The information presented within this guide is aimed at website owners seeking to learn the ropes of web accessibility. Technical elements are described in layman’s terms, and, as a rule, all topics pertaining to the legalities of web accessibility are presented in as simplified a manner as possible. This guide has no legal bearing, and cannot be relied on in the case of litigation.
Website owners can help remedy this injustice by ensuring their websites comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Having an ADA-compliant website proves to your existing and potential customers that you are an equitable, inclusive business and that you welcome everyone to enjoy your products and services.
Even though it may involve tweaking and updating a few design and technical elements, ensuring your website is ADA-compliant is a fairly straightforward process. To help you with that, we've created a checklist of action items you will need to address so that your website achieves ADA compliance.
It is important to note that while the checklist is a useful resource, it is only a quick summary of the necessary requirements and not a complete list.
Understanding the basics of ADA website compliance
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the most important piece of American legislation regarding accessibility and civil rights for people with disabilities. The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability in many different aspects of daily life, and in recent years, a clear consensus has emerged that it applies to the online domain, as well.
Today, U.S. courts apply ADA accessibility requirements to websites, and, therefore, websites need to comply with the ADA.
ADA Title III and web accessibility
ADA Title III covers public areas, like banks, colleges, transportation, real estate agencies, and “public accommodations.” Businesses that fall under that category must guarantee they are accessible to the disability community.
In 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) clarified that websites are considered places of public accommodation and must comply with ADA Title III. Effectively, as all businesses fall under the category of “public accommodations,” the DOJ’s clarification applies to almost all businesses.
ADA Title III doesn’t specify what you need to do to make your website accessible. However, U.S. courts typically point to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as the standard websites should adhere to, in cases involving ADA violations. Created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is considered by many to be the most important set of guidelines impacting global web accessibility policy.
WCAG 2.1, an updated version of these guidelines, was released in 2018. This is currently the optimal benchmark for web accessibility when it comes to federal law. The first draft of the next version of these guidelines, WCAG 2.2, was initially released in February of 2020 and was released on October 5th, 2023.
Both WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 have three levels you can conform to: Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA. Here’s a brief explanation of the differences between them:
- Level A is the minimum level of conformance and covers the most basic accessibility requirements
- Level AA expands on the requirements of Level A and includes additional guidelines for improved accessibility
- Level AAA is the highest level of conformance and includes the most stringent accessibility requirements. It's not mandatory for websites to conform to Level AAA, but organizations may choose to do so to provide an optimal accessibility experience for their website visitors
The importance of ADA website compliance
It’s never been easier to buy groceries, do your accounting, or book a haircut online. However, simple online tasks like these still aren’t accessible to everyone. There is still a lot of work to be done so that all websites are accessible to people with disabilities.
If you are a business owner and your website isn’t accessible, a huge group is denied access to your products or services. The disability community is estimated at 1.3 billion. That’s a market roughly the size of China.
It’s important to note that ensuring your website is ADA-compliant decreases your risk of facing legal action, such as receiving ADA website compliance demand letters and facing potential ADA website compliance lawsuits.
It is worth mentioning that you can potentially receive a tax benefit for complying with the ADA. You can read more about this in our ADA tax credit guide.
Is ADA compliance mandatory for every website?
ADA Title III applies to public areas and "public accommodations," a legal phrase that includes businesses with 15 or more employees, restaurants, hotels, healthcare offices, retail stores, many small businesses, libraries, parks, and almost every place of work.
Today, U.S. courts apply ADA accessibility requirements to the online domain, as well as to businesses’ physical locations and policies. This means that the websites of these “public accommodations” should also comply with ADA rules.
But what about other websites?
Given that almost all places of business provide services and accommodations to the public, presenting a website that is ADA-compliant is relevant to any kind of business.
How to test a website for ADA compliance
WCAG is a lengthy, complex document, and it can be difficult to manually review your website and ensure it conforms to each of its many sections. Luckily, to test a website for ADA compliance, you can rely on ADA compliance software tools, such as accessScan, to test your website for ADA compliance.
