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.
When your eCommerce website complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you provide the disability community with the equal online shopping experience it deserves.
But what must you do to ensure you are in full compliance with the law?
In this blog, we'll go over what ADA compliance for eCommerce websites is, explain its importance, and provide actionable tips on how you can make your online store ADA-compliant.
ADA compliance for eCommerce websites: an overview
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a foundational piece of American legislation prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in many different aspects of daily life.
Under Title III of the ADA, businesses considered places of “public accommodation” must ensure that they are fully accessible to everyone, regardless of ability. To that end, store owners must ensure that members of the disability community can fully-access goods and services within their brick-and-mortar establishments.
Additionally, U.S. courts currently apply ADA accessibility requirements to the online domain, ruling that businesses' websites need to be made accessible to all visitors.
In short, eCommerce websites must comply with the ADA and provide equal access to all.
WCAG's role in ADA compliance for eCommerce websites
For eCommerce websites to be compliant with the ADA, they need to conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is considered by many to be the most influential set of protocols impacting global web accessibility policy.
Throughout the years, there have been a number of WCAG iterations:
WCAG 2.0 was released in 2008, while WCAG 2.1, an updated version of these guidelines and the most up-to-date, was released in 2018. The first draft of the next version of these guidelines, WCAG 2.2, was initially released in February of 2020, and is scheduled to be officially published sometime in 2023.
Both WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 have three levels you can conform to:
- Level A - the minimum level of conformance
- Level AA - the conformance level referenced in most accessibility regulations around the world
- Level AAA - the optimal and most difficult level of conformance to achieve
In cases in which website owners have been sued for having non-accessible websites under the ADA, U.S. courts have required defendants to adjust their websites so that they conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA. For now, however, if an eCommerce website conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA, it is unlikely to face legal recourse.
To achieve WCAG 2.1 Level AA conformance, eCommerce website owners must address a number of elements within their online stores to allow for people with a variety of disabilities to fully-access them.
This may include making the following adjustments:
- Ensuring compatibility with screen reader technology
- Ensuring that text alternatives for product images are fully descriptive
- Ensuring text is resizable without loss of page functionality
- Creating interactive content that can be operated via keyboard
We will dive deeper into these requirements and others later in this blog. You can click here to skip to that section.
The importance of ADA compliance for eCommerce websites
Everyone should have the same opportunities to shop online. The problem is that many eCommerce websites heavily incorporate items that may not be easily accessible to people with disabilities.
For example, eCommerce websites almost always rely on forms for monetary transactions and sign-ups, and incorporate image carousels to showcase goods. Online store owners need to find a way to make these features accessible to people with certain disabilities.
Beyond these important ethical reasons, ensuring your eCommerce website is ADA-compliant is critical for avoiding legal recourse. As commerce continues to shift to the online domain, a non-accessible website is a significant liability for businesses operating online.
How can I check if my eCommerce website is ADA-compliant?
You can test whether your website is accessible using automated testing tools, such as accessScan, and by relying on expert service providers, like accessServices.
To use accessScan, you will need to submit your website’s URL, after which the tool will run a quick, automated audit of your web page and examine how it conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA. Within a few seconds, your web page will be assigned a score: Compliant, semi-compliant, or non-compliant.
You will also be presented with a more detailed breakdown of your website’s compliance status that you can download as a PDF. Your eCommerce website’s accessibility issues will be highlighted in the report, along with instructions on how to address and fix them.
Click here to use accessScan and find out if your eCommerce website is ADA-compliant.
accessServices can be relied on to manually audit and remediate your eCommerce website, as well. Given that eCommerce websites are often more complex, involving an expert service provider to thoroughly inspect them for compliance issues can yield optimal results.
The most important elements of an ADA-compliant eCommerce website
eCommerce websites typically incorporate many different types of components (more so than the average, basic website). These components vary in complexity and, depending on how they were created and configured, they can be quite challenging to operate for certain website visitors. These elements include forms, high volumes of meaningful images (i.e., images that display goods or services, and that don’t appear for decorative purposes only), and a lot of dynamic content.
To create an ADA-compliant eCommerce website, pay attention to the following key elements:
Alt text for meaningful images
Goods and services offered by eCommerce websites are often featured through images. The latter showcase various elements of a given product or service, such as the shape, size, and color of jewelry, or particular patterns on an item of clothing. For people who rely on screen readers to properly access these images, they will need to be described through alt text.
