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.
The world has become increasingly digitized.
And, while many have benefited from this, people with disabilities have found themselves being denied equal access to websites, apps, and other digital assets.
That’s where the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) comes into play.
Originally enacted to pave the way for equal access in physical domains, the ADA has since expanded toward the online domain.
Currently, U.S. courts apply ADA accessibility requirements to websites, which means that websites should comply with the ADA.
Many businesses have rightfully taken action to comply with the ADA.
However, there is much more work to be done until the web truly becomes an equitable and inclusive space.
With recent data showing the number of ADA website compliance cases rising, website owners need to know how to become ADA-compliant and ensure their websites meet the relevant standards.
In this blog, we'll cover what you will need to know about ADA website compliance lawsuits in 2023. We’ll explain what ADA compliance is, what the most common ADA website compliance violations are, and how to avoid an ADA compliance lawsuit.
What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?
Enacted in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that grants the disability community equal access to public accommodations, employment, and services.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all sectors of society, such as in colleges, public transportation, public buildings (e.g., hospitals and libraries), and private businesses that are open to the public. These include restaurants, banks, real estate agencies, hotels, and many other organizations.
Since its enactment, the ADA has had a significant impact on the way businesses accommodate and serve people with disabilities.
Under the ADA, businesses must make reasonable adjustments to their policies and procedures to ensure accessibility.
This may look like:
- Providing accessible entrances, restrooms, and parking
- Installing visual and auditory signals for people who are hard of hearing
- Giving access to auxiliary aids and services, like interpreters or written materials in alternative formats
ADA Title III and web accessibility
ADA Title III applies to businesses that are considered “public accommodations.”
Businesses that fall under this category include, but aren't limited to, restaurants, hotels, retail stores, libraries, parks, and daycare centers.
And, while these businesses must ensure that their physical domains are accessible to people with disabilities, U.S. courts now apply ADA accessibility requirements to their online domains, as well.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) currently considers websites as public accommodations that must comply with ADA Title III. Businesses and organizations that fall under the category of "public accommodations" must therefore make their websites accessible to people with disabilities, as well.
It's important to note that, effectively, almost all places of business provide services and accommodations to the public. Therefore, ensuring their websites are ADA-compliant is relevant to almost all businesses.
What is ADA website compliance?
ADA website compliance refers to the process of making a website accessible to the disability community. All website visitors, regardless of ability, should be able to perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with a website.
To ensure their website is ADA-compliant, businesses need to follow the technical guidelines laid out by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is considered by many to be the most highly-influential set of guidelines impacting global web accessibility policy.
Throughout the years, WCAG has been revised and updated a number of times.
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 2020, and is scheduled to be officially released by the end of August of 2023.
WCAG 2.1: a short breakdown
- Perceivable: Information appearing on a website should be presented in a way that allows people to perceive content through their senses of touch, sight, and sound
- Operable: An operable website is navigable with a keyboard only. Additionally, website content should not cause seizures or other physical reactions
- Understandable: Websites should feature text that is readable and understandable, and shouldn’t rely on complex jargon or instructions. Content should appear and function in predictable ways
- Robust: A website should use proper HTML and CSS code. Website content should be compatible with a wide range of current and future assistive technologies
There are three levels of conformance to WCAG 2.1:
Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA.
Level A is the most elementary form of conformance, while Level AA is the conformance level referenced in most accessibility rules and regulations around the world.
Level AAA is the optimal level of conformance, and is thus the hardest to achieve.
At the moment, a website that conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA is unlikely to be sued for lack of accessibility.
Examples of actual steps required to conform to WCAG 2.1 Level AA include:
- Ensuring your website is compatible with screen reader technology
- Providing text alternatives for meaningful images
- Using headings and labels to organize content
- Designing easy-to-use forms and controls
Finally, it is important to note that conforming with WCAG (and achieving ADA compliance), involves ensuring that other web-based applications you own and manage are made accessible to people with disabitilies. These include, but aren't limited to, online documents, such as PDFs, and email.
What websites are exempt from achieving ADA compliance?
For the time being, a few businesses are exempt from achieving ADA compliance.
- Religious organizations
- Private clubs like country clubs or social clubs
Note that these exemptions do not apply to all aspects of the ADA. Companies that fall into one of these categories may still need to achieve ADA compliance in certain circumstances. For example, public accommodations like schools may need to comply even if they are owned by a religious organization.
ADA compliance vs. Section 508 compliance
You may have heard of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
It’s important to note that while the ADA requires private businesses to make reasonable accommodations for their employees and customers, Section 508 applies to federal agencies, organizations that accept federal funding, and organizations that provide services to federally-funded bodies.
This means that government-supported institutions, like doctors' offices accepting Medicaid or Medicare, museums, and universities (among other similar organizations), must make their digital platforms, including their websites, accessible to people with disabilities.
Websites that must comply with Section 508 should conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA.
Can you be sued for having a website that isn’t ADA-compliant?
As lawmakers push for a more inclusive internet for everyone, ADA compliance is a must for business websites.
Having a non-compliant website puts business owners at risk of serious legal consequences, including receiving demand letters and facing lawsuits.
Even if you're a small to mid-sized company, ADA compliance should be a priority to avoid lawsuits.
Who enforces ADA compliance for websites?
There's a misconception that the ADA is an all-encompassing office that anyone facing a violation can turn to in order to resolve an issue.
