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ADA Compliance for Websites:
The Definitive Guide (2023)

ADA Compliance for Websites: <br>The Definitive Guide (2023)

We hope it didn’t take a lawsuit or a threatened lawsuit to land you here.

Whatever the reason, we’re here to help you learn about ADA compliance requirements for websites, and how to make your website ADA compliant.

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover:

  • What website accessibility and ADA compliance are
  • The sharp rise in web accessibility lawsuits and why websites must comply with the ADA
  • How to make your website ADA compliant and protect yourself from legal action

Let’s dive in.

What is ADA Compliance?

ADA compliance is the legal responsibility of certain businesses to be accessible to the disabled, by complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (the “ADA”). 

Traditionally, this meant creating physical accessibility, for example, installing accessible parking spaces and building ramps. But more recently, many courts have agreed that the law requires accessibility on websites, so that commercial websites can be used by blind and visually impaired people, and others with applicable disabilities. 

What is the ADA?

The ADA is a landmark civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.

Think of the ADA as making discrimination against the disabled illegal, much like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate against other protected classes, like racial and religious minorities. 

The ADA consists of three parts (or in legal language, three “titles”). Title I prohibits discrimination in the workplace. Title II prohibits discrimination by government. Title III prohibits discrimination by private businesses. Here, we are dealing with Title III. 

What is the ADA Title III?

Simply put, Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination against the disabled by certain private businesses. Discrimination in this sense does not need to be intentional or willful. A failure to comply with ADA standards is by itself considered discrimination.

 

Who must comply with Title III the ADA?

Title III only applies to “places of public accommodation” and clearly defines covered business as follows (see 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7)): 

(A) an inn, hotel, motel, or other place of lodging, except for an establishment located within a building that contains not more than five rooms for rent or hire and that is actually occupied by the proprietor of such establishment as the residence of such proprietor;

(B) a restaurant, bar, or other establishment serving food or drink;

(C) a motion picture house, theater, concert hall, stadium, or other place of exhibition or entertainment;

(D) an auditorium, convention center, lecture hall, or other place of public gathering;

(E) a bakery, grocery store, clothing store, hardware store, shopping center, or other sales or rental establishment;

(F) a laundromat, dry-cleaner, bank, barber shop, beauty shop, travel service, shoe repair service, funeral parlor, gas station, office of an accountant or lawyer, pharmacy, insurance office, professional office of a health care provider, hospital, or other service establishment;

(G) a terminal, depot, or other station used for specified public transportation;

(H) a museum, library, gallery, or other place of public display or collection;

(I) a park, zoo, amusement park, or other place of recreation;

(J) a nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private school, or other place of education;

(K) a day care center, senior citizen center, homeless shelter, food bank, adoption agency, or other social service center establishment; and

(L) a gymnasium, health spa, bowling alley, golf course, or other place of exercise or recreation. 

There are some exceptions, for example, religious organizations and private clubs are not covered. But broadly speaking, all of the business types listed above have to comply with Title III. 

There are also some differences between states. For example, in New York and California, state civil rights laws mean that ADA lawsuits include claims for damages, but in Florida and Texas, these lawsuits usually skip claims for damages, and rely only on the federal law, which only allows for an order to fix ADA violations and to pay legal fees and costs. 

But what about websites? 

Does the law consider websites to be places of public accommodation?

Part 2

Are Websites Covered Under Title III of the ADA?

Are Websites Covered Under Title III of the ADA?

In this chapter, we answer the big concern for commercial website owners – Are websites also covered by Title III of the ADA? 

Short answer: Failure to comply with the ADA on your website is likely to result in an ADA compliance lawsuit. Possibly a lawsuit filed in a part of the country far away from your home.  

We also examine the ADA compliance requirements for websites, the wave of ADA /web accessibility-related lawsuits, and how plaintiff’s lawyers found a niche that is very profitable for them, but very problematic for anyone lacking ADA website compliance. 

Let’s begin. 

What’s the DOJ’s Stance on the Matter?

The United States Department of Justice—the DOJ—is an executive agency of the United States government led by the Attorney General, which is tasked with enforcing federal law and administering justice in the United States.

The DOJ authored the regulations that implement the ADA, and so its interpretations of the law are given great weight. 

 

How Does the DOJ View Websites?

The following is a letter sent by the Assistant Attorney General to Congress dated September 25, 2018, addressing the Department’s interpretation of the ADA as it relates to websites: 

US department of justice letter to congress regarding ADA compliance and web accessiblity

“The Department first articulated its interpretation that the ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites over 20 years ago. This interpretation is consistent with the ADA’s…requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities.”  

 

So even though the DOJ has not yet authored specific regulations implementing the ADA for websites (like it has done for physical buildings), its position – like the opinions of many federal judges throughout the country – appears to be that the law does apply to websites operated by places of public accommodation.  

 

Is there a Precedent?

ADA website compliance cases continue to roll in daily, but let’s look at some well-known examples.  

In Robles v. Domino’s Pizza Inc., the pizza delivery giant was found to be subject to Title III on their website and mobile applications.

