American Disabilities Act and your website

If you have worked in any industry that has physical locations, you have probably at least heard of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance.  When most people think of ADA compliance, they think of things like wheelchair accessibility and other facilities requirements. It’s natural to include ADA considerations in your brick and mortar locations, but have you ever thought about ADA compliance when it comes to your website? 

ADA compliance for websites is a convoluted and sometimes difficult thing to understand, but let's take a look at what you need to know.  There a few groups of businesses that must adhere to ADA compliance law:  

  • Businesses with 15 or more employees 
  • State and local agencies
  • Businesses with public accommodations and commercial facilities

The last one is where most organizations are covered (and where we will focus), which is Title III of ADA law.

...the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any place of ‘public accommodation' by any person who owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation. Public accommodations include most places of lodging (such as inns and hotels), recreation, transportation, education, and dining, along with stores, care providers, and places of public displays.

Although ADA law was written for physical facilities, recent court cases show that it is now being applied to the digital world. For example, supermarket chain Winn-Dixie was ruled to have violated a blind man's rights because the coupons presented on their site were only images and could not be read by a screen reader. As a result of this case, Winn-Dixie was required to update their site to make all of their content screen reader friendly. 

The ADA standards for websites are still in development (with a tentative release date in 2018 that never materialized), so the judge in this case made his ruling based on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. These guidelines were created by the World Wide Web Consortium. While these have been updated to WCAG 2.1, most courts have only referenced WCAG 2.0. They’re currently the standard by which sites are measured for accessibility.  The WCAG 2.0 guidelines have four basic principles:

Principle 1 – Perceivable. Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
Principle 2 – Operable. User interface components and navigation must be operable.
Principle 3 – Understandable. Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
Principle 4 – Robust. Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.  See the full breakdown here. 

The bottom line is that people need to be able to consume your content and take advantage of what you offer online, regardless of their accessibility needs.  

WCAG 2.0 is also broken down to different levels of conformance.
A
This is the lowest level of conformity. The goal here is to make the site accessible (readable) to most browser and screen readers. While this is an improvement to a lot of websites, it is not at a level that would provide much benefit for impaired users. It is not a level that the court cases have mandated sites achieve.  

AA
This makes a site considerably more accessible. It will not change the look of a site completely, but will put it in a much safer place in terms of compliance. It includes guidance on errors and even some on color contrast. Most businesses will be fine achieving this level of compliance and it seems this is the level the courts are pushing on the sites. AA is also recommended by the WCAG themselves.

AAA
This level is more robust and typically requires significant change on most sites. It does make the site accessible to the widest range of disabilities. Site design would be heavily impacted by this level.  
Each of these guidelines is broken down in more detail on the WCAG website, but for most people the AA guidelines should be the aim.  

How does this affect you? It depends on your website. There are a lot of tools out there that can check your site for compliance. There are also several firms that will offer you services to do the same.

Here are a few key things to keep in mind. First, ADA compliance starts with programming. Make sure the people who are building your site know what they are doing and are following WCAG protocols. They should be educated about ADA compliance and be able to answer your questions.

Second, think about the purpose of your site. Is it an extension of a physical location? If so, what services are offered at the physical location and can those be offered on the website? ADA compliance is all about accessibility and equal access.  Having a phone number or a live chat option on your site can go a long way toward enhancing accessibility, especially if those resources are available 24/7.   

While a lack of web-specific ADA law makes compliance a little challenging, following the WCAG guidelines and keeping accessibility in mind will help you offer people an online experience that is as accessible to them as an in-person experience at your physical location.
 

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