The 1988 Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. Extending these rights was a huge step forward in this country in our treatment of those with disabilities.
Thirty years later, the ADA is still important and relevant, new construction follows the requirements, older construction is updated to meet the ADA’s standards; it is now hard to find a building or park that is not compliant. Public spaces have specific rules and regulations for accommodating those individuals and it is not hard for public entities to comply. Fairly recently, it was determined that websites meet the criteria for public spaces and as such, they are subject to the same standards. However, there isn’t a clear direction for websites. As a matter of fact, the word “website” is not present in any of the ADA requirements.
So how do we know websites are to be held accountable? The US judicial system. Over the past few years, lawsuits against companies that do not have ADA compliant websites have increased exponentially [ for stats visit https://coughl.in/adalawsuitsny ]. The courtrooms have arrived at various verdicts, however, leaving us with a nice, comfortable gray area. Sorry - uncomfortable. We wish it was black and white. We wish that the ADA law cited websites explicitly and gave specifications as to how or to what extent they need to be accessible. We also wish that the courts would agree on similar verdicts, explanations, and punishments across the board. I’ll use my last one to wish for more wishes (obviously) and save them for later.
Some verdicts have found companies guilty because they did not have a physical location (making the website the only place of access); other verdicts did not take a physical location into account at all. Some companies were given standards to abide by and others not. The most consistent source of reference in trials and punishments is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG - https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG21/). These guidelines are created by an international group of developers known as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C - https://www.w3.org/) and are meant to set the standard for equal access on the internet. It is not developed for the sole purpose of fulfilling ADA standards and is not referenced in any government document concerning the ADA. It just happens to be the international standard that the US courtrooms are directing companies to in order for them to make their websites accessible. The idea is - if a site meets the WCAG standards, the company has solid ground to stand on if ever they were approached concerning the ADA.
In 2018, W3C released an update to the Web Content Accessibility Standards (WCAG) - version 2.1 - in which they explain how a website can be considered accessible based on their standards. There are three levels of accessibility defined: A, AA, and AAA. Under each level there is a list of requirements that can be separated into four categories: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. The WCAG website is a wealth of knowledge on the subject of accessibilty, having in-depth explanations of the requirements, providing real examples, and being clear with developers about why the requirement exists (who does it assist with accessibility and how?). That last part is my favorite. I hate feeling like I am doing something just because some arbitrary source said it was necessary. All of the WCAG 2.1 requirements are explained and defended.
Achieving A-level compliance to the guidelines should be a given for any website. But, most of the courtroom demands have specifically cited the AA-level as “the standard.” Based on Title II and Title III of the ADA, I assert that all public companies (and especially government agencies, companies that work with the government, hospitals, and other important public services) should strive for AA-level conformance to the guidelines. This means that the site will have “checked the box” on every single A-level and AA-level requirement. Not some or most… all. A website that is accredited with this level of accessibility should avoid any lawsuit concerning non-compliance to the law (ADA). If a company adheres to this and is still hit with a suit, they have a strong base of past court rulings and evidence to prove that they are providing equal access to the best of their ability. The ADA does not give specifics, so what can a judge say to a company that has abided by an internationally recognized standard for accessibility like WCAG?
Why not strive for AAA, you ask? Striving for a AAA-level is great, but it is also incredibly difficult for many websites. Remember that in order to attain the compliance level, the site must meet all of the requirements in the level. It is worth looking at which AAA-level requirements your site can adhere to, but you will likely find that it will be challenging (if not impossible) to check all of the boxes at this level. At that point it will be an economic question – is it worth the time (and/or) investment to make marginal improvements when AA-level is perfectly adequate?
There is always a bottom line and here it is - developing to be accessible is the right thing to do for the millions of Americans (and other global citizens on the WWW) that are physically disadvantaged. Providing equal access allows a greater audience to visit your website (more traffic, more money!). Lastly and importantly, it’s the law!