The question "is my website ADA compliant?" is frequently asked among business owners, municipality officers, online entrepreneurs, and even publishers. But is failing to operate an ADA-compliant website subject to legal consequences? And are there SEO implications involved?
In a highly digital world where accessibility to web content is equally essential as accessibility into a building or venue, those with disabilities should not be limited to receiving the information and content they need online. That’s where the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) comes in.
The ADA is one of the most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation intended to prohibit discrimination and guarantee that individuals with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life. While ADA released a best practices tool kit in 2007 for website accessibility, the legal requirements and enforcement standards aren’t the clearest.
For the average online business owner, blogger, or website owner, it’s unlikely that you’ll encounter any legal problems for having minor accessibility issues on your website. However, public-facing businesses like retailers and hoteliers are required to meet such compliance standards.
Addressing these issues is not only a way to reduce the likelihood of potential complaints and lawsuits; it also supports your website’s SEO and overall usability.
ADA website compliance refers to the regulations set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which passed in 1990 as a protective measure that ensures all Americans have the same access to services whether they are in a wheelchair, blind, or deaf.
The ADA is the reason that all physical locations & buildings must be wheelchair accessible, and elevators are installed in buildings that have more than one floor. It’s also why all signs must be accompanied by a braille translation. The ADA does not only regulate physical accessibility, it also regulates online accessibility to services (i.e., your website).
For some companies, mainly medium and larger-sized organizations and brands, failing to meet ADA requirements can lead to hefty fines and accessibility lawsuits. Nike, Hershey, Amazon, and a handful of other brands are just a few examples of the global corporations that have faced lawsuits due to not meeting ADA standards.
Digital accessibility ensures that people with disabilities are granted equal access to information on a website. According to the ADA and Department of Justice, accessible website content is considered just important as the accessibility to a business's physical location.
As summarized by ADA.gov,
Poorly designed websites can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities, just as poorly designed buildings prevent some people with disabilities from entering. Access problems often occur because website designers mistakenly assume that everyone sees and accesses a webpage in the same way. This mistaken assumption can frustrate assistive technologies and their users. Accessible website design recognizes these differences and does not require people to see, hear, or use a standard mouse in order to access the information and services provided.
So, what types of businesses are required by law to abide by ADA compliance standards? ADA website compliance is legally required by government agencies at the local, state, and national levels as well as businesses that are open to the public. The latter, which is also referred to as "public accommodations" under the ADA's Title III, is most relevant to the greater business community and includes organizations like:
In order for your website to be ADA-compliant, it must be easily accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. In simple terms, accessibility standards are achieved by:
For more insights and background, visit the ADA’s official Department of Justice (DOJ) page on the Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities.
To better understand how to make a website ADA compliant, there are four major categories of website accessibility defined by the ADA: operable, perceivable, robust, and understandable.
Your website must be fully accessible through both mouse and keyboard. A user with a muscular condition that cannot operate a mouse needs to be able to navigate through and use all functions on your website just as easily with their keyboard alone as they could with a mouse. This includes all navigation menus, search bars, and any automated features such as chat boxes. Your website must also be fully accessible through mobile devices.
You can check your website for operable compliance right now by attempting to navigate each page and section using only your tab button. If this isn’t possible on your website, you will need to update it so that users can navigate it this way.
This refers to the ability of your website to be perceived in multiple ways. ADA "perceivability" compliance requires that your website have audio descriptions for all media such as images and videos so that those who are visually impaired can hear it through their screen reading software. You will also want to disable auto-play for any videos.
A robust website is one that can be easily accessed through all levels of technology, providing the same experience to all users. In addition to offering a responsive website that clearly renders across all devices, this also includes screen reading software for the visually impaired, which requires complete transcripts for all videos.
Your website must be easily digestible by all who use it. This requires your text to be easy to read in terms of visual presentation and wording and style. You want your website to be written in a conversational style and without any unnecessary vocabulary so that all users can read or hear the text on your website in a way that is easy to understand.
Even if you are not legally required to have an ADA-compliant website, taking the extra measures to build one is a surefire way to boost your site’s SEO and user experience design, regardless of disability.
Alt Text is a common SEO practice that was created out of ADA compliance requirements. Short for “alternative text,” Alt Text is simply descriptions that explain what specific photos, images, and graphics are for users who cannot view the content in its entirety.
Easily digestible titles, headings, meta descriptions, and complete video transcriptions are other ways that can help ensure your website is ADA compliant as well as support your website’s SEO performance. When your content is easily accessible to all users, it is also easily indexable by Googlebot as it crawls through each of your web pages, one of the top goals of SEO.
