Are Websites Required to Be ADA Compliant?

Disabled people living in the USA and all over the globe have often been maligned due to their limitations. The government deserves the credit for enforcing standards that people should follow when building, designing, and coming up with structures that keep these people in mind and enables them to access the facilities the same way ordinary people do. Well, it is a tough thing to cover all the areas where people with disabilities are affected, as it basically touches all aspects of life.

The internet has experienced a meteoric rise in the past decade, and it is no surprise seeing the authorities advocating for the rights of people with disabilities on online platforms. It has become a severe issue to the extent that businesses with sites are being slapped with hefty fines for not keeping the disabled in mind when designing their websites.

If you have a website, it is fundamental to abide by these regulations if you do not want to find yourself on the wrong side of the law. There is a lot behind it, and this piece will outline all the essential information you should know about ADA compliance. Read on.

What is ADA Compliance?

ADA Graphic
Americans with Disabilities Act

ADA, the acronym for Americans with Disabilities Act, is an extensive section of the law that was put in place to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. These individuals are often discriminated directly or indirectly due to their inability to do some things because of their limitations. ADA has a broad scope and covers most of the things we interact with or do in our day to day lives. Some of the everyday products of the ADA include disabled parking spaces, guidelines on service counters, wheelchair ramps among others.

One of the earliest statements of ADA indicated that “all public places are required to remove any access barriers that would hinder a disabled person from accessing the goods and services available in that space.” This was first enacted in 1990, and it was targeted at physical barriers such as stairs that would make it hard for someone in a wheelchair to move around.

The internet was just starting in 1990, but owing to how it has risen to prominence in recent years, it was only a matter of time before ADA shifted to it. In 2010, the United States Department of Justice issued a statement saying that they wanted to amend ADA to cover website accessibility as well. The announcement was very clear and it brought out the intention to “establish requirements for making commodities, privileges, and advantages offered by areas of public accommodation through the internet, specifically at sites on the web accessible to people with disabilities.”

As much as this statement might seem to have a clear intention, it was interpreted differently and led to mixed reactions. The term “places of public accommodation” has not been explained succinctly, and some courts have ruled that sites with goods and services tied to a specific location are the only ones covered by this clause.

History of Web Accessibility Guidelines in the US

President Bush Signing the Americans With Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990.
President Bush Signing the Americans With Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990.

The history of including web applications in the ADA is more complicated than it seems. It can be confusing since the guidelines are in place but companies are not legally bound to apply them in the US. However, the lawsuits against companies that have not enforced these standards are numerous and this leaves a lot to wonder about. To understand this better, it helps to go back in time and track the development of ADA from when it was signed into law by President George H.W Bush.

The ADA is divided into titles, and after it was signed into law, the DOJ gave its final remarks about title II and III but nothing was mentioned about website accessibility. Basically, Title II covers government institutions both federal and local. It advocates for the rights of persons with a disability when seeking services offered by government institutions. Title III covers discrimination of persons with disabilities in places of public accommodations and this refers to businesses that are open to the public categorized in twelve distinct groups. An eCommerce website falls under Title III.

Introduction of Section 508

Screen Shot of website.

Over the years, the internet started defining various operations, and the DOJ released a statement aimed at explaining how a person with disabilities can be covered in these interactions. The publication was called the Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities to offer the government entities a clear direction on how to ensure their websites are accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 was under Title II and no amendment was done on Title III which covers businesses. The law covered government entities but it confused entities that conducted online businesses with government entities.

The process of enforcing website accessibility laws kicked off in 2004 when the DOJ began updating some of the 1991 regulations. They published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and allowed the public to give their input. In 2008 they addressed the matters raised from the public input and sought additional comments. Both the 2004 ANPRM and the 2008 one did not include a section for giving web accessibility provisions despite public input advocating for the same. The following amendments were rolled out in January 2009 and several updates were introduced in a bid to pursue the mandate of the ADA.

