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.
Small business owners know that providing the best customer experience is critical for retaining existing customers and attracting new ones.
However, there’s one group that is still underserved by many small businesses:
The disability community.
Despite making up an estimated 25% of the adult American population, the disability community is often unable to enjoy the same buying experience extended to everyone else.
This is where the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) comes into play. Enacted to ensure people with disabilities are granted equal access to goods and services, along with equal employment opportunities, the ADA is a seminal piece of anti-discriminatory legislation that you, as a small business owner, might be legally mandated to comply with.
In this guide, we’ll explain what is expected of small business owners under the ADA. We’ll explore small business owners’ responsibilities toward customers and employees with disabilities, and touch on creating an ADA-compliant small business website.
ADA compliance for small businesses: an overview
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in public spaces and ensures that they have equal access to employment and consumer opportunities.
There are two key areas of the ADA that small business owners should pay attention to: ADA Titles I and III.
ADA Title I prohibits discrimination against employees and job applicants with disabilities. Under Title I, qualified people with disabilities must be treated equally and should be accommodated in all areas of employment. This includes creating an equal application and interview process, along with providing the necessary assistance and tools to employees with disabilities so they can properly perform their jobs.
ADA Title III applies to the way businesses serve customers. Under Title III, businesses classified as "public accommodations" need to ensure customers with disabilities can access their goods and services. "Public accommodations" include retail stores, banks, restaurants, colleges, real estate agencies, hotels, and almost every other place of work.
It’s important to note that ADA Title III applies to small businesses’ physical domains (i.e., their physical stores) along with their online domains, (i.e., their websites and other online assets like email). We’ll explain what needs to be done for your small business website to be ADA-compliant later in the blog.
What small businesses are exempt from ADA requirements?
Most businesses need to comply with the ADA. However, some small businesses are exempt from ADA requirements. These include:
- Companies that only operate up to twenty weeks a year
- Businesses with less than fifteen employees
- Religious organizations
- Private clubs
That said, even if a business is exempt from complying with the ADA, it is still important and beneficial for it to provide an accessible and inclusive experience for all existing and potential customers.
What do small businesses need to do to be ADA-compliant?
Under the ADA, small businesses’ responsibilities toward people with disabilities are twofold:
- Ensuring equal access to goods and services
- Making proper accommodations for employees with disabilities
To that end, small business owners need to address the following action items:
- Present an accessible website
- Ensure physical spaces are accessible
- Invest in employee education
- Ensure equal opportunities for employees with disabilities during the hiring process
- Provide reasonable adjustments and accommodations to employees with disabilities
- Communicate effectively with customers with disabilities
- Create a policy for service animals
Let’s break down each of these action items individually:
1. Present an accessible website
U.S. courts now apply ADA Title III to websites. This means that a small business website needs to be made accessible to people with disabilities. This is true whether a small business runs an online store or a more basic, simple website.
To ensure their website is ADA-compliant, small business owners typically need to conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG has a deciding impact on global web accessibility policy.
There are several versions of WCAG, and each consists of three levels of conformance: Level A (the lowest level of conformance), Level AA (the most commonly sought-after level of conformance), and Level AAA (the highest level of conformance).
While WCAG has not been codified into law directly, U.S. courts have referred to an older version of these guidelines, WCAG 2.0 Level AA, as the goal for web accessibility. However, small businesses are best served when they conform with the latest version of WCAG, WCAG 2.1.
Websites that conform to WCAG 2.1 Level AA are unlikely to face legal recourse.
Examples of action items you will need to address to ensure your website conforms to WCAG 2.1 include, but aren't limited to:
- Provide content in alternate formats
Offer alternate formats to accompany audio-only or video-only content, such as captions or transcripts. This will allow people with certain disabilities to access it
- Ensure compatibility with screen reader technology
Some people who are blind or have low vision rely on screen readers (like NVDA or JAWS) to read web content aloud to them. For your website to accommodate such people, certain code-level adjustments will need to be made to it. Many small business website owners rely on automated tools, such as accessWidget, to assist them with this
- Ensure sufficient color contrast
People with color blindness or low vision can struggle to read text if it doesn’t sufficiently contrast with its background. The minimum contrast ratio between text and its background should be 4.5:1. With large-scale text (at least 18 pts) and bold text (at least 14 pts), a contrast ratio of at least 3:1 will suffice. For a more in-depth breakdown of these requirements, we recommend you read our guides on selecting ADA-compliant colors and choosing ADA-compliant fonts
- Avoid content that can trigger seizures
A website should not contain content known to trigger seizures. Any content that flashes more than three times in a second should be avoided
How to ensure your online store is ADA-compliant
To comply with the ADA, businesses that operate an online store (i.e., an eCommerce website) should ensure that all customers, regardless of ability, can browse their goods and services and purchase them with relative ease. An accessible, ADA-compliant eCommerce website is simple and predictable to navigate, has clearly labeled buttons, and uses concise and descriptive alt text for images.
