How to reduce legal risk and reach more users
Did you know your website is a potential source of liability issues? Online liability can increase the chances of your organization facing a lawsuit, as well as potential government fines for failing to meet certain requirements. That’s especially true of the ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires many websites to comply with accessibility standards.
If this is your first time considering the impact of ADA website compliance on your site, you probably have a lot of questions. Our guide will walk you through everything you need to know about the ADA, how it affects your organizations, and what you can do to make sure your website is compliant and worry-free.
Let’s start by looking at the ADA itself and why it impacts websites.
What the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is and How it Works
Website requirements for accessibility can be traced directly back to the ADA, first passed in 1990. This was a civil rights law designed to mandate equality for all Americans with disabilities – equal access to services and employment, among a variety of other requirements. It also banned any type of discrimination against people with disabilities and required businesses to make reasonable changes to help those with disabilities. If you’ve walked into a lobby and seen wheelchair ramps as well as stairs for equal access, that’s likely the ADA at work. The requirements for the ADA are enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice (and the legal system, which we’ll talk more about below).
The ADA is divided into several sections of “Titles,” each designed to focus on different entities in the United States and what their requirements are. For most organizations, the applicable section is Title III, a.k.a Public Accommodations. In summary, Title III states that public accommodations with over 15 employees are required to make “reasonable modifications” to their operations so that people with disabilities can also use them. But what counts as a public accommodation? The ADA gives a variety of important examples of privately owned, leased, or operated facilities, including:
- Retail stores
- Doctor’s offices and clinics
- Golf courses
- Private schools
- Daycare centers
- Health clubs
- Sports stadiums
- Movie theaters
As you can see, the definition of public accommodation is broad enough to apply to most growing organizations in the United States, outside of small sole proprietorships, etc. It also applies equally to nonprofits and similar organizations. Meanwhile, the other Titles address different cases:
- Title I: This section deals with equal employment. It mandates that all employers must provide reasonable accommodations to applicants with disabilities.
- Title II: This section addresses state and local government services, prohibiting any discrimination against individuals with disabilities and requiring that all governments services be accessible regardless of disability. This is also an important section to note for any organization that may It also helps clarify the important Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which mandates accessibility for federal government services and related government contractors.
- Title IV: This is a section focusing specifically on telecommunication companies, including those offering phone and internet services. These services are seen as so important for communication that they are required to provide certain kinds of accessibility for those with hearing or speech disabilities.
- Title V: This Title clarifies the Act and how it applies to a wide variety of situations, other laws, cases of immunity, related fees, and so on.
Now let’s take a look at why the ADA has become so important for websites and similar online content.
Why the ADA Affects Websites
If you look at the original requirements of the ADA, much of it applies to buildings and how organizations offer real-world services. So, how did the ADA come to apply to websites?
Like many laws, the ADA has changed over time, and is affected by a number of court rulings. For example, there was an important phase around the early 2000s when the Supreme Court made a number of rulings that severely restricted what counted as a disability (Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. William, Sutton et al. v. United Airlines, Inc., etc.). After years of requests by representation groups, this eventually led to the ADA Amendments Act, which was signed into law in 2008 to clarify and expand what a “disability” is.
Smaller court rulings can also have an impact on how the ADA is interpreted for specific situations. Over time, websites have become more and more important to both organizations running them and the people using their services. Eventually, the legal system had to start deciding whether websites count as public accommodations.
To an extent, this is still a gray area with different opinions and an assortment of case law – but the consensus is growing that, yes, websites are so important in today’s world that they are covered by the ADA. Court rulings have been particularly certain about websites that are connected to a brick-and-mortar store or business, in that decisions people make on the website create a real-world transaction.
What sort of disabilities may make using a website more difficult? The ADA specifies both physical and mental impairments, many of which can affect online browsing. Common examples include:
- Visual impairments: This includes various forms of blindness, colorblindness, inability to see contrast, and difficulty reading text on a screen. People with visual impairments can use the internet, especially with assistive technology such as screen readers.
- Hearing disabilities: Those who cannot hear at all or cannot easily understand speech will have trouble listening to online videos, podcasts, and other audio content.
- Mobility disabilities: These disabilities, including neurological conditions, nerve damage, amputation, and so on, can make it difficult or impossible to use a mouse, a keyboard, or both.
- Learning disabilities and similar conditions: Conditions such as ADHD or dyslexia can make it much more difficult to understand certain kinds of website content or designs.
