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What is ADA Compliance for Websites and Why Does it Matter?

If you are part of a business, and have an online presence (at the bare minimum a company website), or are interested in the online space and how it has quickly become an essential part of today’s business, then probably you have at least heard, in passing, about Website ADA Compliance.

ADA Compliance as a whole is nothing new, in that it was established in 1990, and signed into law by then President George H. W. Bush. It was at the time designed as a way to ensure that all Americans, regardless of disabilities, would not be discriminated against. It is similar in a sense to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but is distinguished in that it requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to both employees and customers. For the brick and mortar world, this meant such things as wheelchair access, disabled parking spaces, etc.

American Law

For 29 years, ADA Compliance was a law that was thought to be exclusive to the brick and mortar space. This however ostensibly changed overnight in October 2019 when the Supreme Court ruled that the Americans With Disabilities Act is not only applicable to physical retail stores, but also to online storefronts and presences, including both websites and apps. What followed was a slew of lawsuits aimed at websites that were not deemed ADA compliant, levied by law firms around the country who were representing individuals with disabilities. In fact, in 2019 and 2020, nearly 11,000 such lawsuits were filed in each of those years, many of which were settled out of court, but for large sums, and with the agreement that the website owner would also start immediate remediation. This last part is a bit tricky, because even today, the number of Web Designers, and Developers that truly know how to properly remediate, or, even design and develop a website from start to finish, while ensuring compliance, is infinitesimal.

Some would argue that a lot of what is happening right now with the ADA Compliance law, and the law-firms involved in the suits is a situation that is akin to the ambulance chasers of old. While it would be hard to argue that there are no instances of this happening, on the whole, this law and how it applies to a company’s online presence is a good thing, as it allows fair access to everyone. An argument could even be made that having the ADA compliance law applicable to the online space could help business owners in the long run, as it will undoubtedly “open up” their businesses to new potential customers that would never have even had the opportunity to engage with them in the past.

Now that we know a bit of the history of how a traditionally brick and mortar law has had it’s scope expanded into to the online space, and the general idea that if you are not compliant, you are liable to have a lawsuit levied against you, which will incur significant financial damages, let’s talk a bit about what ADA compliance for websites actually entails.

WCAG Levels

Due to the fast action by the Supreme Court, in their 2019 decision, the United States government had not yet created a “checklist” for websites to meet in order to be considered compliant. Instead, they opted to use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)set of standards, which was created by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This set of standards is still used today as the de facto set of standards applicable to Website ADA Compliance law. So now when someone asks you if your website is ADA Compliant, what they are really asking you is if it follows the A and AA rules set forth in this online version of the aforementioned WCAG standards. Obviously this list is too immense to go through in its entirety, but below we will detail some of the most pertinent, and “obvious issues” checklist. Just keep in mind that even if your website checks off all of the obvious ones, it is not deemed in compliance unless it checks off every single set of rules within the WCAG.

ADA Compliance “Obvious Issues” Checklist:

Phone Check Mark

1. Is your website responsive in nature? Meaning can it be viewed on Mobile, Tablet, and Desktop devices, and on those devices does the content and/or structure of the website conform to those devices?

This is a pretty easy one to understand, as most people now use their phones and other devices in addition to the more standard desktop devices. Because of this, most websites these days are responsive, but if you or your company has a website that is quite old, and was not built with responsiveness in mind, this may be an issue.

Computer Monitor with Contrast Indicator

2. Do the elements of your website have enough contrast in the colors that are used?

This can be a bit trickier to diagnose, but essentially you need to ensure a specific color contrast when dealing with ADA Compliance on your website. There are plenty of resources out there to help designers preview whether or not the various sections of the website they are designing will uphold this rule, but keep in mind that it does not simply need to be kept in mind for one element, or one page, but the entirety of a website.

Image Depicting Animation

3. Are there animations on the website that last longer than 5 seconds?

Any element on a website that is animated, whether that be a logo, video, or text to name a few, cannot last longer than 5 seconds, unless there is a way for the user to stop the animation.

Laptop Displaying Alternative Text Issues

4. Do all images on the website that contain information have appropriately labeled alternative texts?

Any image that contains or conveys information to the end user needs to have appropriately labeled alternative texts added to them. The reason for this is that if someone with a visual impairment is browsing the website using a screen reader, they may not be able to see the image itself, but with a well thought out and descriptive alternate text label (which screen readers will read aloud), they will still be able to get the same information that the website is attempting to convey visually.

Now I know that this is only 4 items from a set of standards that numbers in the hundreds, but it is a good place to start in order to figure out if your website is truly ADA Compliant or not. That being said, when in doubt, it makes the most sense to hire a professional website design and development team with experience in ADA Compliance, to take a look at the website in question and give a fair assessment.

This article is the first in a series that we will be writing, which will attempt to tackle many aspects of Website ADA Compliance. Think of this first one as a primer on the history, why it matters, and a taste of the many rules that dictate whether you are in compliance or not.


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