In reality, the ADA is a civil rights law that several government agencies enforce.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has the authority to investigate complaints made by individuals and bring lawsuits against companies found to have violated the law. Government agencies, like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), also have the authority to enforce the ADA in certain circumstances.
It’s worth noting that private individuals may also bring lawsuits against businesses for violating the ADA.
The difference between an ADA demand letter and an ADA violation lawsuit
If elements of your website stand in violation of the ADA, you open yourself up to receiving an ADA website demand letter.
A demand letter is a formal letter sent by individuals or organizations detailing the specific ADA violations appearing on your website. The letter will express its issuer’s demand that you take action to correct these violations, and will typically include a deadline by which, if corrective action isn’t taken, legal action will be pursued.
A demand letter is commonly sent before a lawsuit is filed in cases related to ADA compliance violations.
If you ignore the demand letter, it will likely turn into a lawsuit. Therefore, it is highly recommended you take action after receiving said letter.
Your first step will be to identify the exact elements in your website that need to be addressed. Then, you will need to take the necessary steps to remediate them.
We’ll cover these steps in further detail later in the blog.
It is important to note that sending a demand letter is not a required step before filing a lawsuit. Businesses can be sued even without receiving a demand letter beforehand.
How common are ADA website lawsuits and who is most at risk?
The number of website accessibility lawsuits has gone up in recent years.
Plaintiffs claim that they cannot access websites due to incompatibility with assistive technologies.
Often, they cite violations of ADA Title III, which covers public accommodations, in their lawsuits. As a result, organizations of all sizes are at risk of facing legal action for not complying with the ADA.
What financial recourse should you expect if you aren’t ADA-compliant?
ADA compliance violations, if left untreated, can result in costly legal action, heavy fines, and potential settlements.
Under the ADA, businesses are subject to a fine of $75,000 for a single ADA violation. The fine can increase to $150,000 for further violations.
On top of these financial burdens, businesses may face negative publicity and suffer reputational damage if they are not ADA-compliant.
How can you avoid an ADA website compliance lawsuit?
If you wish to avoid facing legal action, the first step you’ll need to take is to assess your website's current level of compliance.
This is done by performing an ADA compliance audit of your website.
You can manually test your website for compliance with the ADA and other web accessibility standards mentioned above.
You can also use a website ADA compliance tester, like accessScan, to scan your website for potential issues.
A free ADA website compliance testing tool, accessScan will run a quick, automated audit of your website, and examine its level of conformance 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. Any compliance issues found during the automated test will be highlighted in the report, along with instructions on how to address and remediate them.
Click here to use accessScan and find out if your website is ADA-compliant.
If your website is found to be non-compliant or semi-compliant, you will need to remediate all issues identified during the audit to avoid facing legal action.
This may include making changes to the website's design and layout, adding alt text to images, and providing captions for video content.
With the power of AI, accessWidget will help you deal with more complex compliance issues on a code level, such as optimizing your website for screen readers and allowing for keyboard navigation.
Additionally, accessWidget presents website visitors with disabilities with an interface through which they can further customize your website so that it accounts for their individual accessibility needs.
Click here to read more about accessWidget and how it can help your website achieve ADA compliance.
The most common website ADA violations to avoid
Website accessibility violations make it difficult for people with disabilities to navigate a website. If left unaddressed, these violations can result in website owners receiving demand letters and potentially facing lawsuits.
Here are some of the most common violations:
Lack of descriptive alt text for meaningful images
If an image lacks alt text, people with disabilities who rely on screen reader technology have no way of understanding it.
However, simply adding alt text to an image won’t achieve the desired effect if it doesn’t properly describe the image in question. Whatever appears within an image must be conveyed accurately, in text, for those relying on screen readers to understand it.
It’s important to note that alt text should only be added to images that, if removed, would result in a website visitor losing out on vital content. Images that are displayed only for decorative purposes should be hidden from assistive technologies.
Poor color contrast between text and backgrounds
The color contrast between text and its background should be high enough for people with color blindness or low vision to be able to read the text. You can read more about this topic in our guide on ADA-compliant colors.
Featuring non-responsive UI
Many websites are designed in a way that is incompatible with mobile phones.
Website visitors should be able to magnify text, zoom up to 400%, and access a website on an iPhone 5 without loss of content or functionality.
Not offering keyboard navigation
All website content must be accessible with a keyboard, and all interactive content must work with a keyboard.
Not offering captions for videos
Captions make it possible for those with partial or complete hearing loss to access video content. You can read more about this topic in our guide on ADA-compliant videos.
Important note: This is only a partial list of common website accessibility violations. For a more comprehensive list, we recommend you check out our ADA website compliance checklist.
The future of ADA website compliance
The future of ADA website compliance is ever-shifting.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has been criticized for lacking clear web accessibility regulations. In response, it has proposed rules expected to be released in April 2023. These will detail what must be done for a website to become compliant with the ADA.
The rules will provide a technical standard that local and state businesses will draw upon when creating accessible content for individuals with disabilities.
It is important to note that, once released, these regulations will be applicable to both state and local governments.
ADA website compliance is about much more than avoiding a lawsuit — it's about giving the disability community an inclusive web experience it rightfully deserves.
And, with 16% of the global population having a disability, ADA website compliance is a critical consideration for organizations of all kinds.
Accessing the internet should be a basic right for all, and you can do your part to promote anti-discrimination. Having an ADA-compliant and accessible website is a great place to start.