When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990, it was created with brick-and-mortar businesses in mind, not necessarily digital properties like websites and mobile apps. But ultimately, the ADA was created to apply to “places of public accommodation” and courts have found that websites can fall into that category.
In 2017, a court ruled that Winn-Dixie’s website was in violation of the ADA after a lawsuit was filed by a blind customer who was unable to use their website using a screen reader. In the time since, other lawsuits have been filed over websites not being ADA compliant, including some websites for big names like Domino’s Pizza and Beyonce.
With so many high-profile cases emerging, we’ve naturally received a lot of questions from our clients about ADA compliance for their websites. Since the ADA is a strict liability law, there aren’t any legally valid reasons for not being in compliance. Because of this, the sooner you’re able to start working toward ADA compliance, the better.
Another thing that makes the subject of ADA compliance for websites difficult to understand is the fact that there isn’t just one broad standard of ADA compliance. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) outline the criteria for bringing sites into ADA compliance, but there are three different levels of compliance, ranging from A to AAA. Level A compliance is a basic level of compliance, meaning a site is free of some of the most significant accessibility issues. Level AA compliance is the most widely used level of compliance because it makes sites accessible to the majority of people. Level AAA compliance is the highest level of compliance, but while it’s a great standard to strive for, it’s not always possible to reach this level of compliance with some content.
When sites aren’t ADA compliant, there likely isn’t any malicious intent behind it. Businesses want as many people as possible to visit their websites. Often, not being in compliance is the result of not understanding why certain things are necessary for some people to be able to use websites.
Even though there are lots of widgets and toolbars out there that make big promises about offering instant ADA compliance, this is something that simply doesn’t come with a quick and easy fix. It’s a very involved process and our design, development, and SEO teams have all been actively involved in projects to bring our clients’ sites into compliance with WCAG standards to avoid potential lawsuits.
Most Common ADA Compliance Issues on Websites
ADA compliance projects give each of our teams different things to focus on. On the web development side of things, these are a few of the biggest things our team has been working to address:
Bringing a site into ADA compliance involves many different factors and alt text is easily one of the top issues our dev team has encountered. Alt text is a written description of an image which can provide search engines with information about an image and can visibly display if an image isn’t able to load. Screen readers also rely on it to audibly describe images for users who are blind or have other vision impairments. As important as alt text is, lots of websites have images that lack alt text, making it a major target in ADA compliance lawsuits.
However, alt text isn’t necessarily required in all cases. Sometimes, alt text can be redundant when combined with things like descriptive body text, section headers, pictures with visible captions, or icons with labels. Decorative images also don’t need alt text. Even when alt text would be redundant, an alt attribute still needs to be associated with the image. In that situation, an empty alt text attribute can be added.
For people with mobility issues, using a computer mouse might not be an option so it’s important for websites to be fully functional with the use of a keyboard. Users should be able to navigate and interact with a website using a keyboard without getting stuck. Keyboard-friendly navigation is also helpful for users who don’t have a functioning mouse or trackpad. As part of this, focus indicators should be placed around user interface control elements, such as links, menus, and forms.
Compliance for Video & Audio Content
While alt text is important for helping visually impaired users understand the intent of images, captioning helps those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing understand video content. Adding captions for videos doesn’t just help those with hearing impairments, they can also make your content accessible for users who are unable to listen for other reasons.
Captions for videos can either be open, which appear automatically and cannot be turned off, or closed, meaning they need to be specifically turned on by the user. When adding captions, they need to be large enough to be easily read and be in a color that clearly contrasts from the video. Videos being streamed live should also have real-time live captioning available. Any video or audio-only content should also have transcripts that can easily be accessed through a clearly-labeled link below the media.
In addition to having captions, video players should also be Section 508-compliant. A Section 508-compliant video player can be operated using a keyboard as well as through voice-activated controls for those who aren’t able to use a mouse or a keyboard. These players can also support both captions and audio descriptions.
Audio descriptions on videos provide a description to help users who are blind or have other vision impairments. Audio descriptions should include information that is not part of the video’s original soundtrack, which can include things like the names of people appearing on screen (if names are not otherwise stated) and other visual information like a description of a location or actions happening in a scene.
Not all video players support extra tracks for audio descriptions, with YouTube being a very notable example. If your player doesn’t allow for multiple audio tracks, another way to meet ADA requirements is by creating a second version of your video which has the audio description as the main audio track and making sure each video is clearly labeled as either having or not having an audio description.
HTML Tags & Structure
Aside from alt text, screen readers also rely on information from a page’s HTML code to accurately describe the page to users. Standard HTML code can be understood by screen readers, making it very important that everything be coded correctly so that it can be interpreted in the correct order and without other errors.
Users with disabilities might need to make adjustments to certain things on a webpage to make it functional for them. For example, one thing required by WCAG is that text can be resized up to 200%. Or if a page has time limits, users need to be able to either adjust that time limit or disable it. Users also need to be able to pause or hide content that blinks, scrolls, or otherwise moves. Audio content also needs to have options for being paused, stopped, or muted.
Is Your Site ADA Compliant?
Have more questions about ADA compliance? Stay tuned for our post about ADA compliance and design. We also offer ADA compliance auditing and remediation as one of our web development services, so get in touch if you’d like us to take a look at your website today.