ADA Website Compliance: What it Is, Why You Need It, and How to Make Your Website Accessible

Over the past several years, we have fielded countless questions from clients and prospective clients regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and whether it extends from physical property to digital property. The answer is yes. Just like your business’s physical premises need to be completely accessible to individuals with disabilities, these individuals also need to be able to navigate your website.

Nearly 2 percent of the United States’ population has some form of a disability, with more than 7.3 million Americans having some degree of blindness. This is a significant figure and failing to make your website accessible will automatically alienate this potential client base before you’ve had a chance to say anything about who you are and what you do. But it’s not just about attracting clients. Refusing to make your website accessible to the impaired and disabled, you could be leaving yourself vulnerable to costly lawsuits and claims by advocacy groups. By October 2016, at least 244 lawsuits had been filed, and that figure has been rising exponentially as discussions about website accessibility have increased.

In this piece, we’d like to answer some of the questions surrounding this subject to the best of our ability. We hope you come away from this with a better understanding of the situation, or, at least, a better perspective on what to do or how to direct your clients in this sensitive issue.

All About the ADA and Accessibility

Let’s start with a brief background on the ADA. In 1990, then-President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into effect. This act required businesses to meet the basic accessibility needs of all the customers they served. Offering services that were inaccessible to some customers would be considered a violation.

As technology has grown more and more prevalent across all industry sectors, there has been a need for a greater focus on the digital side of business. This is where the WCAG comes into play.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a part of a series published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WIA) of the World Wide Web Consortium, also known as (W3C), in 1999. They are a set of recommendations for making online content more accessible, primarily for people with disabilities—but also for all user agents, including highly limited devices, such as mobile phones. 

WCAG 2.0 was published in December 2008 and became an ISO standard. WCAG 2.0 was designed with three levels in order to provide more flexibility for different situations: A, AA, and AAA

  • A doesn’t require you to address color, which is a requirement of Guideline 1.4, which means someone who is color blind would potentially have issues with you content.
  • Level AA addresses the dark/light contrast between the text and background colors. That’s because better contrast makes it easier to read the text if you have a disability that affects vision (or, might we add, if you forgot your glasses at the office, or you’re looking at your screen in bright sunlight).
  • Level AAA would be required when an internal policy in a government department may require the highest possible standard of accessibility.

Even today, most digital accessibility policies and laws worldwide treat WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the standard.

WCAG 2.1 was just recently released in June 2018. While it did not replace 2.0, it added 17 new success criteria, most of which deal with helping people with low vision, people with cognitive disabilities, and people with learning disabilities. They are also meant to remove online barriers from mobile technology.

On June 20, 2018, 103 members of Congress from both parties sent a letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to ask the Department of Justice to provide “guidance and clarity with regard to website accessibility” under the ADA. The letter expressed concern about lawsuits affecting “businesses of every shape and size throughout the country.” It alleged that “in most cases these suits are filed for the purpose of reaching a financial settlement and do little or nothing to improve website accessibility.”

That was followed by a letter from 19 states’ Attorneys General also asking for guidance which was followed by a letter, in September from six senators asking for a resolution. The letter stated: “Right now it is not clear whether the ADA applies to websites. This leaves businesses and property owners unsure of what standards, if any, govern their online services.”

On September 25, 2018, the DOJ responded the Congress’s initial letter, making the following three key points:

  1. Are web accessibility standards through regulations necessary and appropriate to ensure compliance with the ADA?
  2. This is a legislative issue and we look forward to working with Congress to continue these efforts.
  3. There should be flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication.

What Happens if a Site Isn’t ADA-Compliant?

Earlier in this article, we mentioned that a significant number of lawsuits and claims have been filed against businesses who have not followed the ADA’s standards for digital compliance. We’d like to take a little time to elaborate on these lawsuits, and just what they mean for businesses who are non-compliant.

We stated that by the end of 2016, there had been at least 244 lawsuits filed. By 2017, that figure had risen to 814. By 2018, there had been 2,300 lawsuits. Now, as we close out 2019, this figure is estimated to reach 6000. New York and Florida lead by a significant margin, but Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California, Ohio, Virginia, Illinois, and Texas also reported ADA-related lawsuits in 2018.

Companies large and small have been affected by this. One of the most notable early lawsuits of this type involved Winn-Dixie. Though there was no precedent for this type of suit, the judge stated that because Winn-Dixie’s website was integrated with its physical locations, it was subject to ADA stipulations. They were ordered to pay a six-figure settlement. Dominos, Hooters, Hulu, Harvard, and MIT also faced similar lawsuits. 

Very recently, a website accessibility decision out of the Ninth Circuit Court regarding the Robles v. Dominos Pizza reaffirmed the ADA Act to websites. 

Larger organizations may be able to work through a lawsuit, but smaller organizations may not be able to come out on the other side. Rather than fighting these standards, the best solution is to fix your website, not just out of fear of legal action but in order to better serve your community.

How to Make Your Website Accessible

There are a few things that you can do. You can use a developer to update your code. However, depending on the scope, this could end up being quite costly (though less costly than a settlement). The average agency has at least 50 pages on their site, and if you work on a page by page basis (updating meta tags, image alt text, video transcriptions, alt transcriptions, font type and size, PDF and HTML conversion, and a code audit), this could take quite a bit of time and money.

Plugins are also an option. The WordPress plugins WP, SOGO, and Enable will provide approximately 10 percent of compliance. There is also the option to include a tutorial on your website for accessing outside resources.

An AI ADA plugin is the best solution for this problem. An AI-based plugin will read the code and CSS on your site and update it in order to provide accessibility. This plugin includes the following features:

  • It is 95% ADA AA Compliant
  • Adjustable font
  • Readable font
  • Readable titles
  • Text magnifier

In the digital age, failing to update your site to be accessible and navigable for everyone is no longer an option. Allow us to help your site reach everyone.

About Neilson Marketing Services

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