Here’s an example that will help illustrate this issue:
The following image showcases a pair of jeans, described by the online store it appears on as "Tall High Rise Relaxed Jeans”.
If the alt text describing this pair of jeans were to be the name of the product (i.e., Tall High Rise Relaxed Jeans), those relying on screen readers wouldn’t be informed that the jeans have a small tear in the right knee. Therefore, the proper alt text for this image is "Woman wearing denim jeans with a tear on the right knee.”
Some people with disabilities may not be able to use a mouse. Make sure your website can be navigated using only a keyboard.
People with vision impairments may have trouble seeing certain color combinations. Use colors that are easy to distinguish between and ensure that information that is provided via color is also available in text.
Make the text on your website easy to read and understand. Ensure appropriate contrast and use legible fonts that aren't too small or too big.
Closed captions for videos with audio content
People with hearing impairments may struggle digesting video content. Closed captions help them access the information conveyed within videos.
Descriptive link text
The text for links should be sufficiently descriptive so that those considering to click on them understand the links' purpose and destination.
Properly-structured and labeled forms
A staple of eCommerce websites, forms are necessary for monetary transactions and user authentication, and should be easy to navigate and complete for all users. This can be achieved through logical and simplistic structure, proper labeling, offering meaningful instructions, using native HTML form elements, and providing assistance to minimize errors.
It’s important to note that this is a partial list. There may be other elements to consider depending on your website's offerings.
You can click here to read a more comprehensive checklist of action items you will need to address to reach WCAG 2.1 Level AA conformance.
What do eCommerce platforms offer in terms of ADA compliance?
Millions of business owners rely on platforms such as Shopify, WooCommerce, and BigCommerce, to create their eCommerce websites. These website building platforms are easy to use (for the most part), allowing just about anyone to create a stunning online store.
But can you rely on these tools to create an ADA-compliant eCommerce website?
While some platforms have built-in accessibility features, these are largely basic. Those who rely on them will likely not achieve full compliance.
Therefore, many eCommerce website owners who rely on Shopify, WooCommerce, Wix, and other eCommerce website builders, use third-party compliance tools such as accessWidget.
accessWidget seamlessly-integrates with major eCommerce platforms, addressing and remediating accessibility issues on a code level. accessWidget also presents online shoppers with an interface through which they can adjust design and UI elements to fit their specific abilities. These include (but aren’t limited to) adjusting font sizes and color contrasts, enabling read-only mode, and stopping animations.
Click here to see how you can integrate accessWidget with your ecommerce platform.
Can you be sued if your eCommerce website is not ADA-compliant?
The ADA exists to protect people with disabilities from facing discrimination, including while engaging with businesses’ online domains. If your eCommerce website stands in violation of the ADA, you unintentionally discriminate against people with disabilities, and deny them the opportunity to shop online that exists for others. As a result, you can face legal action, including receiving an ADA website compliance demand letter and potentially facing ADA website compliance lawsuits.
An ADA website demand letter will detail the areas of your website that are inaccessible and present you with a date by which they will need to be remediated. Failure to address an ADA website compliance demand letter often leads to further legal action, including lawsuits.
It’s important to note that website accessibility lawsuits have surged in recent years. In 2021, the number of ADA Title III lawsuits filed in federal court against websites was up 14% from the previous year. The vast majority of lawsuits pertaining to ADA Title III (i.e., the section that applies to web accessibility) find in favor of the plaintiff.
How can you avoid an ADA eCommerce website compliance lawsuit?
To avoid an ADA eCommerce website compliance lawsuit, you will first need to run an audit of your eCommerce website’s level of WCAG conformance. You can test whether your website is accessible using automated testing tools, such as accessScan, and by relying on expert service providers, like accessServices.
Once you have a clear understanding of your eCommerce website’s level of conformance with WCAG, you will need to address accessibility issues, if those exist. This can entail making changes to your website's design, layout, and functionality so that people with disabilities can access it.
When your eCommerce website complies with the ADA, you provide the disability community with the equal online shopping experience it rightfully deserves. You can easily find out your eCommerce website’s compliance status by using readily-available automated accessibility testers. And, by leveraging the right tools, you can ensure your online store is fully-accessible, regardless of the eCommerce platform you use.