- Temporary disabilities: For example, someone who broke their arm will be unable to use their keyboard and mouse in the same way while they are healing – or those who forget their glasses may need website text to be much larger before they can read it.
- Disabilities that come with age: This can include arthritis, loss of vision, and other conditions that can make browsing the web difficult or painful.
State and Local Laws
The ADA is a federal law, and many organizations may also have questions about any state laws that also affect accessibility. These laws do exist, but they can vary from state to state. On the digital front, most are similar to Section 508 laws and are primarily concerned with government websites. In states like Texas, accessibility standards focus on building codes and permits. States like California and New York have specific legislation requiring additional website accessibility.
The ADA is clear that state laws complement the ADA, and cannot replace it: However, states can add more definitions of disabilities, or extend compliance to additional entities, as well as create their own penalties for violations in addition to federal penalties.
Why ADA Compliance is Good for Business
ADA compliance can quickly start to sound like a large project, especially for older websites or sites that have never been updated with accessibility in mind. But it’s important to keep in mind that ADA compliance includes plenty of advantages for all visitors, and that in turn can improve website performance. That’s especially true of business websites that are created to get more leads or facilitate sales. Let’s take a look at why customers of all kinds like ADA compliance.
- Accessible websites are easier to navigate. Visitors appreciate their clear menus and layouts that make it simple to find exactly what you’re looking for. When combined with good header practices and decluttering steps that come with accessibility, this can help lower bounce rates and other negative web traffic indicators.
- Sites become easier to use on mobile devices. More people than ever are using their mobile devices to make buying decisions, and accessibility enables mobile and touchscreen use without creating optimization problems.
- Accessible sites are easier to read. The text flows well and doesn’t overwhelm visitors and is clearly categorized into different sections. Font and language choice support quickly finding the information you’re looking for.
- Colors complement each other well, making the website pleasant to look at. There are no distracting design choices, only helpful visuals.
- Visitors find web forms and product pages easier to understand. They are more likely to fill out information and use CTAs, ultimately leading to improved response numbers and sales.
- Accessible websites are often easier to use for those who may have slow or spotty internet connections.
Additionally, website accessibility will increase the potential audience for your site and give you an advantage against similar competitors that don’t have accessible sites. That can be a significant advantage for certain businesses: The CDC estimates that around 1 in 4 Americans live with some kind of disability, with percentages rising in the southern states. Those with disabilities also often form tight-knit communities that often share businesses and websites that are particularly easy for them to use.
Why Ignoring ADA Accessibility is Dangerous
Ignoring ADA compliance creates two notable risks. The first risk is a direct fine from a state or federal government. Federal fines alone can be as high as $75,000 for the first violation, and twice that for repeated violations. Public records will also indicate that the organization was at fault. As we mentioned, website compliance isn’t specifically cited in the ADA and the federal government is currently very unlikely to pursue any ADA fines for websites alone, but state governments have shown to be more willing to apply fines like this.
The other risk is the possibility of a lawsuit over website compliance. This has become a particularly thorny issue in the early 2020s, with an astronomical rise in the number of website accessibility lawsuits being filed in specific courts around the country – 64% growth in the first half of 2021 alone, according to reports. With thousands of lawsuits now being filed every year, the number of businesses at risk of this has grown exponentially. Some point to the decisive 2016 case where Domino’s Pizza was successfully sued by a blind man (who couldn’t use his screen reader to order pizza online) as the start of this trend.
However, many of today’s current lawsuits appear aimed at quick settlements more than creating lasting website accessibility. The suits often cite problematic website audits and error reports, which we will discuss more below, without an in-depth analysis of a site’s actual usability. While businesses have successfully fought back until these suits have been dismissed, that takes time and money that not every business may have.
The best defense against such lawsuits is to remove liability issues altogether. That means a full update of the website that fixes notable accessibility problems and creates a lasting format for future accessibility so there’s not enough evidence to make a lawsuit worth filing. But how do organizations know how to update a specific website? That’s where the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) become very important.
The ADA and the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines)
Laws like the ADA don’t go into much detail about accessibility, but they often make reference to widely accepted standards. For websites, that’s the WCAG, an internationally recognized body of standards and “success criteria” for ensuring website accessibility. The WCAG is periodically updated to keep current on website technology and the latest devices. It’s currently on WCAG 2.1, with plans to update to the WCAG 2.2 in 2022.