The first real attempt to include web accessibility provision came in July 2010, where the DOJ rolled out an ANPRM called Non-Discrimination on Basis of Disability; Accessibility of Web Information and Services of Government and Places of Public Accommodations. Later on, Titles II and III were revised, but they did not include web accessibility.

However, it all became apparent in 2015 when the DOJ gave a statement that included three paragraphs on web accessibility. It stated that it was impractical to separate government and public websites when it comes to web accessibility as they are tied in some way. It further highlighted that public entities are offering people government services through their websites and due to this, the department is planning to change the regulation so that public entities are required to make their sites accessible by people with disabilities.

It has been seen that there is no set of regulations clearly specifying that your business should be ADA compliant, but this does not mean that you should disregard it. The DOJ is currently determining the specific laws but website discrimination cannot be tolerated even if the rules are not yet out. The DOJ’s position was clarified publicly and it stated that “The Department is currently coming up with regulations addressing the accessibility of commodities offered by the internet. The fact that the process is still underway should in no way dictate that web services are not captured by title III.”

Impact of ADA Compliance on Your Business

It is easy to try and interpret the statement by the DOJ in your own way if you want to retain your website design. However, this is risky as the lawsuits might start coming and make you lose much more money. This way, it is vital to make sure that you are compliant, and this can be achieved in many ways.

First, you need to understand the rules surrounding compliance so that you tweak your site the right way. Here are some of them;

The ADA Title III Compliance

This section prohibits discrimination of persons with disabilities in places of public accommodation that might fall in one of the following twelve groups; movie theaters, restaurants, schools, daycare facilities, recreation facilities, doctors’ office and private commercial facilities such as office buildings. This compliance clause has stretched to e-commerce and online sites that people use to access services. They should be designed in such a way that people with disabilities can comfortably access the services.

The WCAG 2.1 Compliance

This set of standards, called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, explains how to make web content more accessible to persons with disabilities. Accessibility in this scope involves several disabilities such as visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language and neurological among others. The guidelines under this clause are extensive and try to cover most of the common disabilities, but it can only do so much and does not address the needs of people with all types of disabilities.

These standards were developed through the World Wide Web Consortium process in collaboration with interested parties across the world. They define how “web content” should be presented, and this refers to the information on web pages and applications. It is intended for web content developers, web developers, owners of these websites, and anyone who might want to develop a standard site.

These standards are defined by layers of guidance, owing to how technical they are. The four principles, perceivable, operable, understandable and robust, describe what a standard website should be. The laws are at the highest level and under them are the guidelines that give developers and authors the targets they should be working to achieve to make content accessible to these people. These guidelines provide a framework and overall direction to be taken by developers. Next is the success criteria which are testable and provided to determine if each guideline has been achieved. To help achieve this, three levels of conformance have been defined to meet the needs of different groups.

For each guideline, the group has devised the possible techniques that can be used to achieve these objectives. The WCAG21 is a technical document with general and precise specifications and ensures that your web developer understands what is expected of your site before launching it.

Section 508 Compliance

Section 508 has been around for a long time, and it has undergone updates as seen in the history of ADA compliance. It is a technical clause as well and instructs you to update your policies based on the new standards. Examples of some of the things it states include;

  • Entities should identify the needs of people with disabilities when initiating ICT efforts.
  • They should ensure authoring tools support the creation of accessible content.
  • They should make sure categories of internal-facing electronic content are accessible.
  • Meet the revised criteria and address requirements.
  • Provide another means of access for people with disabilities when claiming exceptions.
  • Address new functional performance criteria.

Note that the accessibility requirements have changed, and if your business was section 508 compliant a few years ago, it might not be now. There are new standards for electronic content, software, hardware and support services attached to WCAG above.

