Having an ADA compliant website is critical in ensuring people with disabilities can consume your content. Ultimately, the goal is to improve the quality and accessibility of websites across the world.

Does your website need to be ADA compliant by law?

According to the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), electronic media such as websites must be fully accessible to persons with disabilities.

In addition to prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, transportation, communications, and government activities, the ADA has guidelines for websites.

In short, businesses must publish content that is accessible to users who are partially or fully deaf or blind. This includes those who use screen readers, voice, or other assistive technology.

This applies to businesses that fall under Title I & Title III as per the ADA regulations. Namely, businesses operating for 20 weeks or more yearly with 15 or more full-time employees. Title III of the ADA relates to businesses that are under “public accommodation”. This includes restaurants, recreation facilities, and many others that are open to the public.

What does it take to have an ADA compliant website?

Website developers will quickly discover that ADA compliance is tricky. The ADA doesn’t provide the exact steps for creating an accessible website. This is for two reasons – because of the complexity of website design, and the unique needs of people with disabilities.

Unfortunately, many website owners think that accessibility features are optional or too difficult.

Gil vs. Winn-Dixie was a great example, showing that someone who’s legally blind couldn’t use Winn-Dixie’s website. Basically, it did not accommodate screen-reading software.

When it comes to specific accessibility guidelines, many web developers and designers turn to the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) produces these guidelines. Its role is to develop open standards that ensure long-term web growth.

What are the WCAG guidelines for website accessibility?

The WCAG guidelines consider a website to be ‘accessible’ if it meets certain criteria. It must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

Perceivable

Content must be shown in such a way that all users can understand.

Online content should be available in several formats. For instance, instead of burning text into images, you should place screen-readable text nearby, such as a caption.

UI components such as action buttons, should have sufficient contrast between the text and the background color.

Operable

An operable website is one that is easy to use and navigate.

Such websites may have keyboard shortcuts or accommodate voice prompts that allow people with disabilities to navigate and access content easily. Remember, using a mouse isn’t possible for some people. Think about touch screens, pointer gestures, and of course keyboard inputs.

Understandable

Content must be easy-to-use and easily understood by a wide audience.

For this guideline, content needs to be readable and displayed clearly. Having a lot of jargon, complex language and abbreviations is definitely a no-no. Further, businesses should avoid disruptive page animations, popups, and other UI effects that require users to ‘learn’ how to use the website.

Robust

Websites should be accessible using a variety of devices & technologies.

Basically, a website needs to adhere to international coding standards.

For a business, that’s a lot to take in. The best bet would be to engage an experienced developer to build the website following a range of equal access requirements.

What is the WCAG grading system?

WCAG guidelines have three levels, namely; A, AA, and AAA representing the most basic, average and strictest adherence to website accessibility standards.

Level A is a good start. Many government agencies use Level AA as the benchmark for their websites. This level addresses the most common issues confronting website users with disabilities.

AAA is difficult to achieve, which is why it’s rather aspirational. Businesses would have a very hard time meeting all of the criteria required. There are very few (if any) notable examples of AAA websites to mention here.

How to tell if your website is ADA compliant?

Online tools are available, which scan websites to see if they are compliant. Manual checks by human experts are the most reliable and accurate evaluation method. You can even do this yourself when you know what to look for.

TL;DR – here’s an excellent video walkthrough from a Google developer explaining how to do an accessibility review of any website:

How to make a website ADA compliant

First, you may wish to focus on the following elements. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a great start. Using WordPress for your business website can also make compliance easier to accomplish.

Flickering or blinking content

Some webpage flickering is inevitable while the page loads, but it shouldn’t be intentional or too frequent. The main concern is that it may trigger individuals who have photosensitive epilepsy. As a general rule, content shouldn’t flicker any more than 3 times a second.

Color-reliant content 

If you have content that relies solely on color to convey information, your site isn’t compliant. Using different colors as the only way to distinguish content (e.g. product categories) can pose challenges to people who are colorblind.

Color can be very useful in conveying concepts and ideas. It’s often used in conjunction with elements, such as text and shapes.

Images lacking alternative text

People with vision disabilities use assistive technologies to surf websites. These technologies, such as screen readers, read text aloud to the user. Images lacking “alt text” can go unread, compromising the experience of these individuals.

Images, audio and video should always have “alt” text when embedded into an HTML page. This so that people with visual impairments can read or hear content they might not be able to see.

Inaccessible Captchas

Captchas are an important security feature for sites. They help to identify real human visitors by presenting a visual code or challenge task. However, an image-only Captcha can make it tricky for the visually impaired to complete. Audio and text options should be present as well.

Missing transcripts for video and audio content 

Websites with video and audio files should have transcripts for visitors with hearing impairments. What’s more, the text should be accurate and include descriptions of included sounds (if any).

YouTube content is especially useful in this regard. Subtitles can be shown automatically, and in different languages.

Missing form field validation messages 

Alternatives and suggestions triggered by input errors help users navigate online forms when they are entering data. Online forms need to have clear field labels and validation error messages.

Everyone is familiar with filling online forms. Ordering products, contacting your business, signing up for newsletters, etc. all require some kind of form input. Those forms should interact well with screen reader tools. Form fields should be accurately labeled so that people can perform critical actions on your website.

What are the benefits of an ADA compliant website?

Having a compliant website is beneficial in the following ways:

i. Better user experience (UX)

The most obvious benefit is a better UX for everyone who visits the website. Remember, this is all about removing unnecessary barriers to your online content.

Examples of common barriers include:

  • images that lack a text equivalent (called “alt text”)
  • documents and files that use non-standard formats
  • problems with website colors, contrast and font sizes
  • rich media with no subtitles, such as video and audio content

Each of these barriers will prevent people from accessing and consuming your content. This means fewer people who are able to purchase your products, submit contact forms, or become familiar with your services. As you might expect, this is a big deal for any business trying to be successful online.

ii. Increased traffic and sales

Accessible websites also stand to improve their organic traffic and sales. This is typically a result of ranking better in search engines, improved conversion rates, and increased consumer loyalty/satisfaction rates.

Google, among other top search engines, are getting better at highlighting businesses that have achieved ADA website compliance. Accessible websites rank higher than their inaccessible counterparts, which in theory should translate into more traffic.

If website users have problems completing forms and making purchases, this may result in a high exit rate. This will negatively impact a site’s ranking on search engines. Website accessibility is therefore good for SEO. It’s also good for society.

Failing to have an ADA compliant website can open a business to legal action and a damaged reputation. Many businesses and personalities have been sued for breaches of ADA compliance.

Another notable case was that of a popular American singer. In 2019, Beyonce’s website was subject to an ADA compliance lawsuit.

The lawsuit filed against Parkwood Entertainment (the company that runs Beyonce.com), claimed that Beyonce’s official website violated the ADA.

According to the lawsuit, the site wasn’t accessible to blind users since its images lacked “alt” text. The site also lacked accessible dropdown menus and the ability to browse using a keyboard. This made it nearly impossible for blind users to navigate the site.

Conclusion

In summary, publishing an ADA compliant website is very important and meaningful for all users.

Businesses need to think hard about website accessibility. It’s the socially responsible thing to do. Besides that, it can expose your business to lawsuits, risks brand damage, compromises your SEO, and maybe your bottom-line.

An ADA compliant website provides people with disabilities a fair chance to get the best out of the web. Investing time and money to create a new website, or overhaul an existing one, will pay off in the long run.

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Jason Shaw

With an Engineering degree and over 15 years of experience in web development, I’ve helped many businesses solve complex website and SEO issues. As the founder of Decodist (and small business owner) I can help you become more successful online.