Everything on ADA  Compliance

What is the ADA?

The ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was signed into law by President George Bush in 1990, and it is America’s most important law regarding accessibility and civil rights for people with disabilities, including web accessibility.

Essentially, the ADA prohibits discrimination against anyone based on ability or disability. It came about after a 2-year campaign to advance civil rights to marginalized groups, including Americans with disabilities. Disability activists and advocates lobbied intensely for laws that would prohibit discrimination, and from 1988 they began to garner cross-partisan support for federal legislation.

The ADA draws on the precedent set by Section 504 of the much older Rehabilitation Act, which guarantees certain rights to people with disabilities. However, the Rehabilitation Act was very limited and only applied to the government sector (later amended and updated by Section 508).

The five titles of the ADA

The ADA is a very broad and wide-ranging piece of legislation that covers many aspects of accessibility for people with disabilities. It is structured into five distinct titles, each addressing different areas of public life:

  • Title I prohibits employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities, ensuring equal opportunities in the job application process, hiring, and other employment practices
  • Title II mandates equal access to all public services and transportation for individuals with disabilities, ensuring state and local governments accommodate their needs
  • Title III requires that all public accommodations and commercial facilities be accessible to individuals with disabilities
  • Title IV focuses on telecommunications, requiring accessible telephone and internet services for individuals with hearing and speech disabilities
  • Title V includes miscellaneous provisions, such as prohibiting retaliation against individuals with disabilities asserting their rights under the ADA

Given that ADA Title III affects the way that businesses serve customers, you’ll hear accessibility legislation referred to as “ADA Title III.”

As mentioned before, ADA Title III covers public areas, like schooling and transportation, and “public accommodations.” “Public accommodations” is a legal phrase that includes businesses, restaurants, hotels, theaters, doctor's offices, banks, pharmacies, retail stores, colleges, museums, libraries, parks, daycare centers, and almost every place of work. 

ADA Title III is also applied today to these businesses’ websites. We will dive deeper into this topic in a moment. You can press here to skip to that section.

The definition of a disability under the ADA

28 years after President Bush signed the original 1990 bill, his son, President George W. Bush signed major changes to the ADA into law. 

The most important change involved the definition of a disability.

The original ADA defined a person with a disability as someone who has a condition that “substantially limits major life activities.” Courts defined this wording in a very conservative way, which meant that a number of ADA lawsuits, like the famous Sutton vs. United Airlines case of 1999, and Toyota vs. Williams in 2002, were dismissed because the plaintiff wasn’t considered to have a disability. 

Under the 2018 amendment, “major life activity” was redefined to include daily activities like caring for oneself or performing manual operations. It was also extended to include impairments to major bodily functions like digestive and respiratory functions, and neurological impairments, as legal disabilities.

What does complying with the ADA mean?

ADA requirements are twofold: 

  • Employers have to make reasonable accommodations and adjustments for employees with disabilities so that they can properly perform their jobs. Examples of reasonable accommodations include the provision of disability-friendly entrances, disability-friendly bathrooms, and ergonomic chairs, desks, and office equipment
  • Businesses of all types have to make it possible for customers with disabilities to access their services. The law requires them to make "reasonable modifications" to their premises when necessary so that they can serve people with disabilities. This includes things like wheelchair ramps for entrance into buildings, accessible bathrooms, American Sign Language (ASL) interpretations, and accommodation for service animals

Required accommodations at places of business for individuals with disabilities include:

  • Ramp access for wheelchairs and other mobility devices
  • Interface mechanisms for individuals with vision impairments
  • Interpretive devices or qualified interpreters for individuals with vision impairments
  • Accommodations for service animals

Who needs to comply with the ADA?

There’s a common misconception that the ADA only applies to very large corporations, but that’s a serious mistake. All types and all sizes of businesses have to comply with ADA legislation, as it pertains to their customers and their employees. Organizations exempt from complying with the ADA are those with fewer than 15 employees. That means that the ADA affects:

  • Places of entertainment like theaters, movie theaters, and concert halls
  • Restaurants and eateries
  • Small and medium businesses of all types
  • Large enterprises
  • Banks
  • Retail stores
  • Real estate agencies
  • Colleges
  • Local government offices, employment agencies, and labor unions
  • Website owners

The ADA and web accessibility

It was clear from the beginning that the ADA affected every kind of business in the physical realm, but it’s less obvious that it covers websites and online spaces. The 1990 bill obviously did not predict today’s huge breadth of internet use. The past decade brought a range of rulings from the U.S. courts, with some insisting that websites do not qualify as a "public place of accommodation."

