How to Create an ADA Compliant website

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Lori Ballen is a member of the Amazon Associates Program and earns money from qualifying purchases. Posts contain affiliate links that benefit Lori as well.

Creating a website that is compliant with the regulations set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can be an undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Essentially, ADA compliance ensures that all Americans have a fair access to resources and technology. Many companies wish to offer their services to all, regardless of their disability. There are several things to keep in mind when creating an ADA compliant website. Here are some commonly asked questions and concerns.

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What is ADA Compliance?

The Americans with Disabilities Act is the reason that we have things such as handicap-accessible parking spaces, regulated counter heights in banks and other common retail and service buildings, wheelchair ramps, and special transportation accommodations. Certain disabilities fall within a protected class of people, including those in wheelchairs, those needing mobility aids, the deaf, and the blind.

Legal regulations require businesses to have certain accommodations for the non-traditionally able to use. Depending on the type of business, the size, and the scale of operations, a sliding scale of accessibility is mandated. Businesses that are not ADA compliant are subject to heavy fines, as well as possible backlash from poor publicity.

The ADA is a federal law, meaning that accessibility is fairly consistent across the board for all fifty states; however different states and even municipalities may have regulations of their own. Certain types of businesses, too, may have a demographic that skews more toward the disabled, and thus would take the initiative to cater to their customer base with more accommodations than are legally necessary.

Access to public spaces isn’t the only thing regulated by the ADA. Employment opportunities are required to be offered to all that are able to perform the job, regardless of a disability. Housing, too, is part of ADA protections. The final protection, telecommunications, is also required to remove “access barriers” for those protected by the ADA

Access Barriers

At the time the law was written, in the early 1990s, the internet wasn’t much more than links between universities and computer enthusiasts. Remember – cell phones were still a novelty, and many families didn’t have a computer of their own in the home. As the internet quickly took over Western lifestyle, the ADA, like many laws on the books, struggled to keep up.

As the law was written, it was initially thought to mean removing physical barriers that would keep the disabled from enjoying full access to public and private spaces, housing, and job opportunities. However, the law wasn’t written with specific physical barriers preventing access; simply “removal of barriers to access.”

This leaves the law open to interpretation by the courts and attorneys seeking redress on behalf of clients.

Some now see access barriers as not just physical restrictions, but also restrictions to goods and services available on the internet. As more consumers turn to e-commerce sites for retail shopping, groceries, and large-scale purchases, this would tend to leave only brick-and-mortar options available for those who can’t readily access all websites.

In addition, with many banks, utilities, phone companies, and other “life services” available online, the set-up of some websites may prohibit or inhibit access.

Some of the thrust of this argument may also fall under the fair housing and equal employment opportunity regulations. Many jobs now are advertised exclusively online – in fact, if someone were to walk in and inquire at the front desk of a large company, chances are the receptionist would not have a paper application, or even know what job openings are available.

Many government jobs require an online application, as well as screening assessments, and larger companies are asking the same.

Housing, too, is primarily found online. Not just sites like Zillow or Trulia for purchasing real estate, but also many rentals are found on websites like apartments.com. Being unable to access many common jobs and housing sites can be argued to be an unfair burden to those with limited access to the internet.

DOJ’s Advanced Notice 

As early as 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a proposed amendment to the ADA. This comes in response to a few test cases that have been slowly working their way through t court system and is an effort to create regulations at the federal level, enacted into law, versus having the Supreme Court apply the ADA to a rapidly changing internet landscape.

In essence, the DOJ announcement states their intention to “Establish requirements for making the goods, services, facilities, privileges, accommodations, or advantages offered by public accommodations via the Internet, specifically at sites on the World Wide Web (Web), accessible to individuals with disabilities.”

There are two primary schools of thought with this proposed amendment. The first states that only websites that are tied to physical public locations, such a brick and mortar retailer, should be required to alter their websites for full accessibility. This defines the websites as part of a public space that is already handicapped accessible, and the goods and services sold online are part of that.

The second opinion is that any website offering goods or services for sale online should be considered a public space, and therefore subject to ADA regulations for online accessibility. This would apply even to those stores that don’t have a physical store presence, such as specialty online boutiques.

Some worry that this will trickle down to the small business that only operates online because of budgetary limits.

A final ruling on this proposal is expected sometime this year. This will set the official standard for website accessibility for businesses. This set of guidelines will outline precisely which websites will be eligible, and what those website owners will need to do in order to be ADA compliant.

What does an ADA-compliant website look like?

