What Is ADA Compliance and Why Does It Matter?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became a law in 1990. It was created in an effort to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities, and ensure accessibility to all individuals, regardless of their physical limitations. Now, thirty years later, our world has changed tremendously, especially in regard to technology. Now more than ever, ADA compliance expands far beyond a simple handrail or parking space. It encompasses all public-facing entities, which includes most websites. Think your site may be at risk? It probably is.
You take pride in your work. You want your business to grow and prosper. After countless hours formulating the perfect set up and content for your website, you launch it and delight in seeing your company flourish and thrive like never before.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away, a blind woman logs into her computer using a screen reader and system of key commands. This is part of her daily routine. She’s an experienced web surfer like you and I, she just does it a little differently.
Her computer announces the page she’s on and helps her through an online purchase. Next, she goes to Google and searches amidst the options in your business’s industry. She clicks on your website link, ready to become a new, satisfied customer.
Unfortunately, within ten seconds, you’ve lost her business. She is unable to interact with your website due to poor accessibility.
Luckily for you, she does not take legal action against your company. Instead, she chooses to simply move on and find a different website, one with proper ADA compliance. However, many other businesses have not been so lucky.
ADA Compliance Lawsuits
Thousands of companies have learned about online ADA compliance the hard way – through a lawsuit.
In 2019, approximately 11,053 ADA Title III federal lawsuits were filed. This was an increase of 9% since 2018, and a 400% increase since 2013, according to Seyfarth Shaw, LLP, based in Chicago.
In 2018 and 2019, the top three states with online ADA non-compliance lawsuits were California, New York, and Florida. However, lawsuits of this nature have popped up all across the nation, and have affected large and small companies alike.
What Is ADA Compliance?
When thinking of accommodations for people with disabilities, you may think of a blue sign indicating wheelchair access, a handrail, closed captioning, or maybe something written in Braille.
These adaptations can be found in most public places and are critical to those who rely on them daily. They’re also legally required, in many cases, depending on the type of business, its clientele, and funding.
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, it was several years before legislation was written regarding website compliance. (Keep in mind, the internet itself has gone through many changes since then as well!)
The Department of Justice’s revised regulations for Titles II and III of the ADA were published in September of 2010. These regulations adopted revised, enforceable accessibility standards known as the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design.
Who Is Impacted by These Laws?
If you want to save yourself some time, I’ll put it this way: If you’re reading this now and wondering about your business’s website, the answer is most likely…
Your website needs to be ADA compliant.
Title I – V of ADA Compliance
There has been considerable confusion surrounding not only who is required to be compliant, but also how a company can go about making their website compliant with ADA standards.
The ADA is divided into five sections:
- Title I: Employment
- Title II: Public Services (State and Local Government)
- Title III: Public Accommodations and Services Operated by Private Entities
- Title IV: Telecommunications
- Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions
In an effort to understand ADA compliance, many have attempted to read through the five titles, and have wound up even more confused than they were when they started.
Confusion Surrounding Title I: Employment
This is largely due to the fact that people are getting hung up on this line in Title 1:
“The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees, including State and local governments.”
What we all need to realize, though, is that this is referring only to the employment aspect of the company’s duties – the obligation to their employees and their own internal affairs.
However, let’s stay focused on the topic at hand: website accessibility.
Title II & III – Are Your Company’s Services Open to the Public?
The critical element here, is the question of whether or not the company’s services are open to the public. In other words, if your website is meant to reach the public, but is not accessible to the entire public, you are putting yourself at risk for a lawsuit.
For example, imagine a local diner that has only eleven employees total. The restaurant owner would be incorrect to assume that their company’s website is exempt from following proper online ADA compliance, simply because the organization itself is comprised of a group of people smaller than what’s indicated in Title 1. They would need to provide wheelchair accessibility, right? Correct. Online accessibility is required as well.
Title II states that public entities, such as state and local government agencies, must make “reasonable modifications” to avoid discrimination and allow accessibility to all people. This affects any and all websites funded through the government, including public schools and libraries.
Title III of the ADA focuses on private and public entities that are considered to be “public accommodations,” or, companies that provide goods or services to the public. Again, the law requires that businesses do not discriminate against customers based on disability.
Directly from the regulation, here’s exactly what the third title of ADA states: “Title III prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations (businesses that are generally open to the public and that fall into one of 12 categories listed in the ADA, such as restaurants, movie theaters, schools, day care facilities, recreation facilities, and doctors’ offices) and requires newly constructed or altered places of public accommodation—as well as commercial facilities (privately owned, nonresidential facilities such as factories, warehouses, or office buildings)—to comply with the ADA Standards.”
What Other Factors Are Considered? Does My Site Need to Be Compliant?
Are there varying levels of urgency with regards to legal ramifications for noncompliance?
If your website is an informational, just-for-fun blog with no functions relating to e-commerce, it’s highly unlikely to be on the receiving end of an ADA compliance lawsuit.
However, say this were connected to a physical location with paying customers, and you’d have a whole new story on your hands.
But it’s not just companies with physical locations that should concern themselves over this matter. A physical location heightens the need, for sure. It’s definitely not the only factor though.