However, as the internet became more important and websites played a bigger role in the way that consumers interact with businesses, the way that the ADA is applied to web accessibility began to change. Since 2017, a clear consensus has emerged that the ADA also covers the online world. 

Disability rights activists, legal scholars, and court rulings have agreed that websites, internet portals, and online stores also need to be accessible for people with disabilities under the ADA.

The Department of Justice's official letter reaffirms the ADA’s application to websites

In September 2018, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote an official letter to members of Congress that said, “The Department first articulated its interpretation that the ADA applies to public accommodations' websites over 20 years ago. This interpretation is consistent with the ADA's requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities."  

In March of 2022, the Department of Justice further clarified the ADA’s application to website accessibility. Publishing a comprehensive guide, the DOJ demonstrates the necessity for state and local governments, as well as public-facing businesses, to ensure their websites are accessible to individuals with disabilities. 

Bottom line: Today, U.S. courts apply ADA accessibility requirements to the online domain, which means that websites, along with other web-based software, such as emails, videos, online documents like PDFs, and mobile apps, should comply with ADA rules.  

What are the ADA website compliance standards?

Part of what makes ADA title III compliance so difficult is that the law doesn’t specify what you need to do to make your website accessible. As Assistant Attorney General Boyd wrote to Congress: “Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.”

Although the DOJ has declined to adopt any official legal standard for the ADA, it has frequently referenced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is considered the most important set of web accessibility standards today. As such, it has a profound impact on the way international web accessibility policy is shaped and updated.

Many rulings set WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the goal for website accessibility, even though this isn’t codified into law. At the moment, WCAG 2.1 is the best measure of web accessibility when it comes to federal law, and it’s unlikely that a site that conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA would be sued for lack of accessibility.

You can use this ADA website compliance checklist to see if your website conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA.

The consequences of having a website that isn't ADA-compliant

Presenting a website that does not comply with the ADA presents people with certain disabilities with unjust digital barriers. Discrimination is both morally wrong and a violation of federal law. 

Therefore, those with non-compliant websites open themselves up to receiving ADA website compliance demand letters. These are sent by individuals or advocacy groups, alerting owners of non-compliant websites of the accessibility issues existing within their websites. The demand letter will include a detailed description of the various accessibility gaps found on the website, a deadline by which these issues will need to be resolved, and a proposed monetary settlement to avoid litigation. 

In 2022, more than 1500 demand letters were sent every week. As long as your website has accessibility issues, you can potentially receive such a letter.

Additionally, and independent of receiving a demand letter beforehand, owners of non-compliant websites can potentially face more significant legal recourse, such as ADA website compliance lawsuits

The rate at which ADA website compliance lawsuits are being filed is at an all-time high. In 2023, there were 4,065 lawsuits filed over web accessibility issues. This marked a 42%  increase from 2022, and close to a 400% (!) spike from 2017. It doesn’t reveal the increasing number of ADA legal complaints and ADA compliance demand letters that were filed against businesses with non-accessible websites in the last few years, because they never become part of the public record.

And, as long as accessibility issues persist on your website, you can potentially be met with such a lawsuit.

The implications for SMBs

Web accessibility cases against giants like Domino's, Nike, and Beyonce made the headlines, but the majority of lawsuits have been filed against small and medium businesses. It’s estimated that 77% of ADA lawsuits in federal and state courts in the first half of 2023 were filed against small and medium retail businesses

Since it’s almost inevitable that the court would find in favor of the plaintiff, small business owners often feel that they have no choice but to settle out of court. The cost of defending a lawsuit would destroy even a medium-sized business, but the average ADA website lawsuit settlement still comes to $35,000.

If you are a small business owner, we recommend you read our guide on small business ADA compliance by pressing here.

The implications are clear: a non-accessible website is a major liability for any company operating on the web today. As mentioned above, members of the various disability communities command a collective spending power of over $13 trillion. When you treat them with the online experience they deserve and are so often denied, you make it easier for them to explore your goods and services and potentially become your customers.

In 2024, digital accessibility has become a fundamental principle for all marketers and businesses who understand that users’ needs always come first. If you want to keep your business safe from ADA web accessibility lawsuits, appeal to customers with disabilities, and feel that you are upholding the social fabric, you need an accessibility solution for your website.

The implications for web agencies

Web agencies need to keep ADA title III requirements in mind, too. If a client gets sued for having a non-accessible website, that client will turn to the agency that designed it. The client could insist on getting their money back, ruin that agency’s reputation for failing to comply with legislation, or even sue the agency for having created a non-ADA-compliant website. Hundreds of web agency owners have expressed their fear that their clients would get sued if they don’t provide accessible sites, but that any manual solution would take months to implement and cost thousands of dollars. For more information on this topic, you can check out our guide on ADA compliance and web design.