One area online store owners should pay special attention to is the checkout process. Typically incorporating complex forms with several steps, checkout processes can prove challenging for people with disabilities. For it to be accessible (and in compliance with the ADA), a checkout process will need to feature clean design and display clear messages in case of an error.
How to test a small business website for ADA compliance
You can test whether your small business website is ADA-compliant using ADA compliance software 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 check whether it conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA. After the audit is complete, you will be assigned a score (compliant, semi-compliant, or non-compliant), and will be given a more detailed report highlighting specific website elements that may require further attention.
accessServices can be relied on to manually audit and remediate your website, as well. Many small businesses rely on accessServices to thoroughly inspect their websites and make the necessary adjustments to ensure they fully comply with the ADA.
It’s important to note that both approaches complement each other. Many small business website owners rely on automated tools for an initial audit of their website and then turn to expert service providers to help examine and remediate compliance issues.
ADA compliance for online documents
Achieving ADA compliance for your website also requires that your online documents are made accessible to people with disabilities. Your PDFs, Microsoft Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and all other online documents need to be configured so that they can be accessed by everyone.
To test whether an existing online document is accessible, you can use built-in testing features available within Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Office applications. These will flag accessibility issues appearing within a given document so that you can then remediate them.
Some small businesses turn to expert services to help them when they have high quantities of online documents in need of remediation. Service providers, such as accessServices, are well-versed in the sections of WCAG that apply to online documents and are better-equipped to deal with more complex, lengthy remediation projects.
2. Ensure physical spaces are accessible
Physical access barriers are some of the most common factors preventing small businesses from being ADA-compliant. These barriers need to be removed for people with disabilities to fully access your small business. Examples of physical access barriers include:
- Lack of accessible parking and loading zones
- Inaccessible restrooms, sales counters, and tables
- Insufficient aisle width
To avoid these barriers, a business should modify its physical spaces and provide accommodation for people with disabilities. Physical access accommodations include:
- Wheelchair ramps
- Bathroom modifications
- Braille signage
- Audio/visual aids for people with vision or hearing impairments
3. Invest in employee education
Small businesses’ employees are the face of the brand and should be adequately trained on how to recognize, respond to, and support customers with disabilities. When you educate your team on accessibility best practices, you help ensure that every customer has a positive experience.
Failing to train employees on how to effectively communicate with people with disabilities can be viewed as a violation of ADA Title III. Properly educating your employees can mitigate the chances of facing legal recourse over non-compliance.
Accessibility legislation and best practices are constantly evolving, and disability training shouldn’t be a one-time project. Instead, keep tabs on current requirements and best practices and make sure these insights trickle down to all employees.
4. Ensure equal opportunities for employees with disabilities during the hiring process
Under ADA Title I, businesses are prohibited from discriminating against employees with disabilities. In general, an employer cannot reject an applicant because of their disability. This includes rejection due to speculated risks an applicant’s employment may pose in the future or the impact their disability may have on minor duties that are not essential to the job.
Under the ADA, an individual with a disability must be qualified and able to perform essential functions when provided with reasonable accommodations. The latter need to be provided during the hiring process, as well.
Reasonable accommodations during the hiring process can include:
- Providing written materials in accessible formats, such as large print, braille, or audiotape
- Providing assistive technology or sign language interpreters
- Choosing accessible locations for interviews, tests, and other parts of the application process
- Ensuring that application tests do not require use of a person’s impaired skill, unless the test is designed to measure that skill
What about the interview process?
Employers are allowed to tell all applicants what the hiring process involves and to ask whether they will require reasonable accommodation. However, an employer cannot ask candidates with disabilities questions that they do not ask other candidates, including those pertaining to sick days, health conditions, and medication.
The ADA contains strict confidentiality requirements, which means that any medical information shared during and after the interview (and during the hiring process in general) must remain confidential with specific exceptions.
5. Provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities
Under ADA Title I, employees with disabilities should be able to perform the essential functions of their job without barriers, and should enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment. To that end, employers are often required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. These can include:
- Making existing facilities accessible, such as by installing a ramp or ergonomic workstations
- Introducing accessible and assistive technologies, such as screen reader software
- Making communications accessible, such as by making materials available in large print
- Modifying or enhancing policies, such as to allow for a part-time work schedule
Accommodations should be regarded as "productivity enhancers" rather than "special treatment". They will also often benefit all employees. For example, ergonomic workstations are likely to be welcomed by employees without disabilities as well as those who have disabilities.
6. Communicate effectively with customers with disabilities
As part of the ADA, businesses are expected to communicate effectively with people with disabilities, including both employees and customers. The ADA uses the term “auxiliary aids and services” to refer to the ways information should be relayed to people who have communication disabilities. The law allows for flexibility in determining effective communication solutions, allowing for several ways to effectively communicate with people who have certain disabilities.
Here are some examples of auxiliary aids and services to make a business accessible to all customers:
- For people who are blind, have vision loss, or are deaf-blind, a business may provide a qualified reader. A business may also showcase information in large print, in braille, or electronically and in a format that is compatible with a screen reader, or provide an audio recording of printed information
- For people who are deaf, have hearing loss, or are deaf-blind, a business may provide a qualified notetaker, a qualified sign language interpreter, oral interpreter, cued-speech interpreter, or tactile interpreter. Additional measures include providing real-time captioning, written materials, or a printed script of a stock speech
- For people who have speech disabilities, a business may allow more time to communicate with someone. For more complex situations, a business may provide a qualified speech-to-speech transliterator
7. Create a policy for service animals
Generally, all businesses that are open to the public must allow access to service animals within areas the public has access to. This includes places with a “no pets” policy. Service animals are trained to perform tasks directly related to a person's disability. They are not required to be certified, professionally trained, or to wear a vest that indicates they're a service animal. To ensure that all staff members are aware of their obligation to allow access to customers with service animals, it is helpful to introduce transparent policies permitting service animals.
The importance of ADA compliance for small businesses
When your small business is ADA-compliant, you welcome and cater to the highest number of people, whether they are customers in your store, employees, or website visitors.
In the Valuable Truth Report 2022, which tracked progress in global business disability inclusion, founder Caroline Casey shared: "Only by putting staff and customers with disabilities at the heart of business strategies will companies rewrite the cultural narrative necessary to transform how we do business." And, while pursuing equality is important on a moral level, being inclusive of the disability community tends to lead to positive business outcomes, as well. Accenture found that businesses that focused on disability inclusion grew their profits 4.1 times faster than other companies.
It’s important to note that taking steps to make a business more accessible for people with disabilities can benefit many other individuals, as well. A more accessible website, for example, tends to be easier to navigate for elderly people or people using a mobile device, and can also reap considerable SEO benefits.
By focusing on ADA compliance, a small business can become more inclusive, accessible, and compassionate, thus strengthening both its brand and its customer base.
The consequences of not complying with the ADA
Small businesses that violate the ADA can face significant financial and legal recourse, including fines and lawsuits. The most common ADA compliance violations include physical barrier lawsuits, such as those pertaining to accessible parking spaces, public restrooms, and accessible tables.
Another common ADA compliance violation is website accessibility.
Websites that stand in violation of the ADA put their owners at risk of receiving an ADA website compliance demand letter. Additionally, and even in the event that a demand letter isn’t sent, owners of non-compliant websites can face web accessibility lawsuits. Plaintiffs filed 3,225 website accessibility lawsuits in federal court in 2022, which is a 12% increase from 2021.
Small businesses that do not comply with the ADA also risk incurring reputational damage. People with disabilities – and people without disabilities – may choose not to support businesses that are inaccessible, opting instead to spend money on more inclusive and compassionate brands.
Tax deductions for complying with the ADA
If you are a small business owner, you may be eligible for tax deductions. The tax benefit applies to businesses that generated $1,000,000 or less during the year prior to filing or businesses that employ up to thirty full-time employees. The ADA tax code allows you to claim up to $15,000 per year for expenses related to accessibility improvements. This includes costs associated with removing physical barriers, such as installing ramps or widening exterior doorways. You can also deduct the cost of modifying the store's interior for accessibility reasons.
Besides your brick-and-mortar store, the ADA tax credit covers a portion of ADA-related expenditures to make your retail website accessible. The ADA tax credit allows businesses to claim up to $5,000 in credit for making websites more accessible.
To ensure they are complying with the ADA to the full extent of the law, small business owners will need to address barriers existing within their physical domains and within their online spaces, such as their websites. Along with it being the right thing to do, complying with the ADA will see small business owners reaping considerable benefits, in the form of an expanded consumer base and potential revenue growth.