Basically, if your website hosts any type of commercial activity, or refers to products and services sold on site, online accessibility is 100% necessary, and ignoring this fact could lead to major financial problems for you and your business, through the form of a lawsuit you are sure to lose.
But fear not – there is a silver lining to all of this. Keep reading…
Legal vs. Moral Perspective
Ensuring that your website is ADA compliant is a legal necessity. But in the rare case that you’re exempt, remember that it’s also the ethical way to conduct business.
According to the CDC, 26% of Americans have some type of disability (as of 9/2020).
That’s approximately 61 million adults.
By making your website accessible, not only are you avoiding an expensive lawsuit, you’re expanding your website’s reach to 61 million adults – or more!
Added Bonus – Reach More People!
You can feel good knowing that you’re doing the right thing, but there’s also an added bonus to ADA compliance: By expanding your website’s features, you’re making it easier for people of ALL abilities to use it, thus expanding your clientele further!
For example, some folks may not rely completely on a read-aloud component, but given the opportunity, they may pounce on it. Thus, that person is much more likely to choose your business as opposed to a competing company.
Keep in mind that there are a multitude of other situations where increased accessibility adds great value.
Consider the following situations:
Text to Speech – who else could benefit, other than those who have visual impairments?
- People with dyslexia
- People who like to multi-task (listening while they do dishes, drive in the car, etc.).
Closed captioning – who else could benefit, other than those who are hard of hearing?
- People in a noisy coffee shop with no headphones
- People in a quiet library with no headphones
- People whose first language is not English
- People trying to better understand your products and services (taking notes on policies, procedures, special offers, etc.).
Large buttons – who else could benefit, other than those with visual impairments?
- People with reduced dexterity
- People on-the-go, or multi-tasking
- People using older, slower devices with decreased sensitivity
Overall, remember that a website with bad design is more likely to be noncompliant with the ADA, but it’s also likely to frustrate:
- People with limited tech confidence or ability.
- People in a hurry, who don’t want to waste their time figuring out your site when there are other options.
Increase Your Site’s SEO
Another benefit to complying with the ADA is that it improves your site’s Search Engine Optimization efforts. By increasing the amount of key words (transcribed from videos, audio files, alt text, etc.), your website is more likely to pop up quickly in a Google search.
In addition to adding more content to your website, a website built with accessibility in mind tends to have better site structure and semantic markup, thus creating an easier-to-use website. This could lead to better bounce rates and readability of your website.
This is another example proving that accessibility to all = more business for you!
What Constitutes ADA Compliance Online?
Part of the confusion on this topic is that the original ADA has many parts that overlap and can be difficult to interpret.
Compliance can feel like a moving target, since technology is constantly changing, as are the rules themselves. It’s up to website owners to move with the ebbs and flows of the times in order to meet their clients’ needs.
ADA compliance is never a one-and-done deal. It’s an ongoing process that requires routine maintenance and remediation.
WCAG: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
The World Wide Web Consortium has determined that in order for a website to be considered accessible, it must meet four standards, as stated in the WCAG, or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These are known as the Four Principles of Accessibility. ADA compliant websites must have content that is:
- Perceivable – users must be able to perceive the information; it can’t be invisible to their senses.
- Operable – the interface can’t require an interaction in which the user cannot perform.
- Understandable – users must be able to understand the information and the operation of the user interface.
- Robust – content must evolve with the advancement of changing technologies.
WCAG 1.0 was first launched on May 5, 1999.
Then the redesign, WCAG 2.0, was published on December 11, 2008. This is when the previously stated four principles were created.
Another decade later, more additions were added, and the latest standards were known as WCAG 2.1, on June 5, 2018.
Get excited for next month, November 2020! That’s when the latest addition should be released, WCAG 2.2, according to w3.org.
Click here to read more about WCAG 2.1, directly from w3.org: https://www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG21/Understanding/
Baby Steps – Overview of Basic Accessibility
The guidelines for website ADA compliance remain rather ambiguous. Why? Well, technology is constantly changing, and with each new website feature comes an array of necessary edits in order to make the new setup ADA compliant.
The information below is just a warm-up, compiled to serve as a helpful, beginner’s guide. We’re getting your feet wet before taking the leap into the giant ocean of accessibility.
When updating your site’s accessibility, don’t forget to consider these elements:
- Navigation, links, forms
- Images, maps, infographics
- Videos, audio, podcasts
- Color and contrasts
- Fonts, text layouts
- Overall structure and organization
With regard to the components listed above, be sure to account for the following:
Navigation, Links, & Forms
Links should never just say, “click here”. Links should be written such that they make sense out of context. You must describe the purpose of the link, including information telling where the link will take the user. This is a basic courtesy that benefits all users, not just those requiring accommodations.
Keep in mind that many users rely solely on their keyboard for navigation, rather than a mouse or touch screen. Therefore, it’s imperative that your page has skip links.
Skip links are internal page links that allow the user to navigate around the page and skip over things they don’t need to hear or be informed about. This is especially important for repeat customers. Imagine the frustration of having to sit through the same information being regurgitated again and again, each time you visit a familiar page. Cut the nonsense and provide skip links within your coding. Your screen reading visitors will thank you for it.