Once you submit your website’s URL, accessScan will run a quick, automated audit and examine its level of conformance to WCAG 2.1 Level AA. Your website will then be given a score (compliant, semi-compliant, or non-compliant), along with a more detailed breakdown of various website elements’ accessibility status. If compliance gaps exist, they will be highlighted so that you can get to work on remediating them.
You can also rely on expert service providers, like accessServices, to manually audit and remediate your website. Businesses that have complex websites often rely on accessServices to thoroughly inspect them and make the necessary adjustments to ensure they comply with the ADA.
If you choose to, you can manually check your website for ADA compliance yourself by reviewing your website’s level of conformance to WCAG. To that end, you can rely on the checklist appearing later in this blog.
ADA compliance for online documents
It’s important to note that ADA compliance applies to websites and online documents, such as PDFs and Microsoft Office files (e.g., Word documents). Examples of such documents are downloadable menus on restaurant sites, and instructional manuals on eCommerce websites.
You can rely on Adobe Acrobat (along with other PDF generators) and Microsoft Office apps (e.g., Word) to create ADA-compliant documents.
Existing online documents also need to be updated (or remediated) so that they are ADA-compliant. Online document remediation is mostly a manual endeavor, and is conducted either by individual business owners or by compliance experts. Expert service providers are well-versed in all aspects of WCAG and can be relied on to remediate PDFs and other documents in a more thorough, complete manner. When dealing with a large number of online documents, many website and business owners turn to service providers, such as accessServices, knowing that the latter are more equipped to deal with these types of remediation projects.
ADA website compliance checklist
This checklist shares the current accessibility guidelines from WCAG 2.1, which consist of three levels of conformance: Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA.
It's a good idea for most websites to aim to conform to WCAG 2.1 Level AA, which can be achieved using compliance tools, such as accessWidget.
accessWidget incorporates two applications that work in tandem to help your website become ADA-compliant. One makes UI and design-related adjustments, while the other initiates an AI-powered process that allows website visitors to customize your website to their individual accessibility needs. With accessWidget, website visitors will be able to adjust colors and contrast, increase font size, stop animations, and hide images.
Without further ado, here’s the checklist you can follow to make your website ADA-compliant, broken down into the three available levels of WCAG 2.1 conformance:
Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA
WCAG 2.1 Level A
WCAG 2.1 Level A provides the basic requirements and minimum standards for website accessibility. This is a good starting point for website and business owners looking to make their websites more accessible. However, conformance at this level does not provide the protection from legal recourse you can expect when conforming to more advanced WCAG levels.
To conform to WCAG 2.1 Level A, make sure to address the following action items:
- Provide text alternatives for applicable non-text content
Create text alternatives for non-text content such as images, so that they can be conveyed by assistive technologies. This doesn’t apply to decorative images. It is important to note that adding alternative text is critical to achieving ADA compliance for your email, as well
- Provide an alternative to video-only and audio-only content
By offering an alternative to video-only and audio-only content, you make the web page accessible for people who are blind, people with low vision, and those with hearing impairments. Examples of such alternatives include adding transcripts for audio-only content, or audio tracks for video-only content
- Provide captions for videos with audio
Videos with audio should have accurate captions that are synchronized and clearly identify speakers. For a more in-depth breakdown of captions and other video-related requirements, we recommend you checkout our piece on ADA compliance for videos
- Ensure that information conveyed by color is also visually evident without color
Information conveyed by color alone isn’t accessible to all website visitors, including some people with low vision or color blindness. Make sure that information conveyed by color is also visually evident without color, such as by using different patterns, graphics, or text
- Ensure that website visitors are able to control auto-playing content
Website visitors should be able to pause or stop auto-playing audio, or be able to control its volume. Auto-playing content can interfere with screen reader technology and, if possible, it is best to disable it completely
- Ensure all website functionality is operable via keyboard
Make sure that all website functionality is operable via keyboard so people with disabilities who don’t use a mouse can navigate it
- Ensure that website visitors are able to control time limits when reading or engaging with interactive elements
Some website visitors require more time to complete tasks. Be sure that your website doesn’t time out without user acknowledgment. Additionally, make sure that website visitors can request more time and won’t lose session data by doing so
- Ensure your website does not feature content that can induce seizures
Content such as fast-strobing lights can induce seizures. Warnings about flashing content are often missed, and are therefore an insufficient measure. Instead, avoid designing content in a way that is known to cause seizures. Web pages should not contain anything that flashes more than three times in one second
- Ensure that single-key shortcuts can be turned off or changed
Single-key shortcuts can cause significant difficulties for some website visitors, who can trigger them inadvertently when using speech input, or by accidentally hitting keys. If your website uses these, provide a way to turn them off or change them