Why ADA website compliance lawsuits are on the rise

There are a few reasons why ADA website compliance lawsuits have become more common in the last few years.

One major factor is that commerce has shifted dramatically to the digital sphere. eCommerce continues to boom, rising from a total market value of $4.29 trillion in 2020 to $6.31 trillion in 2023, representing a growth rate of 47.4%. Yet many online retailers have failed to ensure they are fully accessible. This is reflected in the fact that 84% of all ADA-related web accessibility lawsuits filed in the first half of 2023 involve eCommerce websites.

If you own an online store, we recommend you check out our guide on achieving ADA compliance for eCommerce websites.

What’s more, many of our regular activities have been transferred to the internet, like ordering a ride service, booking a doctor’s appointment, or checking bus times. As web interactions become fundamental to our daily lives, web accessibility has become more important.

The last few years also saw a spread in awareness about web accessibility. High-profile lawsuits and the increasing knowledge about ADA Title III mean that people with disabilities now know that they have legal recourse when they can’t complete activities online. Millennials and Generation Z are also a lot less likely to stay quiet in the face of discrimination and inaccessibility.

At the moment, the legal environment in the U.S. makes it very advantageous for someone with disabilities to sue businesses under ADA Title III. Unlike many other areas of the law, the ADA makes it clear that the defendant automatically has to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees, so a person with a disability has nothing to lose by filing a lawsuit.

The vast majority of ADA Title III lawsuits find in favor of the plaintiff. Through a series of findings, settlement agreements, and an official letter to lawmakers, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has made it clear that ADA compliance includes web accessibility.

How can you know if your website is ADA compliant?

Free auditing tools are available online to test your website for ADA compliance and WCAG conformance with ease. With accessScan, accessiBe’s ADA compliance checker, you’re presented with a holistic overview of accessibility errors and what needs to be adjusted in order to conform with WCAG 2.1 Level AA guidelines. The scan operates in just a few seconds, providing you with an almost immediate answer to whether your website is ADA Title III compliant or not. 

How should you tackle ‌accessibility issues existing on your website?

There are a number of ways in which you can address accessibility issues identified during the audit. For years, website owners’ only choice was to turn toward expert service providers who would manually remediate the problematic areas within their websites. Naturally, this process was (and still is) time-consuming and quite costly. Today, however, there are automated solutions that can tackle many of the accessibility issues existing within your website in a fraction of the time and cost of manual services.

accessWidget, for example, easily integrates with any CMS, performing an automated audit of your website’s code. Once accessibility issues are identified, accessWidget will then automatically remediate them. Additionally, accessWidget presents people with disabilities with an interface through which they can adjust UI and design elements on your website to fit their individual needs. Website visitors will be able to adjust color contrasts, increase font sizes, disable animations, and enact ‘read-only’, along with a number of other options.

Best practices for achieving ADA website compliance

Achieving ADA compliance is an ongoing process. Design updates to a website, along with continuously evolving legal interpretations of the ADA and its application to the online domain, require website owners to remain vigilant in their efforts to remain compliant.

To that end, we recommend you pay attention to the following elements:

Pay attention to media assets and online documents

To achieve ADA website compliance, all elements hosted on your website need to be accessible and in conformance with WCAG. This includes videos and audio files like podcasts, along with online documents such as PDF files and files created by Microsoft Office applications (e.g., Word documents). Identifying and then remediating accessibility issues existing within these assets can be challenging and time-consuming, especially when dealing with lengthy, complex files, videos, and documents. Therefore, many website owners rely on expert service providers, such as accessServices, to help them with these projects. With an intimate knowledge of the sections of WCAG that apply to these assets, expert service providers are better equipped to handle these complicated tasks in a timely and cost-efficient manner.

Stay informed and educated

Whether you leverage web accessibility tools or rely on expert service providers, it is always recommended that you understand what conforming with WCAG and achieving ADA compliance entails on a more in-depth level. To that end, you can check out the following pieces:

Consider implementing accessibility measures during the development stage

While many businesses have high-performing websites and want a solution that doesn’t affect the source code, there is also a development accessibility solution. accessFlow allows businesses to build their websites in an accessible and inclusive way using AI to produce copy-and-paste code for developers to implement. accessFlow integrates seamlessly into CI-CD pipelines, ensuring developers always ship accessible code from the basics to user action funnels.