Other companies like Netflix, Amazon, and even superstar Beyonce have all spent untold amounts of money on legal fees to deal with digital accessibility lawsuits. 

 

What If Your Website is Not Accessible / ADA Title III Compliant?

Companies whose websites fail to become compatible with screen reading software and therefore inclusive of the blind and visually impaired and other disabilities, risk being sued at any time, possibly far from their physical locations, without any notice whatsoever.

The law firms who file these cases can choose the jurisdiction in which to file their lawsuit, and not surprisingly, tend to file lawsuits for plaintiffs who live in plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions.

Settlements following a website accessibility demand letter or lawsuit can in general range from $5000 to $20,000, although the amount can change based on the lawyer, plaintiff, and jurisdiction involved. 

This does not include the cost of a business’ own experienced ADA defense lawyer, to negotiate a settlement and defend you, either in court or against a lawyer threatening to sue you.


Screenshot of ADA compliance demand letter

Are you an easy target for these lawsuits? If you’ve never heard of ADA compliance lawsuits, or never taken action to make your business website ADA compliant, then the answer is probably “yes.” 

 

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Part 3:

Step by Step: How to Make Your Website Accessible & ADA Compliant

Step by Step: How to Make Your Website Accessible & ADA Compliant

Now that you have a basic understanding of ADA website accessibility, it’s time to get technical.

What does it actually mean to make a website accessible? And to whom exactly does it need to be accessible?

Let’s get into those questions..

Digital vs. Physical Space

The “places of public accommodation” listed within the ADA itself are, at first glance, physical places: Theaters, museums, restaurants, etc.

Congress required the DOJ to issue regulations explaining what business owners must do to comply with the ADA. The DOJ issued the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (the “ADAAG”), which explains how to comply. 

When a restaurant or theater or other physical business is designed or modified, the architect or contractor builds parking spaces, ramps, bathrooms, counterspace, and other building elements that follow the ADAAG, and therefore comply with the ADA. For example:

ADAAG compliant ramp: 

accessible ramp

And an accessible bathroom:

accessible toilet

But the internet is different.

A person who needs a wheelchair can often use the internet just like an able-bodied person does.

Also, the ADA was passed in 1990, and the first ADAAG was written in 1991, before the Internet and websites. Even though the ADAAG was updated in 2010, no website regulations were included.

 

Then why does the ADA require websites to be compliant? 

Just because the ADAAG does not regulate websites, that does not mean that websites not covered by the ADA. The ADA states as a general rule that:

“No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation . . .”

Many courts have interpreted these general non-discrimination provisions of the ADA to require that places of public accommodation must have accessible websites. 

Who do we need to make our website accessible for?

Think about how you interact with the internet.

 

Eyes

You use your eyes for viewing the screen. People who have visual impairments need assistance accessing your website. These include:

People who are color blind:

Color blindness explained through a photo showing same image but divided into two - Once it shows how a regular eye would see it and the other part is how a color blind person would see it

People who are totally blind:

Blind woman typing on braille keyboard

People who have other visual impairments:

Tunnel vision:

Tunnel vision

Central loss vision:

Central loss vision

Low vision:

Old lady with vision impairment surfing the web

 

 

Ears

You use your ears to hear videos and audio. People with auditory impairments need assistance accessing your website. These include:

People who are hard of hearing:

Kid with hearing aid

 

Hands

You use your fingers to type. People with physical impairments need assistance accessing your website. These include:

People who are differently-abled and use different devices to type:

sip and puff device

Man with motor impairment using a stick to type

 

 

Cognition

You use your cognitive processes to understand the information that is displayed on the screen. People with cognitive impairments need assistance accessing your website. These include:

People who have seizures, ADHD and other forms of cognitive disabilities:

a girl fainting from seizure and another last holding her

A man with autism using the web with the help of a woman

 

 

All of these disabilities should be considered to create an inclusive online experience, but by far, the issue that results in almost all ADA lawsuits, is accessibility for the blind and visually impaired. 

This includes not only perceiving the screen, but also functionality of shopping cart and payment pages. 

WCAG: The Accessibility Standard for ADA compliance

Though not officially the standard (as discussed above, there are no official regulations yet), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 level AA has been cited by the DOJ, judges, and others, as the web accessibility standard to follow to become ADA compliant.

Unless and until official regulations exist, it seems unlikely that a WCAG 2.0 level AA compliant site would be found noncompliant with the ADA, which means that such websites are much less likely to be targeted by ADA compliance lawsuits.

What is the WCAG?

The WCAG is a series of guidelines that provide information about web accessibility. 

The guidelines (reaching a staggering 80+ page count) give site owners clear instructions toward making their website accessible to people with disabilities.

Technically, it’s not a legal requirement to follow the WCAG guidelines, but they heavily influence ADA litigation and are often considered to be de facto compliant with ADA standards. 

 

A WCAG & ADA Title III Checklist

WCAG’s guidelines can be complicated at first glance. When broken down and put very simply, the requirements are solved by performing a few basic actions.

