Skip to content

Web Accessibility Laws in the US: Is Accessibility a Legal Requirement?

Imagine you are a visually-impaired person who loves pizza. You want to order a pizza online from Domino’s, but you can’t because their website is not accessible to you. You can’t use your screen reader to navigate the site, read the menu, or fill out the order form. You not only feel frustrated but discriminated against.

This is not a hypothetical scenario; it’s what happened to Guillermo Robles, a blind man who sued Domino’s Pizza in 2016 for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including websites and apps.

Robles won the case, and Domino’s had to make a more accessible website. This wasn’t even a one-of-a-kind case – it was one of the thousands of web accessibility lawsuits filed in the US in recent years, targeting businesses of all sizes and industries. Some of them have resulted in hefty settlements, while others in court orders to make websites or apps more user-friendly.

So, to answer the question of whether digital accessibility is a legal requirement in the US: yes, it is.

Man And Woman Talking Things On A Laptop

Understanding Website Accessibility Laws

There are certain laws – not just in the US but across the globe – that require websites, mobile applications, and all digital content to be accessible to people with different types of disabilities. These laws prevent discrimination and ensure equal access for EVERYONE on the internet.

But what does accessibility mean? And why is it important? Accessibility means that your website can be used by anyone, regardless of their abilities or preferences. For example, accessibility means that:

  • A visually impaired (whether partially blind or completely blind) person can use a screen reader to listen to the content of your website.
  • A hearing-impaired user can use captions or transcripts to understand the audio or video content on your site.
  • A user with limited mobility can use a keyboard or voice commands to navigate and interact with your content.
  • A user with dyslexia can use a readable font or a text-to-speech feature to read your content.
  • A user with color blindness can use a contrast mode or a color filter to easily see your content.

Accessibility is important because it benefits everyone, not just the disabled. There are nearly 2 billion people in the world who live with some type of incapacitation, so making your website accessible to them means increasing your customer base and revenue by reaching more potential users.

Not to mention the transformative impact it can have on your brand reputation. Another benefit of embracing accessibility is it reduces your legal risks and helps you avoid damaging lawsuits.

There are two main web accessibility laws in the US:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Let’s take a closer look at each of these website accessibility laws.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The primary website accessibility law in America with criteria regarding digital accessibility is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enacted in 1990. The ADA does not specifically mention websites or digital content, but it is interpreted to cover online accessibility under Titles II and III, which apply to state and local governments and places of public accommodation, respectively.

A website is considered a place of public accommodation, so as per the Title III of the ADA, it must be easy to use for all people equally, including those who can’t see, hear, move, or function well. (The Accessible Canada Act is also formulated on similar lines as the ADA.) 

Although the ADA doesn’t specify any technical standards or guidelines for web accessibility, it references the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by the World Wide Web Consortium as a best practice. 

As per the ADA, websites should meet at least level AA of the WCAG 2.1. Making websites accessible, ensuring nondiscrimination and effective communication, and meeting accessibility requirements means:

  • Providing text alternatives for non-text content, such as images, icons, audio, and video.
  • Providing captions for audio and video content and transcripts for audio-only content.
  • Providing keyboard access and functionality for all elements and features of your website/app.
  • Providing clear, consistent navigation and labels.
  • Providing sufficient color contrast and resizable text.
  • Providing ways to avoid or skip repetitive or unnecessary content.
  • Providing options in communication technologies to help users understand and correct errors on the online forms.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

This is another federal law that protects the rights of impaired people in federal programs and activities. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first law that considered the needs of people who experience physical or cognitive limitations. This Act has several sections that relate to the web accessibility initiative, including:

  • Section 504: Discrimination against the disabled in any program that receives federal financial assistance for education, health care, housing, transportation, etc., is strictly prohibited.
  • Section 508: All federal agencies and contractors are legally obligated to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible; this includes websites, apps, software, and hardware.
  • Section 501: Federal agencies have a responsibility to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. This could be in the form of assistive technology, alternative formats, and other means to ensure equal access to employment opportunities and work-related activities.

Like the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act also doesn’t specify any general guidelines for web accessibility laws. However, it also looks to the WCAG 2.1 as a best practice. Section 508 states that federal websites must meet level AA of the WCAG 2.1.

Penalties for Ignoring Website Accessibility

Title III of the ADA explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in businesses that are generally open to the public – restaurants, movie theaters, schools, daycare facilities, recreation facilities, and doctors’ offices. This section also requires all newly constructed public places and commercial facilities (privately owned, nonresidential facilities such as factories, warehouses, or office buildings)—to comply with the ADA Standards.

This extends to their websites and other digital platforms and products. If your business website is found to be inaccessible, i.e., in violation of Title III with regard to web accessibility standards, you may face legal action. The penalty can vary depending on the nature and extent of the violation, the type of remedy sought by the person suing you, and the jurisdiction where the case is filed. 

That said, plaintiffs cannot obtain monetary damages under Title III but instead seek injunctive relief (like a court order to make the website accessible), attorney fees, and other litigation expenses. Some states have laws that allow plaintiffs to recover damages for web accessibility violations. For example, in California, plaintiffs can sue under the Unruh Civil Rights Act and obtain statutory damages of $4,000 per web accessibility compliance violation.

Also, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and local government entities can step in and impose fines for violating Title III that range from $55,000 for the first violation and $110,000 for each subsequent violation. It should be noted that these fines are not awarded to the plaintiffs.

And if you are a federal contractor and found in violation of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, it can result in the termination of federal contracts, denial of new contracts, and severe financial penalties.

The easiest way for private businesses, local government services, and web developers to stay clear of violations and avoid landing in hot water with the DOJ is to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level AA when designing their websites and creating content. Looking at the guidelines under the European Accessibility Act is also helpful when assessing compliance for your e-commerce website, other accessible websites, public accommodations, or users of automated tools such as screen readers.

Man Working On A Laptop

ADA and WCAG Compliance Made Easy with Accessibly: Try it for Free Today

Website accessibility is not a simple matter of ticking off boxes; it’s an ever-evolving process that requires you to constantly pay attention to the accessibility legislation and adapt quickly. The WCAG has set web accessibility standards for you to follow, but they are not easy to implement, especially if you don’t have the technical know-how to add features like text to voice, brightness, contrast, grayscale controls, and many more.

Whether you are operating in the private or public sector, you need to keep your mobile apps and sites accessible, remove accessibility barriers, and make sure they work seamlessly across different devices, browsers, and platforms. That’s a lot of work for any website owner. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could skip all the hassle and let someone else handle it for you?

Enter Accessibly – an accessibility widget you can download and install in less than a minute. It’s like a magic wand that scans your website for any accessibility issues and fixes most of them in a snap. You don’t need any coding skills to ensure you are complying with the laws – use Accessibly to increase ADA and WCAG compliance and make your website more welcoming to users who have vision problems, hearing difficulties, motor impairments, or cognitive challenges.

Join the thousands of businesses that are using Accessibly to make their websites more accessible. Trust us, your visitors will love you for it. Register for a FREE 7-day trial today and take a step towards an accessible WordPress website

Thumbnail Of Kaspars Milbergs

Article by Kaspars Milbergs

Last updated


Get The #1 Accessibility Widget Now

Install Accessibly and make your website ADA & WCAG compliant at a moment’s notice.

Get Accessibly App
Photo with animation