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.
To know whether your website is ADA-compliant, you will need to test it.
But how can you do that?
What tools and methods should you leverage to ensure your website complies with the ADA to the fullest extent of the law?
In this guide, we’ll explain what ADA website compliance entails and explore testing tools and services that will ensure your website and web-based applications are accessible to people with disabilities.
What is the ADA?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is an important piece of legislation that protects people with disabilities from discrimination and ensures that they are given equal access to opportunities and services.
If you are a business owner, you should be aware of ADA Title III, which applies to businesses that are classified as “public accommodations.” Businesses that fall under this category include, but certainly aren't limited to, hospitals, colleges, banks, hotels, real estate agencies, and many other small businesses. These organizations need to ensure that both their physical and online domains are fully accessible to people with disabilities.
Given that nearly all places of business provide services and accommodations to the public, ensuring their websites comply with the ADA is required of almost all businesses.
The ADA and web accessibility
In 2018, the DOJ stated that websites also fall under the category of “public accommodations” and must comply with the ADA. It also referenced specific guidelines that websites should conform to under the ADA: the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is considered the most important protocol shaping global web accessibility legislation. Many U.S. courts reference these guidelines in cases involving web accessibility under the ADA.
Throughout the years, there have been a number of WCAG iterations:
- WCAG 2.0, which was released in 2008
- WCAG 2.1, which was released in 2018. This is the current and most up-to-date version of these guidelines
- 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 - a minimal level of conformance, which is insufficient for ADA compliance
- Level AA - the conformance level referenced in most accessibility laws around the world
- Level AAA - the most difficult level of conformance to achieve
WCAG 2.0 Level AA is often cited as the benchmark for website accessibility. However, conforming to WCAG 2.1 Level AA is a safer bet for avoiding any legal recourse due to lack of accessibility.
The importance of complying with the ADA
Transforming the web into a fair and equitable space for members of the disability communities is a moral imperative. Far too often, people with disabilities face discrimination online in the form of websites that are partially or fully inaccessible. With more than a quarter of American adults having some form of disability, website owners need to be aware of the fact that website visitors with disabilities have particular needs, and take these into account when designing and coding their websites.
It is important to note that the population of people with disabilities has considerable consumer power. It is estimated that people with disabilities, along with their families, friends, and associates, have $13 trillion in disposable income globally. By ensuring their websites are fully accessible and compliant with the ADA, businesses appeal to disability community members, expanding their reach and consumer base.
What are the consequences of not complying with the ADA?
When your website fails to be accessible and comply with the ADA, you present members of the disability communities with digital barriers that others do not have to face, and that often prevents them from being able to use your website. Whether intentional or not, featuring inaccessible design and UI elements on your website is an act of discrimination against people with disabilities that can result in significant legal action.
Businesses and website owners with non-compliant websites risk receiving ADA website compliance demand letters, and potentially facing ADA website compliance lawsuits. Both can bring about significant financial repercussions and can damage your brand reputation.
How to test for ADA website compliance
To get a proper read on your website’s state of ADA compliance, you will need to test it.
As a website owner, you have two primary options to conduct regular tests and ensure ongoing compliance.
Manual testing methods yield both quantitative and qualitative data. Typically requiring more time and resources, manual tests are relatively labor-intensive and can be more expensive. Automated testing methods, on the other hand, prioritize quantitative data, providing quicker results and often prove to be more cost-effective.
As a website owner, you’re best served by incorporating both testing approaches. That way, you can reap the benefits of quick automated testing, an especially powerful approach for initial testing. You can rest assured knowing that manual experts will then identify more complex issues that aren’t always apparent during preliminary automated tests.
Let’s break down each approach separately:
Manual testing methods
Manual ADA website compliance testing is typically conducted by web accessibility and ADA compliance experts. These professionals analyze your website and web-based applications, checking their level of conformance with WCAG at the relevant level (AA or AAA).
Manual testing can be more costly and time-consuming. However, it offers valuable qualitative insights. For instance, manual testers can more properly assess whether form instructions or error messages are sufficiently comprehensible, or whether certain multi-stage processes can derail the browsing experience of specific visitors. Armed with this information, you can develop a plan to address the identified issues.
Experts will assess your website's conformance with WCAG by using assistive technologies, such as screen readers. This simulates the user experience of a person who is blind, and can yield important insights as to how user-friendly your website is to them.
Testers will also consider how your website caters to people with other disabilities. Professional testers typically evaluate compatibility with significant disability categories, such as physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and hearing disabilities.
Many expert service providers make use of an ADA website compliance checklist during their audit process. This helps them concentrate on key areas of a website that need to be examined for WCAG conformance.
Automated testing methods
Automated testing is the act of using automated tools to quickly audit your website’s level of conformance with WCAG.
This approach has a few key advantages:
Automated tools, like accessScan, complement manual testing methods and are often more efficient in completing the initial step of the testing process mentioned earlier. Many components of your website can be flagged as inaccessible quickly and at little to no cost. Then, web accessibility experts can dive deeper into these problems, assessing their true scope and examining whether they extend to other areas of your website.
It is worth stressting again that to ensure your website is ADA-compliant, it is widely recommended to leverage both testing approaches.
ADA website compliance testing tools
You can check if your website is ADA-compliant with accessScan, a free automated testing tool that examines your website’s overall state of accessibility.
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. The tool will scan key components of your web page, such as buttons, forms, images, menus, and links, to ensure they are configured so that people with disabilities can fully access them.
Once the audit is complete, your web page will be given a score: compliant, semi-compliant, or non-compliant.
You will also be given a detailed report (which you can download as a PDF) highlighting specific website elements that may require further attention. You will need to address these to achieve ADA compliance.
It is worth noting that ongoing accessibility testing can be conducted while it is being developed. Today, web developers can remediate websites and webapps on platforms such as accessFlow, which continuously tests for accessibility, and provides code fixes within a workflow to implement them. This can prove especially useful for those with a development team looking to implement native web accessibility. Existing code is scored, so that developers can understand what they need to improve and how they can ensure they are building a website that complies with the ADA.
Can online documents be tested for ADA compliance?
For your website to achieve ADA compliance, the online documents featured in it will need to be accessible to people with disabilities, as well.
Like with your website, you can test online documents to gauge how accessible they are.
With PDFs and Microsoft Office applications (like PowerPoint presentations, Word documents, and Excel files), you can leverage built-in accessibility checkers. To use one of these tools, start by opening a document, selecting the accessibility checker from the tool menu, and running the test. When the tool completes its scan, a list of accessibility issues will be presented to you, along with suggestions on how to remediate them.
Document remediation will typically entail ensuring compatibility with screen readers (like JAWS), making interactive elements navigable by keyboard, labeling form fields, and ensuring that graphic elements have text-based descriptions.
It is worth noting that while these tools do a good job at identifying many accessibility issues existing within online documents, they will not find all of them. It is therefore not recommended to rely solely on them when testing your online documents for ADA compliance.
Many website and business owners turn to expert service providers, such as accessServices, to thoroughly test online documents for them. These experts are better equipped at handling online document testing projects, especially when the documents are complex or lengthy.
Expert service providers will additionally remediate any accessibility issues they find during their auditing process. This is the optimal way of ensuring your online documents are ADA-compliant.
Other resources you may find helpful in your efforts to ensure your PDF files are ADA-compliant include:
Members of the disability community deserve equal access to websites. Complying with the ADA will see you doing your part in ending the discrimination this group faces when attempting to engage with online environments. Regularly testing your website and web-based applications for ADA compliance is key in that regard. By leveraging a combination of manual and automated approaches, you can effectively maintain compliance while managing considerations of speed and cost.