Let’s take a closer look.

1.Add an accessibility interface to your site

An accessibility interface allows visitors to adjust the website’s design and user interface elements to fit their individual needs or disability. Example use cases of an accessibility interface include: 

  • ADHD-friendly functions: Reduce distractions to allow individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders to ingest website content more easily.   
  • Visually impaired functions: Allow for larger text, contrast, and careful use of colors
  • Cognitive disability functions: Help users with cognitive disabilities like autism and dyslexia to focus and understand essential website elements

 

2. Add text alternatives to your site

Visually impaired users use screen readers to better understand the content on a site. For screen readers to work on your site, adding text alternatives to non-text elements is important.

This is because images and other media help tell a story on your site. 

For example, some images might explain places and things, display your product, or contribute to your website content’s overall contextualization and understanding. 

Adding alt tags to your images and text transcripts to video files makes those elements easier to understand. 

Clearly labeling your forms and any input fields works hand-in-hand with screen readers. 

A woman holding a blue bag with bird and flower patches served as ornaments. The bag is on sale, 30% discount.

For example, the alternative text for the above image should say something along these lines: A woman holding a blue bag with bird and flower patches served as ornaments. The bag is on sale, 30% discount.

 

3. Make your site easy to navigate

Since not every user who comes to your website has full motor function, it’s essential to evaluate your site’s layout and navigation functionality.

 

Man with motor impairment

Those with motor impairments deserve equal access to navigating the internet, including your website. Certain navigational tools can be implemented to allow for ease of movement. These include: 

  • Using specific keyboard keys like Tab, Shift+Tab, and the Enter keys for specific purposes on the website
  • On-screen keyboard availability for individuals unable to use a computer mouse 
  • Shortcuts such as “M” (menus), “H” (headings), “F” (forms), “B” (buttons), and “G” (graphics) allow users to access
    specific elements of your website more quickly and easily
  • Faster navigation techniques enable users to access any important page with a click

Other steps that you can take to make your site easier to use are:

  • Ensure your navigation menu is consistent across all pages.
  • Use the correct header tags on every page to highlight a content hierarchy and make the content easier to understand overall.

 

Get a Free Website Scan & See Where Your Business Stands

Learn where your business is vulnerable and what you will need to change to meet ADA Title III regulations. 

If it turns out that your website has accessibility issues, the good news is now you know about them! Our checker also tells you exactly how to fix each problem.

Accessibility Checker

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Part 4

Summary

Summary

​​We hope you enjoyed our guide.

Now, one question remains about website accessibility and compliance: Where does your business stand?

Thanks to technological advancements, achieving ADA Title III compliance has never been easier.

Thankfully, your business’s compliance journey will open your business to an entirely new world of users, innovative practices, opportunities, and more, all while protecting you from possible ADA compliance lawsuits. 

So what are you waiting for?

Frequently Asked Questions

 

What is ADA compliant?

To be ADA compliant is the legal responsibility of certain businesses to be accessible to the disabled, by complying with the American Disabilities Act of 1990 (the “ADA”).

When was the ADA passed?

Signed into law in 1990 by former President George Bush, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) has officially been around for over 30 years. The act aims to increase access and opportunities for people living with disabilities across their personal and professional lives.

 

Who is eligible for ADA protection?

To apply for ADA protection, you need to prove that you have an impairment that would limit or restrict you from performing day-to-day activities. In terms of job discrimination, employees need to be qualified to perform specific duties or functions to benefit from ADA protection.

 

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Ivanka
Ivanka
4 months ago

Wow! Just realized that my website has only 24% accessibility. Great article and advices. Thanks!

Danny Trichter
Danny Trichter
Admin
Reply to  Ivanka
4 months ago

Thanks Ivanka. We hope our checker helped you find where you are vulnerable and how to fix it. Good luck on your digital accessibility journey!

Tetiana
Tetiana
4 months ago

A very intuitive and helpful guide!

Danny Trichter
Danny Trichter
Admin
Reply to  Tetiana
4 months ago

Thank you very much for the kind words

Rachel
Rachel
4 months ago

Thank you for this article. My Web Design and UX students will be doing an assignment based on the info here. I’m hoping to teach a new wave of web designers who care about the accessibility of their sites!

Danny Trichter
Danny Trichter
Admin
Reply to  Rachel
4 months ago

Thank you very much Rachel and good luck!

Julia Davis
Julia Davis
3 months ago

This was a very informative blog and I really enjoyed reading it.

The evolution of the internet has shifted the relationship between publishers and consumers to a new level and by seeing the growth of websites and their users across the globe, webmasters need to make their services accessible to their consumers.

Danny Trichter
Danny Trichter
Admin
Reply to  Julia Davis
3 months ago

Thank you Julia, I think you are right and webmasters should pay attention to it a lot more than they are now! That is what we are here for!

Ethan
Ethan
25 days ago

Great job on putting together such a thorough and useful guide!

Danny Trichter
Danny Trichter
Admin
Reply to  Ethan
24 days ago

Thank you very much Ethan!

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