In order to determine whether a website will “pass” “the compliance regulations, or if they will be subject to a fine or correction, we need first to define what an ADA-compliant website or online presence actually is.

Both the DOJ and the higher courts are using the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0 AA) to determine whether a website is compliant.

A California case heard in 2016 stated that UC Berkley’s YouTube video was in violation of ADA compliance because it lacked subtitles for deaf viewers.

The ruling came down that UC Berkeley should use the W3C rules as guidelines for their online media. This recent decision has led to speculation that these rules will form the basis for the DOJ’s accessibility regulations.

The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of standards created by several groups, led by the World Wide Web Consortium, to help content producers make their sites more assessable to users with disabilities. These comprise twelve guidelines incorporating four categories of accessibility and is titled WGAC 2.0.

The twelve guidelines of WCAG 2.0

A compliant website will follow these 12 guidelines in four categories, meaning that the site must be:

  • Perceivable
  • Operable
  • Understandable
  • Robust

There are testable criteria for each of the twelve guidelines to ensure that your website is ADA compatible. The actual list is comprehensive and quite long – more detailed information can be found here. As an overview, let’s examine the four categories, and how these twelve guidelines apply within each.

Category One: Perceivable

To determine if a website is compliant, a definition of the terms used to describe compliance is needed. We have already seen how penumbras of a regulation leave it wide open to interpretation, so the DOJ is working to delineate specific standards with no questionability in their revision of the ADA.

A perceivable website ensures that the content within is accessible to all. It includes adding structure to a website to enhance the ability of any user to view and interact with the media presented. Enhancing a page for larger font, for example, would necessitate the page structure to scale accordingly and remain intact. For videos, adding captioning is a simple fix.

Tools such as contracting images and text for greater visibility are also addressed, as are captions for all images used within the readable content. If images are simply used for spacing, versus intrinsic to the content of the media, then adjustments should be made to allow them to be ignored by assistive technology software. Guidelines for accessible perception include:

  • Text Alternatives for non-text content, enabling the text to be changed into other forms including large print, braille, symbols, text-to-speech, or simple language. The sites should also be navigatable with screen reader software. This can be a bit tricky to troubleshoot and set up if you don’t have experience doing so, but a professional web designer should be able to help set this up properly.
  • Alternative for time-based media. This would include alternate presentations of slides, video, or film. These forms of media unfold visually over time.
  • Create adaptable content – allow content to be portrayed in different ways without losing vital information or necessary structure. A simple page layout, for example, or a reduction in the number of images displayed on any one screen. Ideally, the text should be able to be enlarged up to 200 percent without causing a need for horizontal scrolling or causing layout issues that break up the content. If your website is especially complicated or has a detailed layout, then you may have to restructure it for these two guidelines to be executed properly.
  • Create more distinguishable published content, with greater contrast between text and images, or greater separation between foreground and background.

Category Two: Operable

These guidelines ensure that the functionality of your website will not create problems for the user. This includes a website navigatable using only a keyboard, or the ability to pause moving sections. Pages and sections of the website are to be clearly labeled so the user can determine where on the website they are. The WCAG 2.0 guidelines include:

  • All functionality should be keyboard accessible – pages should be fully navigatable without the use of a mouse. Using skip navigation buttons and manually setting a tab index everywhere are simple solutions for this.
  • Provide users with enough time to fully read and use the content. This can be achieved by use of pausable media.
  • Content design should be displayed in a manner that will not cause seizures. This includes brightly flashing display, or quickly contrasting images.
  • Pages should be easily navigatable – websites will provide ways to help users navigate the site, find content, and determine where they are on the site. This includes descriptive metadata that can be translated through assistive technology platforms.

Category Three: Understandable

This category focuses on ensuring that web pages use clear, logical language and functionality. Verbiage should be straightforward and easy to understand, and idiom should be easily translatable. The language of the page should be easy to identify, and navigation across the site consistent. Where users are required to input data, instructions in full, simple detail should be provided. This included contact forms and log-in requests. The guidelines that address this include:

  • Text should be readable and understandable. This includes clear language and options for large font.
  • Web pages should appear and operate in easily predictable ways. Each transition should follow similar logical progressions.
  • Help for users to correct or avoid mistakes should be provided with an input assistance tool. This tool should give clear, easy to follow direction.

Category Four: Robust

This is a more technical category, dealing with much of a website’s code. Simply put, the code should be robust enough to help assistive reader technology understand the code to properly translate. Current web standards already dictate how the code should be written; these guidelines would make certain coding structures mandatory.

