words, a lawsuit was brought against one party by another, one party prevailed, and that decision over time became law. When other similar decisions are made, the law is strengthened, especially when the subsequent decisions are made by higher courts.

And that is what has happened with the ADA for Websites.

According to Seyfarth and Shaw, a law firm that specializes in Website ADA issues, in 2015 there were 56 ADA Lawsuits related to websites. In 2016 there were 252. In 2017 there were 814, and in 2018 there were 2,258! It’s still too early to get the 2019 numbers, but they are sure to grow at a similar pace.

Yearly Growth in Website ADA Lawsuits
Number of Website ADA Lawsuits from 2015 to 2019

Even though the ADA has not been updated, in 2018 the Department of Justice issued an opinion that websites must comply with the ADA.

In 2016, a blind man named Robles couldn’t order a pizza from the Domino’s website. He sued Domino’s and lost, so he appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and he won. So then Domino’s appealed to the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, letting the Ninth Circuit decision stand, essentially establishing the law on many levels.

What is Website ADA Compliance?

So what is Website ADA Compliance, and what does it mean to make a website ADA compliant? 

Website ADA Compliance allows those with disabilities to use a website just as someone without disabilities would. The legal term is “equal enjoyment”, even if it’s not an entertainment website. In other words, if a business is making a service or information available to people without disabilities, it needs to make those same services and information available to those with disabilities.

This means that all people must be able to use your website, including…

  • Those who have limited vision
  • Those who cannot see
  • Those with limited hearing
  • Those who cannot hear
  • Those who cannot move a mouse
  • Those who cannot use a keyboard
  • Those who have learning disabilities and other mental, psychological or physical issues.

What Makes a Website “Accessible” To Those With Disabilities?

You might be wondering if the ADA doesn’t mention websites, what makes a website “Accessible”? How can you make a website visible to those who can’t see?

The answer is that there is no strict definition of web accessibility in the law, but those who have filed lawsuits and fought for web accessibility most frequently cite the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which were developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (the folks who defined HTML and HTTP) in 1999. Since then, there have been several updates to the Guidelines, which are now at version 2.1.

The WCAG has about 90 different guidelines that define different levels of accessibility, which are labeled as Single A, Double A and Triple A. Generally speaking, WCAG 2.1 AA Guidelines are what most lawsuits argue for, but more than 90% of websites fail at even the Single A level.

Here are some examples of what the WCAG requirements are:

Web Accessibility for the Blind

Blind people can’t see a website at all, so they need all of the content on the page to be read to them using software called a Screen Reader. Screen readers generally read the information that appears on the page, but the blind user has to be able to make sense out of what they are hearing. So almost every element on a page needs to be properly coded or “tagged”. For example,

  • Headings: Headings need to be tagged as headings much like an outline with levels. That means headings, subheadings, sub-sub headings, and so on. Sometimes, lazy web developers just use bigger bolder text, but that’s not a heading, and is not Accessible.
  • Images: Images need to have “Alt Tags” that describe what is shown in an image. For example, if you have an image of your restaurant’s spaghetti and meatballs, the screen reader should be able to say something like “photo of our delicious spaghetti and meatballs” instead of something like IMG1234.jpg. Alt Tags are one of the most often cited issues in website ADA lawsuits.
  • Buttons: We’ve all seen buttons and links that say things like “read more” and “click here”. But imagine if you’re blind and you can’t see the context of those buttons and links. The screen reader says “read more”, but you don’t know what you’re going to be reading more about if you click it. And by the same token, if you click on a “click here” link, where are you going to go? The pages need to be coded so that everything is extremely clear.
  • Keyboard Navigation: Blind people can’t see the mouse pointer which means they can’t use a mouse. So they need to be able to navigate the entire website with the keyboard only. If you want a quick example of whether your website is accessible, just try navigating your own website with the keyboard and see what happens. Among other things, you should be able to tab through and select from your website’s menu. But there’s far, far more than just that required for someone to use a website with a keyboard only.

Web Accessibility For Those With Low Vision

Low Vision means severe vision loss, and could even mean near blindness for some people. So their needs overlap quite a bit.

  • High Contrast: Often, those with Low Vision can’t distinguish small or low-contrast text. So people with Low Vision need to have sufficient contrast between the text and the background color behind it. To be precise, 4.5 to 1 is the contrast required by the WCAG.
  • Larger Text and Images: The user needs to be able to enlarge the elements on the website without breaking the layout of the website.

Web Accessibility For Those with Cognitive Disabilities

Cognitive disabilities may include the inability to process information quickly, emotional issues, anxiety issues, or even potential seizures under certain circumstances. That makes these requirements very important.

  • Timing: Users need the ability to adjust or remove timing for things that move or change so that they have time to process the information.
  • Animations: Users need the ability to stop animations, especially those that go quickly.
  • Seizure Triggers: Some people can have seizures triggered by fast moving or flashing items on the screen, so there should be nothing on a page that might cause a seizure, and if there is, the user needs to be able to stop it.

Web Accessibility For The Deaf

Those whose only disability is hearing can certainly read and navigate a website easily enough. But they have trouble with video and audio content.

  • Audio-Only Content: Audio-only content needs to be accompanied by a written script.
  • Video Content: There need to be captions available for all videos with sound. We’re used to this now with TV and movies, but now your online videos need captions, too.

These are only a handful of the over 90 different guidelines in the WCAG, but it gives you an idea of the accommodations required for people with disabilities…and the work involved in making your website accessible.

How To Make Your Website ADA Compliant

So now when someone asks you “What is Website ADA Compliance,” you’ll be able to answer them with some level of knowledge. And now you know why it’s so important, not only because it’s the law, but because it helps those with disabilities use your website.

But then how do you make your website ADA Compliant?

If your goal is true accessibility and compliance, there are only two ways. The first is to do the work 100% manually. That means someone will essentially pore over your current website with a fine-toothed comb and change every element of your site to be ADA compliant. This is called a “manual remediation” of the website. For a web developer, that task could take just a month or two. For a large site, it can take much more than that and cost into the tens of thousands of dollars.

It all depends on the technology used to build the site, how the site was built, how accessible it already is, the severity of the accessibility issues, and the size of the site. Suffice to say that it can cost as much to make a website accessible as it cost to build the website in the first place…especially if it was custom built.

But at Web Compliance Pro we have another solution, which is called the Intelligent Accessibility Compliance System, which streamlines and automates much of the Accessibility “remediation” process, results in an accessible website in a couple of weeks instead of several months, and costs a fraction of what manual remediation would cost. You can learn more about the Intelligent Accessibility Compliance System here, or you can contact us to find out how accessible your site already is, and what your exposure is to a lawsuit about Accessibility. And if you have questions about anything on this page, including the initial “What is Website ADA Compliance” question, just give us a call at 818-592-6370.