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Americans with Disabilities Act: What Does It Mean to Be ADA Compliant?

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In June 2022, Domino’s Pizza found itself at the end of a long legal battle with Guillermo Robles, a man with a vision impairment. The case, which had been in the courts since 2016, was about the inaccessibility of Domino’s website and mobile app for people who rely on screen readers.

Robles pointed out multiple issues there, including the empty hyperlinks, lack of alt text for graphics, and unnecessary links that all led to the same URL. Domino’s initially argued that the ADA does not apply to websites, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals thought otherwise. The Supreme Court even denied a petition to overrule this decision, cementing the idea that ADA rules definitely extend to digital platforms.

This landmark case not only cost the multinational pizza chain millions in legal fees but also damaged their brand reputation for fighting against an important non-discrimination law.

For business owners and web developers, this should serve as a wake-up call for businesses that ADA compliance is to be taken seriously, especially if you want to avoid the risk of bank-breaking fines and public relations nightmares that can come with non-compliance. 

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What Is ADA Compliance?

ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act  which was signed into the civil rights law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, long before the internet became something we cannot do without. It was created with one goal: ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life – jobs, schools, and public spaces.

Fast forward to today, and this accessibility legislation has expanded its reach to include websites and other virtual spaces. Why? Because the internet is now a “place” where people go for education, employment, banking, healthcare, even voting!

So, ADA compliance means that your website or web application should provide equal access to everyone, including those with vision, hearing, speech, mobility, or cognitive impairments.

There is no federal law that spells out the ABCs of website ADA compliance standards, but many companies follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a best practice. These guidelines offer three levels of digital accessibility which we will discuss in detail in this guide:

  • A (basic);
  • AA (the gold standard most target for);
  • and AAA (exceeds requirements).

Who Should Follow ADA Accessibility Standards?

If you have a digital presence, there is a good chance the rules apply to you. Here are the places where ADA requirements really are non-negotiable:

  • State, federal, and local government agencies.
  • Private companies that operate for at least 20 weeks a year and have 15 or more full-time employees.
  • Businesses considered “public accommodations” under Title III – retail stores, movie theaters, hotels, motels, gyms, spas, restaurants, bars, grocery stores, banks, gas stations, law firms, hospitals and clinics, zoos, parks, aquariums, schools and universities, daycare centers, senior citizen centers, food banks, museums, libraries, galleries,
  • Organizations that work for the public’s benefit – public education institutions, public transportation services, social service centers, public health clinics, employment agencies funded by the state and local governments, public libraries, public parks and recreational facilities, state and local courts, public housing agencies, government-funded nonprofits.
  • Commercial facilities that do not necessarily interact directly with the public, like warehouses, office buildings, data centers, manufacturing plants, research labs, and wholesale distributors.
  • Telecommunications companies that offer phone, internet, electronic and information technology services.

What Happens if Your Website Is Not ADA Compliant?

Customers or advocacy groups could file lawsuits against your company for not being ADA compliant, meaning accessible, and the DOJ can impose massive penalties; first-time violations can result in fines up to $75,000, and for any violations after that, you may have to cough up $150,000.

Is ADA Compliance Mandatory?

Well, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has made it very clear that it is a priority. Again, they do not have a set of hard and fast rules yet, but they do take action when businesses are not up to the ADA standards.In November 2021, the DOJ sued Uber for charging “wait time” fees to passengers with disabilities who took longer than two minutes to enter their Uber cars. The case was settled in July 2022, with the ride service giant agreeing to offer millions of dollars in compensation to over 65,000 riders who were slapped with higher fees due to their special needs.

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Do You Have an ADA Compliant Website?

Wondering whether or not your site or app is a lawsuit waiting to happen? Go through the ADA compliance checklist below and that will give you the answer:

Missing alternative text

If your images do not have descriptive alt text, you are not ADA compliant. This text helps visually impaired users understand what the image is about.

Inaccessible forms

If your website forms cannot be maneuvered using a keyboard or screen reader, you have got a problem. Make sure all form fields are labeled properly.

No captions for audio or video

If you have multimedia content, it needs captions. Period. This makes it accessible to those with hearing problems.

Poor color contrast

Text should stand out clearly against its background. If it does not, you are making it hard for people with vision issues to read your content.

Lack of keyboard navigation

Can you browse your entire website using just a keyboard? If not, it is time for some changes.

No “skip navigation” feature

This allows users to skip to the main content, bypassing headers and menus. It is a must-have for screen reader users.

Inconsistent heading structure

Your headings should be organized in a logical way (H1 for main headings, H2 for subheadings, etc.) to make it easier for screen readers.

No ARIA landmarks

ARIA landmarks are special attributes meant to be added in your site’s HTML code. They help label the sections of a page – like the navigation menu, main content area, footer – so that a screen reader can announce them to the user. If you are missing these, you are not fully compliant.

Fixed font size

If users cannot resize text without messing up the website’s layout, that is a red flag.