Consider other details, such as the fact that mobile devices users will not be able to see a hover state. Maybe you have some cool features that show up when a desktop user hovers their cursor over something – great, but those viewing your page on a phone or screen reader will not see it that way. Keep this in mind, especially when creating critical content.
Images, Maps, & Infographics
Behind every great picture… is alt text. Any and every picture should be described with words, so that a person using a screen reader will be able to hear about the picture (while the information is read aloud to them).
However, it’s important that the description provides new information; it should not be redundant.
The alt text info should be helpful, not annoying or unnecessary. For example, a website for a clothing store may have a link on a picture that says, “The Cozy Shop”. Without further clarification, how would one know the spectrum of coziness this link would provide? Blankets? Sweaters? Socks? Coffee? Books? A crisp autumn morning with a roaring fire? All of the above? Nay. Alas, it’s mostly sweaters. This is information your readers would like to know ahead of time. So… include it in the alt text info!
Links have titles to tell screen readers more information as well as users who hover over the text. Assertive text saying, “click here” should be avoided. If the link is an image with no text, then the link title text would be, “View our collection of scarves”, and the alt text for the image would be, “Stack of our designer scarves” (or something along those lines). The link title cannot be redundant with nearby links and text. If it exists, it has to serve a unique purpose in directing the user.
Videos, Audio, & Podcasts
Closed captioning and alt text should be provided for videos, and a transcript for podcasts. Otherwise, the material is not accessible to those who have limited vision and hearing.
Color and Contrasts
Color should never be the only cue to indicate a categorization, urgency, or other pertinent bit of knowledge. For example, if your site indicates important information by marking it in red, it will go unnoticed by those who cannot see red, or for those with difficulty seeing in general.
You can use red, of course – but make sure that the red is complemented mindfully by another color that contrasts it well enough to be seen. If you’re unsure, ask yourself if the same set-up would be visible in gray scale. For example, red lettering on a white background should work, whereas red on dark blue would be a bit jarring on the eyes, not to mention difficult to read.
You must have alternate manners in which the same information can be received. As an initial solution to the aforementioned color quandary, you may think to add an asterisk to differentiate the information. However, a more dependable solution would be to simply type the words out. Why? Imagine someone is using a screen reader to view your site. The message will be sorely missed if instead of “important information”, it reads as, “asterisk, asterisk, asterisk.” Please note, also, that it will not suffice to simply type words out in all caps, as many alternative tools will not recognize the style variance.
Simplicity is key. Just write out the information, as is. Don’t overthink it.
Again, this is just a beginner’s guide to get the ball rolling. It’s imperative that every website owner checks the guidelines detailed in the latest edition of the WCAG.
For this question in particular, w3.org states the following:
WCAG 2.0 level AA requires a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text.
WCAG 2.1 requires a contrast ratio of at least 3:1 for graphics and user interface components (such as form input borders).
WCAG 2.2 is expected to be released in the summer of 2021.
Note: Level AA is considered the “mid range” level of conformance. Level A is the lowest, level AAA is the highest, most accessible (and most difficult to implement). Level AA is recommended for most websites.
Fonts & Text Layouts
Color, again, plays a huge role here. See the section above for details on color.
Currently, there isn’t a specified, foolproof font size requirement given by the WCAG 2.1. However, a general rule of thumb for body content readability would suggest a minimum font size of 16px. The key is to ensure that your content is perceivable, if your user needs to take additional time to read or understand your content, then your text sizing or spacing needs to be adjusted.
Text spacing is also an important factor in perceivability. Although text sizing is not specified, the WCAG does outline text spacing rather thoroughly. See below:
- Line height (line spacing) to at least 1.5 times the font size
- Spacing following paragraphs to at least 2 times the font size
- Letter spacing (tracking) to at least 0.12 times the font size
- Word spacing to at least 0.16 times the font size.
Overall Structure & Organization
Other factors to consider:
- The user must be able to magnify the focus of words and other features.
- Every page must have a title and consistent styling.
- Navigation should be aligned on the left.
- Busy, distracting layouts and sections should offer a way to cease movement.
Depending on how a website is created and maintained, a website can offer basic accessibility or be fully ADA compliant.
In addition to the aspects listed above, basic accessibility features may include any of the following:
- User Interface Alternative Options that are user-controlled
- Tab Control Navigation
- Skip-to-Content Feature
However, keep in mind that accessibility is a living and breathing organism of sorts – after your site is marked as “accessible”, any edits you make could jeopardize your compliance, if not properly maintained.
So… Does My Site Need to be ADA Compliant?
If you are still wondering, “So, does my website need to be ADA compliant?” The shortest, safest answer is, “Yes, most likely.” If you’re on the fence, remember the aforementioned extra benefits to ADA compliance listed above. The old saying of “better safe than sorry” goes a long way, too. Don’t forget the added bonuses of increased SEO and user friendliness for all!
OK, What’s next? How Can I Fix It?
So how do you go about making your website ADA compliant? Help is only a few clicks away. Reach out to Strategy and set up a free consultation! We’re here to help you; contact us today.
Published in Web Development