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Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) Website Design and Compliance: Is Your Website Compliant Enough?

Jan 20, 2020 | ADA Compliance, SEO, Web Design

The “Americans with Disabilities Act” (ADA) was passed around 30  years ago in 1990. The ADA Act is a set of laws that deal with civil rights and actively prohibit any sort of discrimination against people with disabilities in all spheres of public life. These include jobs in private and public enterprises, transportation, schools, and all private and public places that are generally considered to be open to the public at large.

The core purpose of enforcing this law was to ensure that individuals with disabilities will have the same rights, privileges, as well as opportunities as their more able-bodied counterparts. The ADA gives maximum protection (in terms of civil rights) to people suffering from different debilitating disabilities. In many ways, it is similar to legislation passed by the government to ensure that there is no discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin, color, religion, and age.

This law effectively guarantees equal opportunities for people with disabilities, especially in the realm of employment, public accommodation, local and state govt services, transportation, and the telecommunications sector.

In 2008, the law was amended, and it is now called the  Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act or the ADAAA. Once it was signed it became effective from the first of January 2009.

There are certain differences between the ADA and the ADAAA. These changes are concerned with the  definition of the term “disability.” All such changes apply in equal measure to the various definitions of disability in the law. These include changes in Title I:

  • The employment practices of all private employers who have fifteen or even more staff members on their payroll
  • Agents of the employer
  • Employment agencies
  • Labor unions
  • State and local governments and
  • Joint management-labor organizations

Title II includes the following:

  • All activities and programs with respect to local and state government organizations

Title III includes:

  • All those private organizations that might be considered to be places of (general) public accommodation as per the law.

ADA Compliance: What Does the Law Say About Websites?

In the physical space, this law had led to excellent results. From wheelchair access ramps to accessible restroom facilities. In fact, equal-access accommodations ended up becoming a regular part of the United States in both workplaces as well as recreation centers.

Back when the law was first promulgated in 1990, legislators simply had no way of knowing that the internet would become an integral part of every sphere of life and would affect the way in which business was conducted.

Websites and the ADA have a long and complicated history that is as obtuse as it is confusing to the average layman. Here, it is pertinent to note that the ADA does not in any way ‘explicitly’ address any online compliance-related parameters. And this holds true even after the law has undergone several more relevant amendments even though the redefined 2008 law is far more web-oriented than its 1990 counterpart.

Since there is no specific coverage as per the law, it is usually the courts that determine how best to ensure that ADA standards will be applicable on different websites.

Title III of the ADA specifically requires that each and every owner, lessor, or even a simple operator of any “place of public accommodation” must provide equal access to all the users who are able to meet the law’s standards for disability.

Since roughly 2 billion people around the world made at least one online purchase in 2018, it is inevitable that this concept should extend to e-commerce and other websites. However, from a legal point of view, there is a  whole lot of grey area here.

Many courts in the US have ruled that the commercial website is primarily a ‘place of public accommodation.’  This means that it is thus fully subject to the rules and regulations as laid down by the ADA.

While several other court cases have concluded that the sites that are located on the internet are also bound by several ADA regulations. This holds particularly true if there happens to be a close “nexus” between the website and its physical location.


The most famous example of this was the court ruling against the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain. The court ruled that the company was responsible for not taking steps to make their website fully accessible to users who suffered from low vision. On the other hand, various courts have decided cases to the effect that the ADA in its current form does not offer any extra protection for internet users.

There are no overarching federal rules in place, so it is somewhat difficult to make a highly definitive statement about the applicability of the law in cyberspace. This holds even more true when determining if  a website is governed by ADA’s accessibility rules or not.

Since there is no clear set of accessibility regulations that a website can check for compliance, how is it possible to find out of a website is compliant? Here, the best measure would be the WCAG 2.0 Level AA set of principles and guidelines.

Various federal regulations went into effect as of January 2018. These guidelines hold federal government operated websites to WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards. These same standards also provide the core basis for direct online accessibility rules for the EU and many other countries all around the world.

These standards have been the guiding principle in western Europe since 1999. The most recent update took effect in March 2018. However, here it is pertinent to understand that the WCAG standard is more of a set of widely established ‘recommended actions’ only. This means that it is not a law that can be enforced.

With that said, it still forms the core or the backbone of most online accessibility rules throughout the developed world. In this respect at least, it is a very strong model for most American organizations that are trying to provide equal and unhindered access to all their users.

Different Levels of Compliance

The WCAG set of guidelines are subdivided, based on their ability to break all online public place accessibility issues down into 3 separate levels.