- Provide a “Skip to Content” link to allow website visitors to skip directly to the main content area
People who rely on a keyboard and on screen readers often need to navigate a long list of links and elements in the header on each web page before arriving at the main content. Provide a "Skip to Content" link to allow them to skip directly to the main content area
- Ensure that if a website visitor commits an error, the error is identified and described to the website visitor in text
Simply coloring a field red is not enough to communicate an error. Describe the error clearly with text to explain what is wrong and how to fix it. Proper focus management and use of ARIA attributes is also necessary to ensure that screen readers will announce the error
- Ensure web page titles are clear and helpful
Clear and distinct titles for each web page make it easier for readers to navigate your website and recognize web pages they’ve bookmarked, especially if they rely on assistive technology
- Ensure all functions can be performed by website visitors with limited mobility
Some website visitors may not be able to perform multipoint or path-based movements. These can include touch gestures, such as pinching or two-finger tapping, or complex movements, such as drawing a circle (whether with a finger or a mouse). Make sure no functionality requires these. If your website does feature them, provide alternative methods so no visitors are excluded
- Ensure each web page has the correct language assigned
This can be determined by the lang attribute on the HTML element
- Ensure that web elements do not change when they receive input
Elements such as form fields, radio buttons, and checkboxes should not cause unexpected changes when interacted with, such as causing focus to jump or submitting data. Website visitors need to be informed of these actions before they occur. Controls should also act in a predictable way
WCAG 2.1 Level AA is the current best measure of web accessibility when it comes to federal law. It is unlikely that a website that conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA would be sued for lack of accessibility.
To conform to WCAG 2.1 Level AA, make sure to address the following action items:
- Provide captions for live videos
Website visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing require live captions to understand the audio components of live video and streaming events, such as webinars. A real-time captioning service can help to achieve this. Live captions also need to indicate who is speaking and explain any other significant non-speech sounds
- Provide website visitors with audio descriptions for video content
People with certain vision impairments are unable to see moving or static images in a video. Providing audio descriptions to convey this information is necessary to help people fully understand the content appearing in the video
- Ensure that website visitors can use either screen orientation
It's important to ensure that website visitors can view content in their preferred orientation (portrait or landscape). Content viewability and operation shouldn’t be restricted to a single orientation, unless a specific display orientation is essential (such as a bank check or slides for a projector)
- Ensure a high contrast between text sections and their backgrounds
People with color blindness or low vision may not be able to easily read and navigate content without proper contrast. This includes hyperlinked text or colored buttons that do not stand out clearly from the background. Ensure good contrast between text (or images of text) and its background, with a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1. When using bold or large text (18pt or larger), a 3:1 ratio is sufficient. Contrast restrictions do not apply to logos and brand names. For a more in-depth breakdown of this checklist item, we recommend you read our blog on choosing ADA-compliant colors
- Ensure that text can be resized to 200% without loss of content or function
Make sure that if website visitors resize text (up to 200%), content will not overlap, be cut off, or disappear
- Ensure your website is responsive
It’s important that a website displays and functions as expected on any device, including mobile devices and tablets, so that website visitors can navigate content in a way that’s easiest for them. Make sure all content is available at any screen size
- Use clear headings and labels to make it easier for people with disabilities to find content and navigate a web page
With clear headings and labels, you help all website visitors to quickly understand what information is contained on a web page, how it’s organized, and how to navigate it. Headings should be short and clear, and all elements such as navigation bars, forms, and search boxes should be clearly labeled. It is worth noting that clear headings can also lead to search engine optimization (SEO) benefits
- Make sure to indicate in code when the language on a web page changes
If a section of a web page incorporates a language that is different from the one that is already declared, it will need to be indicated on a code level. To that end, you can use a separate lang attribute on the section in question
- Ensure menus, icons, and buttons appear consistently
Consistent websites are easier to navigate for all website visitors. When components (including navigational mechanisms) recur multiple times, it is important to keep their labels, design, and functionality consistent and predictable. For a more in-depth breakdown of this checklist item, we recommend you checkout our piece on web design and ADA compliance
- Ensure that when website visitors adjust text spacing, there is no loss in functionality
When website visitors adjust spacing so that they can consume website content with greater ease, there should be no loss of content or functionality
WCAG 2.1 Level AAA is the highest level of conformance to WCAG 2.1. Although Level AAA may not be applicable or realistic for everyone to achieve, organizations should strive to meet as many of its criteria as possible.