While the WCAG provides many examples of what individuals with disabilities should be able to do on a website, the guidelines are founded on four basic pillars of usability, a.k.a. POUR:
- Perceivable: This means that websites should be perceivable to the senses, including individuals with disabilities. Basically, content should be available to more than one sense to help compensate for senses people may be lacking. Visual text should be friendly for audible screen readers. Audio should be supplemented by visual captions or alternatives. We can’t do much about the sense of taste or smell online, but for the sense of touch, multiple inputs (keyboard controls, different cursor devices, touchscreens) should be supported.
- Operable: Can an individual with disabilities use the website? There are a number of ways to interact with sites. Menus, internal links, buttons, keyboard shortcuts, and many other options exist. These options should all be usable by those with disabilities. That means they should be easily accessed by keyboard or touchscreen, and should be large and clear for easy pointer access as well. It also means staying away from timers that block out content options after a certain amount of time, and making sure menus and navigation options are consistent throughout a website.
- Understandable: Users may be able to perceive content, but that doesn’t always mean they can understand it. The content itself should be readable and clear. Those with trouble focusing or learning disorders should be able to understand what is being said, especially when it comes to instructions. Information should also be consistent, using the same phrasing and design throughout the site to avoid causing confusion. It’s also advisable to avoid industry jargon and technical terms where possible, and provide a glossary if necessary.
- Robust: If a website is robust, it supports a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies and other means that those with disabilities use to access websites. It also means that the website is coded in such a way that it will remain friendly as assistive technology evolves in the future – or as much as possible, based on where technology is headed.
Choosing the Right WCAG Levels
Look through the WCAG standards, and you’ll see they are divided into three different levels of compliance – A, AA, and AAA. This allows governments and other bodies to specify just what level of accessibility a website needs to have. While it may seem complicated at first glance, it’s a fairly simple system that works like this:
- A: This is base-level conformance that broadly means a website is usable. It’s very easy to meet, and rarely enough to fulfill compliance requirements. Level A won’t be enough to satisfy the ADA.
- AA: The AA level of conformance includes additional standards to help make sites more accessible to those with disabilities. This is the standard that most businesses should aim for compliance, and most of what we discuss in our guides comes from A or AA conformance.
- AAA: AAA is the highest level of conformance and is rarely required for organizations by law. The common exception is government services that need maximum accessibility. AAA conformance may include things like making sure button “targets” are extra-large, including sign language support for audio files, and more.
Down to the Details: What ADA Compliance Looks like on a Site
We’ve looked at how the ADA works and why it affects websites, along with how the WCAG provides the necessary guidelines for what a site needs to do. Now let’s take a closer look at what ADA compliance looks like for the average website. These are examples of accessibility components that compliant websites should have (or similar alternatives).
- Captions and subtitles for video content: Those with hearing problems may not be able to hear videos, and even those without disabilities may prefer to watch without the sound on. That’s why ADA compliance includes captions and subtitles for those videos. Full transcripts are also a good idea for interviews or videos with lots of information. You can include these options when posting video on platforms like YouTube as well for an added SEO benefit.
- Transcripts for audio content: Podcasts and other audio files also benefit from transcripts if they contain personal information. The reverse may also be true in some cases. If there’s non-audio content that can’t be accessed by a screen reader, an audio description should be included. In general, it’s a good idea to avoid images that are just text if they can’t be perceived by a screen reader.
- Easy text resizing/magnification: Websites should support native text resizing while still ensuring readability. That means when using keyboard commands to magnify a site, etc., the text should automatically adjust so none of it is cut off or becomes confusing to read. Specific limits may vary but making sure text size works up to 200% size is a good idea. This can also help improve your site on mobile devices where users of all kinds may be magnifying content to read.
- High contrast ratios: Contrast ratios refer to how different two or more colors are. Colors that are too similar in contrast may be difficult to tell apart for users with certain vision problems, or for those with night modes and low brightness settings. This is especially important for text and backgrounds, but also applies to menus and targets like buttons. The WCAG indicates a minimum of a 4:5:1 contrast ratio in these cases.
- Sitemap, site search, and clear menus: These are also vital parts of website navigation and can save those with disabilities (and others) a whole lot of time on your site. There shouldn’t be just one way to access a part of your website unless absolutely necessary. It’s also a good idea to go through these elements and make sure they are simple, logical, and easy to spot.
