The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is often associated with physical locations and accommodations certain businesses must make for people with disabilities. These accommodations typically include wheelchair accessibility, access to service animals and the use of Braille for customers who are visually impaired. However, the ADA also extends to the digital realm, requiring businesses to ensure web content is accessible to all users.
What does an ADA-compliant website look like, exactly? There are no clear ADA regulations that spell out exactly what compliant web content is, but businesses that fall under ADA Title I or ADA Title III are required to develop a website that offers "reasonable accessibility" to people with disabilities. These guidelines will help you get started building a truly accessible website and help your business avoid the penalties associated with the ADA, including lawsuits, financial penalties and loss of brand reputation.
Which businesses are required to comply with the ADA?
The first thing to understand about the ADA is which businesses are required to comply. Under Title I of the ADA, any business with at least 15 full-time employees that operates for 20 or more weeks every year is covered by the law. Under Title III, businesses that fall into the category of "public accommodation," such as hotels, banks and public transportation, are also required to comply. That means the entirety of the law applies, from physical considerations to digital accommodations.
If your business falls under either Title I or Title III of the ADA and you do not believe you are compliant, consult with a disability lawyer and explore your options.
No clear website accessibility guidelines
When it comes to ADA website compliance, there are no clear rules. That doesn't let businesses off the hook, though; they still must provide an accessible website that accommodates users with disabilities.
"As far as websites go, there is no federally codified direction on how to make websites comply," said David Engelhardt, a New York City-based small business attorney. "We only know that the ADA does apply to websites based on cases, such as [Gil v. Winn-Dixie]."
What's the best way to build an ADA-compliant website if there isn't a clear definition of what that means? There are a few actions you can take to set you on the right path toward ADA compliance, or at least help you demonstrate that your business has made a good-faith effort toward accommodation, should you ever wind up in court.
How to develop an ADA-compliant website
Accessibility of a website means ensuring that individuals who are visually impaired or hearing-impaired or those who must navigate by voice are still able to meaningfully engage with the content on your website. This can be done in many ways, including some that are not immediately obvious. All in all, totally revamping a website to be ADA compliant could come with a hefty price tag, possibly up to $37,000, but it insulates your business from being targeted by lawsuits.
"A business's IT department must design its corporate website so that those who are disabled can access it easily," said Steven Mitchell Sack, an employment law attorney based in Long Island and New York City. "For example, if someone is sight-impaired, the web designer can install certain technologies, such as screen readers, in which a voice reads the text on the screen back to the web visitor. Refreshable Braille text for touchscreens can also be used."
In lieu of any regulatory guidance, business owners should look to the regulations that govern federal agencies' websites and related case law to gain an understanding of what compliance might be. There are risks related to the uncertainty of building out an accessible website ahead of regulatory guidance, but it could protect businesses once regulations are established.
"There is no regulatory guidance on this issue – yet – for commercial entities," said Nancy Del Pizzo, a partner at the law firm Rivkin Radler. "Thus, there are no regulations or statutes that define 'ADA compliance' as to websites. There are, however, requirements for federal websites, as well as some detailed legal decisions that can be used as guidance, including opinions that have held that 'reasonable' accessibility is key."
Here are some common ways businesses address accessibility issues associated with their web content:
- Create alt tags for all images, videos and audio files: Alt tags allow users with disabilities to read or hear alternative descriptions of content they might not otherwise be able to view. Alt tags describe the object itself and, generally, the purpose it serves on the site.
- Create text transcripts for video and audio content: Text transcripts help hearing-impaired users understand content that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.
- Identify the site's language in header code: Making it clear what language the site should be read in helps users who utilize text readers. Text readers can identify those codes and function accordingly.
- Offer alternatives and suggestions when users encounter input errors: If a user with a disability is encountering input errors because of their need to navigate the website differently, your site should automatically offer recommendations to them as to how to better navigate toward the content they need.
- Create a consistent, organized layout: Menus, links and buttons should be organized in such a way that they are clearly delineated from one another and are easily navigated throughout the entire site.
There are other ways businesses can create an accessible website for users with disabilities. Consulting with an attorney who specializes in disability law is a must for businesses concerned about ADA compliance, but if you're looking for a place to get started on your own, reading the ADA requirements is an important first step.
Liability for failure to comply
Failing to comply with the ADA means your business is susceptible to lawsuits, and it's common for attorneys to seek out noncompliant businesses both in the physical and digital space. According to Engelhardt, the costs of an ADA lawsuit add up quickly.
"Other than a business being forced to comply, which is costly, the business will have to pay attorneys' fees, which can be tens of thousands of dollars," Engelhardt said. "Depending on the state, the business owner can be looking at a $50,000 bill."
Beyond regulatory consequences, failure to provide accessibility to users with disabilities means losing out on business. If users cannot navigate your website, you might be missing sales opportunities. Further, even if you're not missing out on sales, ADA compliance makes it easier for search engines to crawl and index your website, pushing it up in the rankings and getting your web content in front of more users.
"If users with disabilities struggle to complete forms and make purchases on your website, you could be losing out on potential customers," said Laura Ferruggia, senior content creator for Miles Technologies. "Plus, many of the rules for ADA compliance also help websites with search engine optimization."
While ADA website compliance is a bit subjective and open to interpretation, it's not too difficult to discern what is meant by "reasonable accessibility." By making a good-faith effort to achieve reasonable accessibility for users with disabilities now, businesses can get ahead of the regulatory curve in developing a compliant website and avoid potential lawsuits. Moreover, designing a compliant website can lead to more sales and better ranking on search engines for a modest investment.