Protect your business from fines and lawsuits while providing necessary accommodations for your customers and website visitors.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires certain businesses to provide accommodations for people with disabilities. Web content must be accessible to users who are blind, deaf, or need to navigate by voice, screen reader, or other assistive technology.
The ADA is intended for businesses that are open at least 20 weeks per year, have 15 or more full-time employees, and fall under the category of “public accommodations.”
Failure to create an ADA-compliant website can expose a company to lawsuits, financial liabilities, and damage to brand reputation.
This article is intended for small business owners who want to find out if their websites are ADA compliant and, if not, how to become compliant.
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is often associated with physical locations and accommodations that certain businesses must make for people with disabilities. Such accommodations include wheelchair access and the use of Braille for the visually impaired. However, the ADA also applies to the digital realm, requiring companies to ensure that web content is accessible to all users.
What does an ADA-compliant website look like? There are no explicit provisions of the ADA that specify exactly what web content is compliant. However, companies that fall under ADA Title I or ADA Title III must develop websites that provide “reasonable accessibility” to persons with disabilities.
What is ADA compliance?
The ADA was enacted in 1990. The Act prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities and guarantees them the same rights and opportunities as persons without disabilities. The law covers all areas of employment, schools, transportation, and even places open to the public.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice established the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessible Design Standards, which requires that all electronic and information technology, including websites, be accessible to people with disabilities, including those with visual and hearing impairments.
What is WCAG?
The ADA does not set guidelines for website compliance, but many organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for their business websites. The WCAG is not a legal requirement, but a reference document for organizations seeking to improve digital accessibility.
There are three versions of WCAG: 1.0, 2.0, and 2.1. 2.0 replaces 1.0, and 2.1 exists as an extension of 2.0. There are also three levels of conformance: A (minimum accessibility), AA (target level of accessibility that meets legal requirements), and AAA (exceeds accessibility requirements).
The WCAG 2.1 guidelines ensure that your web content
Be Perceivable: Content should be presented in a way that is easily perceivable. For example, provide alternatives to text, such as audio alternatives or assistive technology, so that visually impaired people can recognize website content.
Easy to navigate: Navigation should be easy to navigate. For example, providing keyboard operability so that users with disabilities can easily navigate the website and access content.
Easy to understand: Content should be easy to understand. Examples include making content easy to read and predict, and providing input aids where necessary.
Robust: The website content should be interpretable on a variety of devices and platforms. For example, we want to ensure that content is compatible with user agents such as assistive technologies.
Meeting these criteria will improve the accessibility of your website to people with visual and hearing impairments, as well as to people with cognitive, language, and learning disabilities. If you follow these guidelines to at least Level AA, ADA compliance should not be a problem for your company.
What are the ADA compliance rules for websites?
There are no clear rules or online business laws that guide organizations when it comes to full, legal ADA website compliance. But that does not mean that companies must provide accessible websites that accommodate users with disabilities.
David Engelhardt, a New York-based small business attorney, explains, “When it comes to websites, there are no codified federal instructions on how to make a website compliant.” All we know is that the ADA applies to websites based on cases like [Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc.
Without a clear definition, how can you build an ADA-compliant website, and what are some actions you can take to get on the right path toward ADA compliance, or at least to demonstrate that your business has made a good faith effort to comply?
How can I develop an ADA compliant website?
Several strategies can help improve website accessibility for those who are visually impaired, hearing impaired, or must navigate by voice – some of which may not be immediately obvious.
Steven Mitchell Sack, an employment law attorney based in Long Island and New York, says, “Corporate IT departments must design their corporate websites to be easily accessible to people with disabilities. For example, if someone is visually impaired, web designers can implement certain technologies, such as screen readers, which read text on the screen back to the web visitor via voice. Alternatively, refreshable Braille text for touch screens can be used.
In lieu of regulatory guidance, business owners can refer to the regulations governing federal agency websites and relevant case law to better understand compliance.
Nancy Del Pizzo, a partner at law firm Rivkin Radler, explains, “There is no regulatory guidance on this issue yet for commercial entities. Thus, there are no regulations or statutes defining “ADA compliance” with respect to websites. However, there are detailed legal decisions that can be used as guidance, such as federal website requirements and opinions that “reasonable” accessibility is important.
Here are some common ways companies address accessibility issues related to web content Create alt tags for all image, video, and audio files. alt tags allow users with disabilities to read or listen to alternative descriptions of content that they would not otherwise be able to see. alt tags describe the object itself and its purpose on the site in general. alt tags are also used for video and audio content.
Create text transcripts of video and audio content. Text transcripts can help the hearing impaired understand content that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.
Identify the language of the site in the header code. It is beneficial for users of text readers to identify in which language the site should be read. Text readers can identify these codes and function accordingly.
Provide alternatives and suggestions when input errors occur. If a user with a disability encounters a typing error because they have to navigate the website in a different way, your site should automatically suggest ways to help the visitor successfully navigate to the content they need.
Create a consistent, organized layout. Menus, links, and buttons should be clearly distinguished from one another and organized for easy navigation throughout the site.
Businesses can create accessible websites for users with disabilities in a variety of ways, and consultation with an attorney who specializes in disability law is essential for businesses concerned about complying with the ADA. However, if you are looking for a place to start on your own, reading the ADA requirements is an essential first step.
What liability does a small business have if it fails to comply with the ADA?
Failure to comply with the ADA means your business is subject to litigation. According to Engelhardt, the costs of an ADA lawsuit can add up quickly.
“According to Engelhardt, the cost of an ADA lawsuit can add up very quickly.” In some states, business owners may see bills as high as $50,000.”
Beyond the regulatory consequences, failure to provide accessibility to users with disabilities can mean losing business. If users cannot navigate your website or fill out online forms, you could miss out on increased sales. In addition, ADA compliance makes it easier for search engines to crawl and index your website, which will result in higher rankings and more exposure of your web content to users.
I users with disabilities are having trouble filling out forms or making purchases on your website, you may be losing potential customers,” said Laura Ferruggia, Director of Marketing Strategy at Miles Technologies. In addition, many of the ADA compliance rules can also help with search engine optimization of your website.
ADA Compliance Is Not Just for Legal Purposes
While compliance with the ADA website is somewhat subjective, it is not too difficult to determine what “reasonable accessibility” means.
By making a good faith effort to achieve reasonable accessibility for users with disabilities, businesses can stay ahead of the regulations, develop compliant websites, and avoid litigation. Additionally, designing a compliant website can lead to increased sales and better search engine rankings.
For more information on ADA website compliance and how to protect your business, consider consulting with a disability attorney.
Max Freedman and Adam Uzialko contributed to this article. An earlier version of this article featured a source interview.