Do Websites Have to Be ADA Compliant? For now, yes.

The Americans With Disabilities Act, Title III, requires businesses that are open to the public to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. But do websites have to be ADA compliant? The short answer is: in most states, businesses who do not have ADA compliant websites will, sooner or later, be subject to civil litigation.

In this post, we’ll cover ADA requirements for websites, the main causes of ADA compliance lawsuits, and what businesses can do to make their sites ADA compliant.

Do Websites Have to Be ADA Compliant?

The number of website accessibility related cases are on the rise. With restraints in state-level reporting it’s difficult to determine the exact number of cases filed, but The National Law Review notes that cases are up 75% from 2018 to 2020 with numbers continuing to rise.

In January of 1992, ADA Title III went into effect, requiring “places of public accommodation” to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. At that time, the World Wide Web was just five months old, so the ADA did not specify any regulations for websites as the focus of the statute was accessibility of businesses with physical locations, for example, ensuring they are accessible for wheelchair bound members of the public.

Thus, it is clear that any business with a brick-and-mortar location, even if it doesn’t serve the public, must comply with the ADA guidelines. That includes restaurants, public transportation terminals, gas stations, libraries, and many other types of businesses and establishments. What’s not clear is whether business websites are places of accommodation, and, thus, must also be ADA-compliant as assistive devices for blind individuals, for example, were not on the market at the time the ADA was created. We’ll discuss this point further below.

Do Small Businesses Have to Be ADA Compliant?

Despite the misinformation out there, ADA compliance doesn’t just apply to large companies. Regardless of size, businesses must comply with ADA rules and make “reasonable efforts” to accommodate people with disabilities.

Small business owners may not realize that the average settlement for non-compliance can be roughly $6-8,000, and that doesn’t include any state-level fines or attorney fees. Keep in mind that these settlements are for sites after they have become compliant and entered into a remediation plan.

In California, plaintiffs in disability discrimination cases may be entitled to three times the actual damages awarded, as well as a minimum of $4,000 in statutory damages, depending on the severity of the violations and the harm caused to the plaintiff. Even when businesses remediate violations, a civil suit may continue, if prosecutors can show more violations are likely to occur, or that a business has a culture or policy of discrimination that will persist.

Why Is There Confusion About ADA Website Compliance?

The confusion about ADA website compliance stems from one question: Is a website a place of public accommodation? If so, then it would need to be ADA-compliant. Courts have arrived at different conclusions when considering this question.

For the most part, the federal appellate courts have found that websites must be ADA compliant. For example, in 2019 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ADA applies to websites, a decision that has been similarly mirrored in the northeastern states, most notably New York.

In contrast, in April 2021, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals — which covers Alabama, Georgia, and Florida — held that websites are not places of public accommodation. This decision represented the first time a circuit had split from the majority.

While there may be a difference in interpretation between some federal circuits, businesses should not take that difference of opinion to mean they can ignore ADA compliance for their website. Not only does the 11th Circuit decision apply only to those jurisdictions that circuit, there may be state laws that parallel the ADA and which, thus, override it. Further, the decision in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals could be reversed by a Supreme Court decision if taken up on certiorari , a scenario that is likely to happen in the next term or in the very near future. It is also worth reiterating that making a website accessible is always the right thing to do, regardless of legislation.

Main Causes of ADA Compliance Lawsuits

ADA compliance lawsuits may arise when a person with a disability is unable to interact with a website or access its content. Civil lawsuits about website accessibility have included complaints about:

Lack of accessibility features

ADA-compliant websites should include alternative methods of accessing content and navigation. For example, content should be formatted in a way that assistive technologies can ‘read’ it, and images should include alt tags that describe their content.

Poor website functionality

Poor functionality can result in a negative experience for all users, not just people with disabilities. Examples of poor website functionality include a cumbersome checkout process, form fields that don’t function as expected, or confusing navigation.

Inaccessible technologies

Some website plug-ins or technologies might be incompatible with assistive devices or technology. Accessibility overlays, which are intended to detect inaccessible features, often fail to identify the majority of accessibility problems on a site.