• Level A

Issues at this level are considered to be the most important and extremely urgent. These can include all those problems that have the potential to severely limit the disabled visitor’s ability to either use or navigate on the website, in any way.

• Level AA

The level is concerned with those issues and problems that are more rooted in the functional aspects of the site. They can address all those areas where further improvement is needed in order to give the disabled visitor the full spectrum experience of a website. This level is widely considered to be the usual ‘target standard’ for the average commercial websites.

• Level AAA

Level triple A  issues are some of the highest standards when it comes to fine-tuning and expanding on any clearly identified issues. It covers all those accessibility problems that are not defined as Level A and AA. While triple A compliance is certainly an ideal situation, it is not likely to be within reach of most commercial sites.

Key Focus Areas

Most online accessibility issues for disabled people may be categorized into 4 distinct groups as per  WCAG guidelines. Taken together, they are known as ‘P.O.U.R’ issues.

• Perceivable Issues

These issues affect the user’s intrinsic ability to both find and process data on a website (for example, the site can provide the audio descriptions with regard to video content).

• Operable Issues

These issues impact the user’s overall ability to both navigate and ultimately use the website the way it is meant to be used (for example, it can ensure that all regular site functions and its navigation may be operated with the help of keyboard commands).

• Understandable Issues

All such issues generally concern the visitor’s overall ability to not just merely discern but ultimately comprehend the requisite information (for example, the user should be able to compose different error messages that might include a clear cut explanation of the specific error along with directions for correcting it).

• Robust Issues

They involve the site’s ability to both adapt and ultimately evolve to meet the myriad changing needs of different users with disabilities (for example testing the site’s compatibility with all of the leading screen readers). Moreover, the site should ensure that its capabilities can be easily upgraded in the future.

How to Ensure That Your Website Is ADA Compliant

There are various steps that you can take to ensure that your site is fully ADA compliant, or at least to the best possible extent. Some of them include the following:

• Find an Website Design Agency That Understands The ADA

If you were to mention ADA web compliance to most web developers, odds are that you will get a blank stare. This is why you should find and work only with a website design agency that knows all about accessibility issues and can also develop workflows to address the same.

• Audit your Site Code for Accessibility Issues

If your site is up and running, you should conduct a thorough audit on your site. This will help you to accurately identify all those areas that don’t meet the website accessibility standards required for ADA compliance. The results of this audit will show you exactly where you stand, and they will also give you a rough idea of the work involved. This way, you will be able to budget accurately enough to figure out if the costs outweigh the benefits or vice versa.

• Put in The Hard Work

Once you know where you lack in the website compliance department and how, it is time to get to work. Here are some of the more common compliance issues as well as their resolutions:

  • The images on the website should have alternative text in case the user can’t see the picture, or it does not render properly. The alt text will help to describe the missing element. Unfortunately, most people who are maintaining their own website or blog fail to take this into account when updating a page or posting a blog.
  • Look at the colors on your website. For the more important elements, such as clickable icons, do they have sufficient contrast? If not, they will not stand out from the background. This will make it very hard for the visitor to see the button and use it accordingly.
  • Lack of proper labels can also be a problem. It will also make it very hard for many ADA devices to be able to interpret their functionality.  For instance, if the checkout form on an e-commerce site is not clearly labeled, a visually impaired person might make a mistake and purchase the wrong product.

Another benefit to properly making your website ADA compliant is it will help with your search engine optimization as well.

Stay Fully Up-To-Date on All Compliance Standards

It is very important to understand that full-spectrum ADA compliance is not a onetime decision only. On the contrary, the compliance standards are constantly evolving, and your website must also evolve with these guidelines. It may be a bit of a bother (such as adding alt descriptions on the site for every image) but it will help you stay within ADA web guidelines.


Ultimately, ADA website compliance brings with it a whole set of advantages. It will give you a sustainable competitive advantage (SCA) that will enable you to stand out from the competition. It will also lead to more transactions as well.

This is because it can offer a much better overall experience that easily spans across different browsers. It will provide digestible information for the more common search engine so that your website will be able to reach a much wider audience. Finally, it will reduce the likelihood of facing ADA litigation.

Another benefit to properly making your website ADA compliant is it will help with your search engine optimization as well. Generally, many of the measures you put in place for ADA compliance will spill over into being best practices for SEO. Things such as ALT text on your image are just as important for SEO as they are for ADA compliance. Remember, search engines aren’t a person that can read something with their eyes. So just putting a picture online tells a search engine nothing. It needs that description to further break down what is on the page.

ADA web guidelines, ADA website compliance, Americans with Disabilities Act

Nora Kramer Designs, Team 2
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