Here’s what you will need to do to conform to WCAG 2.1 Level AAA:
- Provide sign language translations for videos
People who are deaf or have a hearing impairment may use sign language as their primary language. Pre-recorded sign language can be more easy to comprehend, and can more easily-convey emotion compared to written text found in captions. It can also be faster for some people to understand
- Provide extended audio description for videos
Standard audio descriptions provide a narration of key visual elements in a video and only make use of natural pauses in the dialogue. When natural gaps in the audio are too short, extended audio descriptions must be provided, which entails freezing video playback in order to fit the additional description
- Provide a text alternative to videos
People with both visual and auditory disabilities may be unable to read captions and hear dialogue or audio descriptions. By providing a descriptive text transcript, you make the content accessible via assistive technologies
- Provide alternatives for live audio
Audio-only live content isn't accessible for people who are deaf or have hearing impairments. By providing a text alternative, such as live captions or access to a script, you allow them to have full access to the information conveyed
- Ensure a contrast ratio between text and its background of at least 7:1
When contrast between text and its background is 7:1 or greater, you make it easier for people with more significant vision impairments and/or colorblindness to view content. For text appearing in bold or in font size 18pt and higher, a 4.5:1 contrast ratio is sufficient. These restrictions do not apply to logos and brand names. For a more in-depth breakdown of this checklist item, we recommend you read our blog on choosing ADA-compliant fonts
- Ensure your website is entirely accessible via keyboard, without exception
Some website visitors may not be able to use pointing devices, such as a mouse, and rely on a keyboard or keyboard interface. When you make a website or app fully functional with just a keyboard, you allow more people to fully navigate and operate web content
- Remove time limits from all website elements
Some people with disabilities require more time to understand content and interact with a web page. By removing time limits, you allow more people to be able to fully interact with the content
- Ensure that no content flashes more than three times per second
Content that flashes can trigger seizures in some people. It can also be distracting for people with cognitive or learning disabilities. Do not design content that flashes, and replace any that already exists with non-flashing content that conveys the same meaning
- Ensure that no elements are changed unless website visitors explicitly show that they wish them to change
Make sure that the behavior of web elements is predictable and does not change unless website visitors have requested it. Changes to avoid include launching new windows, changing focus, or automatic submission of forms
- Explain the meanings of abbreviations and acronyms when you use them
Abbreviations and acronyms aren’t always understandable and can have multiple meanings and pronunciations. It is important to clarify the meaning of abbreviations and to mention an acronym's expanded form
- Explain the meaning of unusual words when you use them
Provide website visitors with definitions for unusual words, jargon, and technical language that is difficult to understand. Whenever possible, use clear and concise language to increase readability
ADA compliance: an ongoing effort
This document is meant to help ensure your website is ADA-compliant. However, it has no legal bearing, and cannot be relied on in the case of litigation.
Web accessibility is constantly evolving. Several new guidelines are likely to be included in WCAG 2.2, so website owners should stay tuned for when these are published in 2023. Updating your website so that it is ADA-compliant may require a little bit of work. However, it will result in all website visitors benefiting from an optimal user experience. If you're looking for a bit of inspiration in creating an ADA-compliant website from scratch or in adjusting your existing website so that it is fully-compliant, we recommend you check out this list of beatuiful ADA-complaint website examples.