What’s the Relationship Between ADA Laws and WCAG? Compliance?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide detailed and actionable guidance on how to improve website compliance. While the WCAG are not laws, plaintiffs in ADA digital accessibility cases have referenced WCAG language to demonstrate in what manner websites or other technology were inaccessible.

In addition to the ADA, federal agencies must be aware of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508, which defines accessibility requirements for federal agencies, and section 504, which defines how federal agencies must accommodate users with disabilities, are both based on the standards included in the WCAG.

Unlike the ADA guidelines, which have never been expanded to include guidance about websites, WCAG is an ever-evolving set of best practices. A working draft of WCAG 3.0 was released in 2021 and is expected to be finalized in a few years.

How to Make Your Website ADA-Compliant

An ADA-compliant website should account for users that have disabilities affecting vision, hearing, mobility, and/or cognition.

Visual disabilities

Following are some of the ways marketers and developers can make sites accessible for users with visual impairments:

  • Include alternatives for visual content — Any type of visual content should be accessible in a different way. For example, video clips and animation should have audio tracks that describe what action is occurring.
  • Optimize images — Users may need to zoom-in on images or graphics to see them, so images should be formatted to display well when enlarged.
  • Improve contrast — To ensure that users with low vision can read fonts that overlay a background or image, WCAG recommends a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1.
  • Ensure content is compatible with Braille keyboards — Users who are blind and deaf can access web content only with a refreshable Braille keyboard.

Hearing disabilities

These steps can greatly improve the experience of people who have partial or total hearing loss:

  • Provide captions — Users should be able to turn on captions for videos that also explain any sounds.
  • Add ASL for complex videos or topics — An inset video of an American Sign Language interpreter is preferable to overly long or complicated captions.
  • Include transcripts — Audio-only files should have accompanying transcripts.
  • Use visual and audible notifications — Sound effects and notifications should be accompanied by visual indicators.

Mobility disabilities

Website visitors may have limited range of motion, paralysis, or some other type of physical disability that limits how they can interact with content. These actions can help users with mobility disabilities access web content:

  • Ensure the site can be navigated by keyboard — Users who can’t use a mouse to scroll or select tabs should be able to move through a website using only their keyboard.
  • Increase the size of clickable areas — The WCAG specifies that clickable areas need to be 44 x 44 CSS pixels, with a few exceptions.
  • Make navigation controls consistent — Navigation should be consistent throughout a site (and this is another one of the rules that creates a better experience for all users).
  • Configure forms to accept voice input — Users may find it easier to complete forms if they can speak the requested information.

Cognitive disabilities

Improving accessibility for users with cognitive disabilities generally doesn’t require any advanced coding. These simple steps are considered best practices for delivering a better user experience, overall:

  • Avoid large blocks of text — Break text into smaller sections and use images, colors, and white space to define separate sections.
  • Use plain language and short sentences — The WCAG recommends the use of literal language, simple tense, and active voice. Keep sentences short, and avoid complex clauses.
  • Don’t use time limits — People with cognitive disabilities may need more time to read a piece of content or complete a form, and they may be frustrated when content or a form ‘times-out’. Either disable timers or allow users to manually request more time by clicking a button.
  • Make navigation predictable — Don’t confuse users with navigation that’s inconsistent or illogical.

Check Whether Your Website is ADA Compliant

If you’re asking yourself, “Does my website need to be ADA compliant?” you’re on the right track. Being aware of website accessibility is the first step toward improving it. But how do you determine whether your website is compliant with ADA and WCAG usability standards?

There are tools available that can scan a website and detect accessibility errors; however, the results of those scans might not show the complete picture. Generally, a combination of technology and human judgment is the best way to review a site’s accessibility.

Monsido offers a free website compliance scan that reveals how your website stacks up against WCAG criteria that are often referred to in ADA website accessibility disputes. What’s more, the Monsido platform can help you prioritize the errors that will have the biggest impact and document your progress towards a more accessible website experience. If you have been sued and are preparing a remediation plan, it is a requirement that you purchase a software similar to Monsido in order to get the case dismissed or a settlement agreement in place.

FAQ

Yes — and civil litigation regarding website accessibility is on the rise. If your site is not compliant, you should expect to be sued and to pay a settlement.