No website accessibility statement

While this does not make you non-compliant, having one shows that you are committed to a goal and want to improve web accessibility.

How to Achieve ADA Compliance Standards

When we talk about ADA law compliance for websites or mobile apps, the gold standard is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), these are a set of rules designed to make digital content more accessible and user-friendly.

WCAG guidelines have three levels of compliance: A, AA, and AAA. Think of them as benchmarks for web accessibility.

  • Level A is the minimum standard and it covers the most basic features like text alternatives for images.
  • Level AA is a bit more comprehensive, with color contrast, resizable text, and other very-doable features; this is the level most organizations aim for.
  • Level AAA is the most demanding as it calls for elements such as sign language interpretation for videos. It is not really practical for most types of online content.

Each of these grades has certain rules based on four core principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust (POUR).

Perceivable: Make it seen and heard

  • Text alternatives: In addition to alt text and captions, consider adding transcripts for audio content.
  • Contrast ratio: Besides the 4.5:1 ratio, also think about text size and weight. Larger text can have a lower contrast ratio and still be readable.
  • Audio descriptions: For video content, provide audio descriptions to help visually impaired users understand what is happening.
  • Resizable text: Ensure that users can resize text up to 200% without loss of content or functionality.

Operable: Easy navigation

  • Keyboard accessibility: Users should be able to use your site or app with their keyboard. Make sure pop-up windows and forms are also navigable by keyboard.
  • Time limits: Add a pause, stop, or hide feature for moving or scrolling content.
  • Focus indicators: Make sure there is a visible focus indicator so keyboard users know where they are on the page.
  • Skip to content: Provide a “Skip to Main Content” link for easier navigation.

Understandable: Clear and intuitive

  • Readable text: Keep the language and the typography (font style, line height, letter spacing) simple.
  • Consistent navigation: Also, ensure that navigation elements are in logical order to make the user journey intuitive.
  • Form labels: Clearly label all form fields and make sure the label is associated with the correct form element.

Robust: Compatibility matters

  • Easy-to-use features: Whether it is a form or a clickable button, label them all clearly. If something changes on your site, like a pop-up appearing, that change should be announced to screen readers.
  • Clear status updates: For messages that pop up, like “Item added to cart,” make sure screen readers can announce these without having to focus on them.
  • Cross-browser compatibility: Test on different browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Safari), and even their older versions.
  • Mobile responsiveness: Your site should look and work well on computers, smartphones, and tablets.

Benefits of Complying with ADA and WCAG Standards

We have already established that doing your best to reach the highest level of ADA requirements can bulletproof your business against legal issues. What else does it bring to the table?

Your brand gains a stronger reputation

Target launched “Cat & Jack” brand apparel for kids with disabilities back in 2017. The line includes sensory-friendly and adaptive clothing to make dressing easier for children with special needs. The initiative was praised all over on social media and the brand’s customer satisfaction scores were reported to increase in the months following the launch.

Other brands were not to be left behind, including Starbucks, which opened its first American Sign Language (ASL) store in Washington, D.C., in 2018, specifically for customers who are deaf or hard of hearing. The company’s inclusive actions got them a lot of positive headlines.

The point is, when you make reasonable accommodations to be more inclusive and accessible for your users, it gets noticed. People talk, and word-of-mouth is powerful. When your customers feel like you care about them – all of them – they are highly likely to recommend it to others.

Your website’s SEO rankings are improved

If you make a website ADA compliant, you are basically giving Google what it loves the most: a well-structured, fast, and user-friendly site. When you add alt text to your images or transcripts for your videos, Google gets a clearer picture of what you are offering. This helps your site show up in more relevant searches.

Plus, an accessible design keeps visitors around longer which lowers your bounce rate. Search engines see this and accurately conclude that visitors are liking your website so it should be moved up the ranks.

Suggested Reading: Why Accessibility & SEO Are A Perfect Match for Any Website

You get higher conversion rates

When your site is easy to navigate, read, and interact with, you are not turning away potential customers who have disabilities. Imagine someone using a screen reader can easily go through your product descriptions and hit that “Buy Now” button without a problem. They are obviously more likely to complete the purchase.

An accessible website also tends to be cleaner and more organized. That means quicker load times and less confusion for all users, which means more sales, more sign-ups, or whatever action you want your visitors to take.

Making Your Website ADA-Compliant is a Smart Business Move: Choose Accessibly to Improve Compliance

Accessibly is designed to take the guesswork out of the WCAG compliance. Whether you choose the app or the widget for increasing ADA compliance, it takes less than a minute to install and offers features like enlarging text and cursor, adding a reading line, and adjusting colors for better visibility.Ideal for small business owners, e-commerce sites, and digital learning platforms, it is so good that Shopify featured it twice as an “Editor’s Pick”! Check it out for yourself. Sign up for a FREE 7-day trial today.

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Article by Kaspars Milbergs

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