Details on ADA Legislation and WCAG
Is your website ready for all visitors? According to United States law, business websites have an obligation to comply with accessibility standards – in other words, it needs to be usable by individuals with disabilities. This is why the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, first passed in 1990, is such an important law for any business running a website to understand.
We’re helping brands out with our in-depth look at the ADA, how it affects websites, and how guidelines like the WCAG 2.1 can help companies achieve compliance without worrying about costly liability issues.
Important ADA Basics
The Americans with Disabilities was a piece of civil rights legislation that went into effect in the early 1990s. It was designed to provide individuals with disabilities similar protections as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but extended to disability. It focuses on prohibiting any discrimination that individuals with disabilities may face when applying for jobs, using vital services or infrastructure, or conducting everyday business.
This equal opportunity law requires organizations to, within reason, make sure that those with disabilities have the same access to what those organizations offer as everyone else does. In this context, a disability can refer to a wide range of physical or mental impairments that limit major life activities (more specifics on this below). This includes disabilities that could make operating or understanding a website more difficult, including vision impairments, the inability to use a mouse, or hearing impairments.
ADA Titles and Why Title III is So Important
The ADA is divided into five primary Titles. These Titles name specific entities or activities that are covered under the law and must observe its anti-discrimination policies. For the average American business, Title III is the most important, as it covers a sector known as “public accommodations and commercial facilities.”
Title III’s goal is clear: It’s intended to cover where individuals in America may go to shop, be entertained, use services, or conduct a variety of business. The section even refers to 12 different categories that count as public accommodations. These cover places like:
- Banks / Credit Unions
- Retail stores
- Movie theaters
- Recreation facilities
- Doctors’ offices and clinics
- Office buildings
As you can see, the definition of public accommodations is comprehensive enough to include almost every business and nonprofit in the United States.
The ADA is primarily focused on describing physical changes that businesses can make for those with disabilities, and includes robust standards for building design, and important additions. That includes common examples like ramps for wheelchair access and mobility features in bathrooms. Over time, as more technology was used in the business world, the federal government had to decide if the ADA should also apply to websites that offer products and services. This is still a nebulous area, but courts and the Department of Justice appear to lean toward including all websites as public accommodations as well – especially if they have any connection to a brick-and-mortar store. That could land some businesses in trouble, which we will discuss more below.
If you’re curious about what the other four titles apply to, they involve:
- Title I: This covers employment and discusses how employees should provide reasonable accommodation for those applying to jobs and avoid discrimination on the basis of disability when it comes to employees.
- Title II: This covers public services instead of private organizations. It generally applies the same anti-discrimination rules to state and local governments, along with other authorities in the country.
- Title IV: Title IV specifically covers telecommunications companies that offer important communication services to the public.
- Title V: Title V is a collection of miscellaneous specifications and protections, including banning retaliation again individuals with disabilities who are asserting their rights under the ADA.
ADA History and Updates to Individuals Covered
As with many important federal laws, the ADA has seen updates over time. These can be literal updates to the Act itself providing more information or new mandates, or they can be court cases and other official notices that provide clarification on what the ADA means.
This created certain issues with the ADA. For example, in 1999 and 2002, the United States Supreme Court made landmark rulings limiting the application of the ADA, particularly when concerning the definition of a “disability” and the role of medication. This caused the National Council on Disability to issue a report in the mid-2000s recommending a large-scale update of the ADA to restore certain protections and adhere to its original intent.
These changes in turn led to the ADA Amendments Act, signed into law in 2008. This law expanded and clarified the definition of disability within the Act. It does not specifically name all covered disabilities, but now uses the definition: “A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”
Other minor changes have also been added to the ADA and related standards – you can find out more with the ADA’s own timeline of events.
Understanding the WCAG
As we mentioned, the ADA primarily discusses physical building and physical access to services and was only later applied to websites. So, how does a business know if its website is compliant with the ADA? While the ADA itself doesn’t have much to say about this, other government regulations make a point to refer to the WCAG, or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
The WCAG (currently on its 2.1 version, soon to be updated to 2.2) is an international collection of guidelines created by experts around the world. It specifies what websites should do to create an accessible site, with success states determined by what individuals with disabilities are able to do.
