What is the ADA?
ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was signed into law by President George Bush in 1990, and it’s 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 that was 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).
What does the ADA cover?
ADA is a very broad and wide-ranging piece of legislation that covers a lot of different aspects of accessibility for people with disabilities. The part of the ADA that affects the way that businesses serve customers is called “Title III,” so you’ll hear accessibility legislation referred to “ADA Title III”
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 requirements are twofold.
- Employers have to make accommodations and reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities to be able to do their jobs, including disabled-friendly entrances, disabled-friendly bathrooms, and the right kind of 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 disabled individuals include:
- Ramp access for wheelchairs and other mobility devices.
- Interface mechanisms for visually impaired.
- Interpretive devices for the hearing impaired or qualified interpreters.
- Accommodations for service animals.
2018 Updates to 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.
Who counts as “disabled”?
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.
Who has to be ADA compliant?
There’s a common misbelief that 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, for their customers, and for their employees if there are over 15 employees. That means that ADA affects:
- Places of entertainment like theaters, movie theaters, and concert halls.
- Restaurants and eateries.
- Small and medium businesses of all types.
- Large enterprises.
- Retail stores.
- Real estate agencies.
- Local government offices, employment agencies, and labor unions.
Is ADA compliance mandatory for websites?
It was clear from the beginning that 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 ADA is applied to web accessibility began to change. Since 2017, a clear consensus emerged that 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.
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."
Today, U.S. courts apply ADA accessibility requirements to the online domain, which means that websites, along with other web-based applications, such as emails, videos, online documents like PDFs, or mobile apps, should comply with ADA rules.