- Full support for screen readers: Screen readers don’t just read all available text on a webpage. They can also read out descriptive tags that show what specific website elements are or what their purpose is. That’s vital for users with certain visual disabilities to understand what web forms are for, what a CTA button does, and much more. These tags can be used to indicate what kind of content is coming up, what exactly navigation buttons do, and so on – but they need to be properly inserted and take the place of confusing terminology where appropriate. There are a number of ways to do this, but one of the latest solutions is to use the inherent flexibility of HTML5 to insert tags and explanations wherever they are needed.
- Full support for keyboard navigation: Have you ever tried navigating a website entirely by keyboard? Accessible websites support quick navigation using basic keys like Tab and Shift, which cycle through menu options and all other important operations on the website. This needs to happen in a clear, logical manner, and many accessible sites also add helpful features like a popup “skip” button to get to the most important information when using a keyboard. It’s also important to avoid any keyboard traps where users can’t get back to the menu using only a keyboard. Since many keyboard users have their own shortcuts for website navigation, sites must also avoid using unique shortcuts that would interfere with these.
- Visible focus support: A “focus” is what part of a website is currently selected to interact with. If a Submit button is the focus on a webpage, then clicking it or selecting Enter will activate that button. Both keyboard users and mouse users with disabilities can greatly benefit from a clear website focus so that they always know what’s being highlighted. If you look at highly accessible websites, you’ll see that when menu options or buttons are focused, they significantly change – changing color completely, or appearing with a clear border around them, etc. This helps everyone navigate more easily.
- Clear and descriptive hyperlinks: Hyperlinks in text should always be very visible to users. Keyboard navigation should include the ability to cycle through them, and their contrast should make it clear exactly where you need to select to choose the link (and that it has been chosen). The anchor text should also be very descriptive of exactly what the link does, and what content it will offer users.
- Autofilling and error suggestions: Certain disabilities can make it difficult to fill out web forms, especially if there are a lot of forms asking for similar information (think about entering your address multiple times when filling out credit card information). Accessible websites support autofilling (often offered by browsers) to make these steps easier, as well as error correction that pops with automatic correction options, so users don’t have to fill out the form all over again.
There are many other examples, including offering different modes on your website that make it easier to use, making your site works with landscape touchscreens, and including an accessibility policy page. What’s required for your site will depend on its size, how much content is on the pages, if the website enables transactions, and other unique aspects.
How to Make ADA Changes to a Website
How does your site get from point A to point B for ADA compliance? There’s no single way for most success criteria listed in the WCAG: There are multiple options for a variety of different web design approaches, including ARIA, HTML, CSS, Silverlight, and more. There’s no single “right” choice for every website, but some options are more robust than others when considering the future of the internet and related technology.
This allows web developers to study how a site has been created, and which options are best for implementing accessibility efficiently. Sometimes the existing code of the website can be easily modified to include necessary features. In other cases, developers may recommend major changes to how the website has been created, and organizations may want to consider choosing an entirely different design or approach.
Where Does Your Business Begin with an ADA Update?
When making these decisions, it’s common to start with a website audit. Some of this can be accomplished with automatic auditing tools, like Axe, Dynomapper, Remediate, Wave, and many others. These tools generate reports indicating where it looks like there are accessibility problems (missing tags, etc.), and can even visually pinpoint on a page where these problems are. But this is only a starting place: There are accessibility issues that tools can’t catch, and an automatic report can’t choose the best way to address a problem.
This is where web developers are necessary to do a full site examination, and help organizations find the best ways to meet ADA compliance. The time an update takes depends on the size of the website, what the site needs to do, and what kind of content is on the site. For larger projects, this is also a good time for organizations to make other changes they have been wanting to make to their websites, and it can be easier to budget all changes under one umbrella.
In some cases, organizations will need to choose different colors, font styles, images, and logos for their site to meet accessibility goals. In this case, it’s often helpful to bring in a graphic designer or similar expert to help make new design decisions and ensure your website will look its best. If you are handling design in-house, there are a variety of tools to help choose color schemes with high contrast, proper fonts and text spacing, use of white space, and much more.
Blue Atlas Marketing Can Help Ensure Your ADA Compliance
Looking for help with your ADA update? Sometimes compliance projects are too large to handle without a partner, or it’s important to complete updates ASAP. In cases like these, contact Blue Atlas to talk about your website and your accessibility goals.
Our experts can help do a full site examination using the latest tools, so you know exactly what needs to be done. Our web developers are experienced in making accessibility updates when you are ready to begin, and our agency is happy to help your organization make decisions about new colors, logos, and other important design elements. Accessibility compliances doesn’t have to be tough – we’ll help make it easy!