EN 301 549 Compliance

These standards apply to ICT services within Europe. Your site might be compliant with the rules in the USA but it might be accessed by people within Europe. This way, you might want to ensure that it abides by the EU standard. This compliance document is a technical one outlining the standards applicable to ICT products and services, plus a description of the test processes and evaluation methods for each requirement to avoid contradiction. It should form the basis for an accessible ICT procurement kit to enable businesses to purchase items that are in line with what is expected.

The standards are more than the ones mentioned, and it all depends on the area your company operates from. If you run a global company, you will find that some of the standards that apply to the USA are somewhat different from those in Israel and you should find a perfect balance to ensure that you do not land in trouble regardless of where you offer your services.

How To Make Your Site ADA Compliant

UX Design, Interface, Navigation, Structuring, Design, HCI, User Research, Usability, Accessibility
User Experience Design for ADA Compliant Websites

The chances are high that you have already been overwhelmed by all these ADA compliance stuff. Well, the standards are technical, and it takes some time to read through them, understand and start implementing them without halting operations or changing a lot about your existing infrastructure.

Well, if you want to be compliant within a short time and in a stress-free way, it is best to find an expert who will handle all the work and enhance your website. These experts handle multiple sites with compliance issues and are always on top of the ever-changing standards.

The team at PERC are experts at ensuring compliance and will handle your site individually through a couple of well-defined steps.

First, they will conduct an extensive web audit to identify sections of your site that are not compliant. You might read through the technical stuff and get scared only to find that your website only requires a few tweaks. A considerable percentage of the remediation is done by their team and a report will be presented for any content or section that needs to be changed, replaced or deleted. These proposed changes will be accompanied by the estimated cost required to do this work. Once you agree to the charges and changes to be made, the team will commence their work and will give you an accessibility certificate when the changes have been implemented. This whole process can be done within 48 hours but it depends on how your site is and what changes are supposed to be done.

Your site will remain compliant with the help of the plugins AI, which updates the website as the regulations change. This way, you won’t have to worry about compliance at all.

Benefits of Staying Compliant

Graphical display of the words - World Without Barriers
Let’s Make it A World Without Barriers Together

You might think that the government is being hard on you by forcing you to be ADA compliant. However, being compliant is actually good for your business if you look at it keenly.

Compliance increases your target audience, looking at the number of people who are registered as persons with disabilities. Some of these people might be interested in the services you have in store but fail to access your site and company due to their disabilities. Over 26% of the US population has some sort of disability. Many of those people need products and services that you offer.

ADA compliance is good for your SEO. Search engine crawlers are becoming more intelligent and can crawl pages in the same way that human beings do. With the WCAG specifying the importance of accessibility of screen readers, your SEO might benefit if the crawler finds that it meets the set guidelines. This implies that your site appeals to users better and thus enhance your SEO efforts.

The number of lawsuits companies are being hit with over the last few years is increasing exponentially, and they can drag your business down and soil its reputation. Some of these lawsuits are about simple web design changes that you can make and ensure that you are on the right side of the law. Avoid penalties that will take a huge financial toll on your business and stay compliant.

All the essential things surrounding ADA compliance and where it came from have been discussed. It is vital to make sure that your site is well designed according to the specifications and for the benefit of the people with disabilities who might want to access your services.

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Xavier Berkness

Xavier Berkness is the President of PERC, a renowned Digital Marketing Company. With an impressive career spanning over two decades since 1996, Xavier has earned a reputation as a leader in the field of digital marketing. He has leveraged his deep understanding and expertise in building websites to author a highly-regarded book, 'Mastering On-Page Optimization - The Secret Sauce of an SEO System.' Xavier's impactful contributions to the industry have been recognized in a Star Tribune feature, where he was hailed as a 'Mover and Shaker.' Outside the professional realm, Xavier is a nature lover who cherishes time spent near the ocean. He continues to fuel his passion for digital marketing, relentlessly seeking new knowledge and strategies every day. His combination of professional prowess and personal charm make Xavier a trusted authority in the digital marketing industry.