The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is civil rights legislation passed in 1990 to protect citizens from discrimination based on disability in transportation, employment, government programs and services, and public accommodations. More specifically, it makes it illegal for any private business to bar disabled individuals from equal access to their goods and services. Any company with 15 or more full-time employees operating 20+ work hours per week must abide by ADA guidelines.
Wheelchair ramps and braille bathroom signs probably come to mind when you think of ADA compliance. But in an increasingly digital world, you also need to make sure your website is accessible to those with disabilities. Every year, thousands of well-meaning business owners are sued for unintentional ADA violations pertaining to website accessibility. In 2020 alone, U.S. businesses paid more than a billion dollars in legal fees for inaccessible websites.
This article will give you all the information you need to avoid costly litigation, protect your business reputation, and ensure a fully ADA-compliant website.
Defining ADA Website Accessibility
According to the ADA, a disabled person has “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Approximately one in four American adults has at least one disability related to vision, hearing, mobility, or mental capacity. Such conditions may include (but are not limited to) blindness, deafness, autism, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, intellectual disability, and missing limbs.
Website accessibility is a term for how easy it is for a disabled individual to navigate a website. Those with disabilities interact with internet content differently than others and may require assistive technology, such as screen readers, speech input, screen magnification software, or other tools.
The Bureau of Internet Accessibility considers a website accessible when its content and other features are equally available and integrate seamlessly with assistive technology. When a company fails to provide an accessible website or ensure its use with assistive technology, it creates a barrier to equal access.
Since the ADA does not have guidelines for website accessibility, most entities defer to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for an industry standard. The WCAG has established four principles of accessibility that your website content should adhere to:
- Operable: Easy navigation with keyboard accessibility
- Perceivable: Information is perceivable to multiple senses
- Understandable: User interface and content are easily comprehensible
- Robust: Compatible with assistive technology and platforms
The ADA and Websites
Even though the ADA was signed into law before the modern web came into existence, recent federal mandates and court rulings have set a precedent for website accessibility. The U.S. Department of Justice passed the Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design in 2010, which requires electronic information to be disability-friendly.
In a lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza in 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled:
“The act mandates that places of public accommodation, like Domino’s, provide auxiliary aids and services to make visual materials available to individuals who are blind. Even though customers primarily accessed the website and app away from Domino’s physical restaurants, the panel stated that the ADA applies to the services of public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation. The panel stated that the website and app connected customers to the goods and services of Domino’s physical restaurants.”
This means businesses must provide ADA-compliant services everywhere business is done — not just on company premises.
Ways to Improve Website Accessibility
If your website is already up and running, don’t worry — you can still make accessibility tweaks. Here are some easy ways your web developer can make your company’s website more accessible to people with disabilities.
1. Include text descriptions with website images
If your website uses a lot of imagery to convey information, it’s a good idea to include alt text with your site images and other non-text content. Alt-text is a written description of a picture, and it ensures that those using screen readers get the full experience of your web page.
2. Choose a legible font with a large text size
The ADA does not enforce specific font sizes for websites, but it is a general best practice to use at least a 16-point font for the body of your content. To maximize your website accessibility, we recommend choosing from Calibri, Tahoma, Arial, Helvetica, Arial, Times New Roman, or Verdana for the font of your body text. These standard fonts come with most website creation platforms and have proven to be the most legible for those with disabilities.
3. Limit or avoid flashing content
Flashing, flickering, and strobing page elements can trigger seizures in epileptic individuals. As a rule of thumb, do not include moving content that flashes more than three times per second. If you must have these elements, be sure to provide user controls that allow the site visitor to pause the motion.
4. Ensure a stark contrast between text and background colors
People with low vision need contrast to read the text on your website. For large text, the contrast should be at least 3:1 and 4:5:1 for small text. You can use WebAIM’s contrast checker for an existing site or GitHub’s accessible color palette builder if you’re still developing your website.
5. Enable keyboard-accessible navigation
People with tremors and other motor difficulties are unable to use a mouse and instead rely on a keyboard to navigate web pages. Sadly, not many websites have this functionality. Refer to WebAIM’s table of keystroke interactions to see how the motor-impaired should be able to interact with your website on a keyboard.
6. Offer alternatives to video and audio
All video and audio content on your website should be accompanied by captions or sign language interpretation to give the deaf and hard of hearing equal access to your digital media. In order to be ADA-compliant, your captions need to relay the speaker’s content word for word (no paraphrasing) with correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Risks of ADA Website Violations
Any time a person with a disability is unable to navigate your website successfully, it constitutes a “denial of equal access to goods and services,” or in other words, discrimination. This leaves you vulnerable to:
Lawsuits: According to the American Bar Association, website and app accessibility lawsuits have accounted for one in five of all ADA federal court filings — and even industry titans like Netflix, Nike, and Burger King have fallen short of accessibility standards at times. Litigation doesn’t look good to current or prospective customers and can cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Profit losses: The American Institutes for Research estimates that working-age adults with disabilities have $490 billion in disposable income after tax. When your business doesn’t allow them to purchase your goods and services, you miss out on major revenue opportunities.
Reputational degradation: Consumers are more likely than ever to share their experiences on Google and social media. If word gets out that your website is discriminatory, negative media coverage could have disastrous consequences for your business reputation. Customers who were once loyal to your brand may decide to take their business elsewhere.
Benefits of ADA Website Compliance
By maintaining an ADA-friendly website, you’re helping an under-served demographic obtain needed goods and services, thereby improving their quality of life. Small efforts like this can set your brand apart and help you earn positive PR.
What’s more, you have the potential to reach a much wider audience than before when you make simple accessibility adjustments to your website. (Remember the one in four Americans with a disability? Your accessibility improvements pave the way for them to reach you!) Accessibility adjustments tend to be good for SEO as well; adding alt text to images and improving site navigation will help you rank higher in search engines.
Start Prioritizing Web Accessibility Today
Accessibility may not have been top of mind before reading this article, but we hope you’ll take it into consideration in everything you do moving forward. If your website was developed without regard to accessibility, it’s time to stop turning away business unintentionally. It’s never too late to start testing and implementing fixes. If you aren’t sure where to start, check out the Bureau of Internet Accessibility’s free website accessibility checklist or contact our team for a site audit.