This includes the use of standard HTML tags universally recognized by browsers and properly validated tags (those that are open must be closed) to ensure that assistive technologies are able to properly understand and correctly render the site’s content. Specifically, WCAG 2.0 guidelines state that websites should maximize compatibility with both current user agents and those developed in the future – including assistive technology platforms.

Much of this structure and guidance is already commonly used across the web. The push is to codify the ways that websites are set up, in order to take a burden off assistive technology and not place unreasonable barriers to use for the disabled. However, for some sites, especially those who depend on interactive media or streaming presentations, re-writing and re-coding may take some time.

Who will these regulations affect?

If you are a business employing more than 15 employees, then you are already under ADA compliance obligation. Any physical business that can be reasonably considered to have “public accommodation,” including shops, hotels, restaurants, and entertainment facilities, will be required to have their web presence accessible, as well.

This means that the website should be as accessible as the physical store, within the discrete structure of each. A tiny, mom and pop storefront or a single-owner online business selling, for instance, knitted hats, wouldn’t necessarily be required to be fully ADA compliant, due to the projected financial burden this would place on the business. It’s kind of a tricky area, however, and if you aren’t completely sure where your business falls within the guidelines, it’s best to consult an ADA-experienced attorney.

As a general rule of thumb, any business that the public would be expected to easily access, any government service that has an online presence, and any business to consumer service provider should expect to have a fully accessible web presence, if there is web presence at all.

Is My Website ADA Compliant?

We aren’t lawyers, and this isn’t legal advice. If you want to make sure that your website is ADA compliant, our first recommendation would be to consult an attorney familiar with the regulations for accessible web presence and have them provide the parameters that your site must adhere to.

After that, you may either test your website yourself or have your IT department test it using specially designed software for that purpose. Here are a few that have proven successful for many other companies:

  • WAVE can get you started on the right track. This is a browser extension available for Firefox or Chrome, produced by WebAIM. Some users report that is has given false positives for contrast ratio issues, however. To correct these, it’s recommended to use “Contrast View,” which shows only contrast issues on your page, based on WCAG 2.0 guidelines. You can use the tools in the site’s “details” panel to see your color contrast. WAVE also offers updated colors that meet ADA guidelines.
  • Use Lighthouse, an open source, automated tool for improving websites, to generate a report on potential issues. Simply input your URL(s) into their “auditor” and the software will run accessibility checks on them. It won’t fix your issues, but it will indicate what will need adjustment.
  • Use this calculator to manually test your contrast ratio.
  • You can manually test your site by installing screen reader software and walking through your web pages. You may not be able to troubleshoot from there, but you’ll be able to compile a list of what to fix. You can also use your screen reader software to check each time you update your site before you go live.
  • You can also test your ability to navigate with the keyboard only. If your links aren’t sequential, then this test will help you see it.

If you didn’t develop your site yourself, or within your company, then the web designer who created it should be able to manually test it against your ADA requirements. Some designers may be better at this than others – if you know that you have a demographic that’s heavily populated with those who would expect your website to be fully ADA compliant (for instance, if you sell home health care items, or if you provide entertainment materials), then you may wish to ask for recommendations for a good web designer or tester.

The future of accessible web design

As digital access and mobile apps become more and more common in daily life, expect to see more regulations making these conveniences accessible to all. Many companies are moving toward more online sales and services to reduce the overhead of physical businesses.

In addition, hiring managers find it easier to advertise for job applicants online or use an automated screening tool to select candidates for interview.

Housing availability, as well as applications for home loans and rental properties, are very commonly provided online.

Housing and employment already are highly regulated for equal opportunity under the law. Should more of the accessibility move to a digital format, then those agencies will be required to remain equally accessible to all in the digital format.

In addition, as businesses provide more goods and services online, their presumption of public access will require them to be publically accessible equally in a digital format.

The set of regulations for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act numbers over sixty separate requirements.

In order to be fully compliant, many companies are already taking the initiative to perform their own audits, in advance of federal compliance regulations. Some say it’s a cost-saving measure, while others see creating an online presence with greater accessibility as just good business sense.

A side benefit of making your website fully ADA compliant is that many of the requirements actually make for better web design and tighter navigability. With increased traffic and viewership can come more leads, and thus more conversions. Although this isn’t, and shouldn’t be the main reason for an upgrade, having a website that can be navigated easily increases the likelihood of its use more frequently, as well as facilitates mobile readability.

If you have specific concerns about your own compliance, or if you wish further reading on the topic, the Americans with Disabilities Act website can be found here.

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