We discuss the WCAG 2.1 in greater depth in our other guides. For now, understand that it’s one of the best possible tools to use to achieve ADA compliance on your website. The WCAG is also divided into different Levels – A, AA, and AAA. To achieve the best results, organizations must strive to meet at least Level AA standards (AAA is primarily reserved for government websites). So, when someone says “ADA compliant” that can also mean following the basic Level AA requirements of the WCAG.
Examples of Making a Website ADA Compliant Using the WCAG
The WCAG focuses primarily on what accessible websites should be able to do. While the guidelines do include some coding suggestions on how to do this, web developers can pick the best approach for their current situation and the type of website that they are working with. That could mean using HTML5 tags, or adding ARIA categories to different parts of a webpage. Let’s look at some common changes that today’s business sites are making for accessibility:
- Adding descriptive alt tags for images so screen readers can more easily interpret them.
- Tagging web forms, CTAs, and other elements with clear identification so screen readers can report useful information instead of confusing users.
- Choosing high contrast colors, especially for foreground and background elements.
- Picking text that is large and well-spaced, which is friendly for magnification.
- Adding captions and subtitles for any included video, as well as transcripts for important podcasts, etc.
- Using a website design that’s friendly for keyboard navigation. That means making sure that Tab and Shift navigation between buttons or links makes sense, instead of skipping around. It can also mean including a shortcut button to get right to important actions and avoiding any website shortcuts that interfere with the keyboard shortcuts users may already prefer.
- Checking that all website navigation and elements can be accessed with a touchscreen or mobile device, in both vertical and landscape modes.
- Keeping a consistent layout through all parts of the website so that content is easy to understand. This means using headers and text grouping in a logical way.
- Describing anchor text for links so it’s obvious where the link goes.
Can Missing ADA Compliance Get Your Business in Trouble?
Yes, it can. Recently, we’ve seen an uptick in lawsuits against businesses running websites that don’t meet ADA compliance, especially retail businesses. These lawsuits are often filed in courts where case law has a broad interpretation of public accommodations, and typically seek a quick settlement. While frustrating, this surge in lawsuits underlines why it’s important for businesses to understand the ADA and double-check that their websites are compliant.
The ADA, Websites, and the “Readily Achievable” Metric
If you dig into the ADA’s specific language, you will note that it uses language like “readily achievable” and “reasonable” to limit the kind of changes a business is expected to make. One common example is construction: If a building needs a massive remodel to add wider hallways for accessibility, that probably won’t pass the “readily achievable” expectation. Businesses are expected to do what they can as long as it isn’t an undue burden on the company.
Websites are a bit different. While clarification is still ongoing, website changes are considered readily achievable, as they don’t require significant real-world remodeling.
Avoiding Overlays and Widgets to Achieve Compliance as Your Only Defense
Certain accessibility solutions offer overlays and widgets to “add” accessibility features to a website, usually in a toolbar or similar interface. This approach has serious flaws and should not be your only line of defense for a number of reasons, including:
- Overlays require visitors to identify and select buttons or tools, which may not be possible if a website has accessibility issues like contrast or keyboard navigation problems.
- Overlays offer a limited number of solutions, typically magnification, screen readers, color filters, and so on. But they cannot affect other types of content, such as captions for videos, identifying tags for web forms, etc.
- These overlays may not be compatible with the screen readers or keyboard shortcuts that visitors are already using, rendering them useless or even interfering with other assistive technologies.
- Also, remember that increases in lawsuits with an eye on quick settlements we mentioned? Those lawsuits often target technical details that a basic overlay won’t address, so this isn’t a good way to avoid liability. It’s important to dig into the details when optimizing a website for accessibility, and make foundational changes.
Finding Professional Help for ADA Compliance
Updating a website with ADA in mind can be a challenge for in-house teams, especially if your goal is to reduce liability concerns when it comes to potential lawsuits. You need an experienced, professional agency that can help you reach compliance goals. Blue Atlas Marketing offers the auditing tools, developers, and recommendations to reach ADA compliance for all kinds of websites. Contact us today to arrange a discussion and learn more about our services.