Similarly, keeping all webpage copy in an HTML or text-based format is important for accessibility and SEO. In other words, avoid the use of text in images and graphics, or in a way that cannot be parsed or indexed. In short, make sure all content is easily understood and accessible by both Google and users.
Case in point - ADA compliant websites easily stand out from non-compliant websites and are great for SEO. Learn more from Lea Scudamore on why accessibility is suitable for both users and SEO. We also recommend this overview of accessibility for different disability types, and Media Sesh's review of SEO & alt text.
The cost of building a website that is ADA compliant is far less than the cost of penalties and lawsuits that can ensue from non-compliance. According to a report by UsableNet, there were over 3,550 lawsuits filed against businesses with noncompliant websites in 2020 alone.
That number is expected to increase in 2021 as it has in the past three years with a 150% annual growth rate.
First-time violations for ADA website noncompliance have ranged between $55,000 - $75,000 fines, with repeat violations costing businesses upwards of $150,000. Nonprofit organizations can even lose their funding if their website is found to be non-compliant.
For most organizations, the cost of a website will be far less than $55,000, let alone $150,000. In turn, it’s smarter to invest in an ADA-compliant website now rather than risking hefty fines later on.
The other costs come in terms of your users - what revenue are you leaving on the table by not making your site accessible to all buyers?
The first step in implementing website accessibility is to test your current website for compliance issues. There are several evaluation tools that you can use to test a website for ADA compliance, such as Wave, Lighthouse, and SortSite.
These services offer some variation of a free service either through a free trial or a free assessment, with the ability to pay more for an in-depth report. It’s worth signing up for a paid subscription or paying for an in-depth report to ensure that you are aware of all compliance violations today and in the future.
It’s also worth checking out the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a non-profit organization and leading source for ADA website compliance, including their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG, and WCAG 2.)
If you’re operating a WordPress site, there are handy plugins like Accessibility Suite, WP Accessibility Helper (WAH), and WP ADA Compliance Check. These plugins help take the guesswork out of the equation and are designed to continuously check for ADA compliance on WordPress websites.
NOTE that "passing the test" of any individual online tool likely does not magically mean your website is compliant. That's why we always recommend either a manual accessibility audit, or getting professional help.
You can also run a manual accessibility audit on your website. This is a good option if you don’t want to pay for an ADA compliance tool subscription or if you want to immerse yourself in ADA compliance requirements.
To run a manual accessibility audit, you will need to go through your website page by page using a checklist to know what to look for. W3C offers the most in-depth guidelines and checklist for a manual accessibility audit.
You might consider testing a screen reader yourself, to actually experience what it's like to consume your own website through this medium.
When it comes to improving your site’s website compliance and accessibility standards, leveraging the right tools to automate and streamline your efforts can be immensely helpful. Two accessibility audit tools that we're advocates of include:
If you are feeling lost when it comes to auditing your website for ADA compliance, it might be wise to hire a professional website service that specializes in ADA compliance regulation. This is ideal if you have a large website (especially eCommerce) and do not have the right in-house team or time to do an accessibility assessment on your own.
A professional ADA compliance service can break down any compliance violations from the most difficult and most pressing to easiest to fix. They can also provide you with an estimate of what it would cost to correct these violations. You may be surprised to learn that some fixes are straightforward and doable yourself, while others require some programming and are best left to a professional.
While accessibility testing is not mandatory, it’s the best defense for safeguarding your business from significant non-compliance fines and lawsuits. Amazon might have the necessary capital and legal team to fight in court, but do you?
While your website is the only online presence, you are legally required to make ADA compliant, making other parts of your online activity accessible can be helpful to your users and your image.
Here are a few considerations for your social media properties as a way to adopt a more compliant approach:
You can boost your online image by representing disabled persons in your media through images and artwork that include disabled persons; you can also help make your business more accessible by hiring disabled people and better understanding their challenges.
There are many interesting choices to evaluate here - so don’t limit yourself to the obvious answers of the past. Instead, explore creative options that work for you AND your audience!
They are several ADA compliance levels to choose from, depending on your goals.
Assuming your brand is a non-government organization that simply wants to reduce the chances of a lawsuit the compliance level you might consider aiming for is WCAG 2.0 Level AA (Acceptable Compliance.)*
If true user accessibility is a goal, instead aim for AAA (Optimal Compliance.)
An ADA-compliant website is good for your SEO, but there is more to search engine optimization than what is addressed through complying with ADA regulations (vice versa is also very true!) If you need some help maximizing your SEO potential and rankability, The Gray Dot Company can help. Contact us today to get started on building a robust online presence that ranks high in search results and brings in more visitors of all abilities.
*This statement, as post as a whole, is not legal advice. If you have legal questions about your level of compliance for accessibility please seek legal counsel.