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The importance of ADA-compliant websites

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is a civil rights law that was drafted in 1988 for the intended purpose of protecting disabled individuals from discrimination. It applies to certain websites, applications, and other software.

As a website designer or owner, what are your responsibilities under the ADA? How can you be ADA-compliant, and why is it so important? The following guide will answer these burning questions.  

Understanding ADA compliance

At the time of writing this guide, the ADA had five titles that defined various scopes of protection for individuals with disabilities. These titles covered:

  • Equal employment (Title I) 
  • State and local government services (Title II)
  • Public accommodations (Title III)
  • Telecommunications (Title IV)
  • Miscellaneous Provisions (Title V)

It may not be obvious how the ADA applies to website or software compliance. However, under laws such as the ADA, deprivation, or lack of access, is considered a form of discrimination. State and local government services, public transport, and commercial facilities must have the necessary provisions and accommodations for people with disabilities. This covers both individuals with apparent physical disabilities as well as invisible disabilities. 

While it doesn’t seem as if the ADA has officially codified provisions for virtual and digital entities, the law considers websites as an organization’s facilities in the same way a physical brick-and-mortar structure is. Thus, websites are covered under Title II (for state and national government websites) and Title III (websites owned by commercial entities). The US government’s ADA Best Practices Tool Kit for State and Local Governments contains entire chapters discussing how a covered entity can ensure that their digital properties are ADA compliant.

Document with the ADA stamp of approval

Are all websites required to be ADA-compliant?

All US government and business-related websites must be ADA-compliant. Of course, websites built for business or educational purposes technically do not fall under these categories, but disability advocates have begun to scrutinize how alienating modern technology can be. As such, we’ve seen an alarmingly sharp increase in ADA lawsuits related to digital accessibility.

The majority of these lawsuits are Title III (associated with business or commercial entities). The Covid-19 pandemic immensely impacted the disabled community. While a large part of the community had already been relying on technology, many more were forced to use Internet services for shopping, education, and communication — and discovered how inaccessible certain sites were. . It seems the experience has been jarring, to say the least. As it turns out, over 97% of the top  one million websites do not offer full accessibility for people with disabilities. 

This fact is alarming, considering that many people are only one accident or disease away from disability. It’s another reminder of the importance of having a comprehensive life insurance plan so families are financially protected in the event of a death or disability of the primary breadwinner.     

In fact, we’ve seen how some of the long-term effects of severe Covid-19 cases can be debilitating. The law has gone as far as protecting individuals with long-covid are protected under the ADA. However, just as much as society is obligated to accommodate those of us with disabilities, we must also protect ourselves as much as we can. 

This also means protecting your business’s website from lawsuits due to its inaccessibility or ADA non-compliance. So do all websites need to be ADA-compliant? Not necessarily, though an accessible site will open your content to a much wider audience and will allow everyone to see and interact with your content and services. 

How to be ADA compliant

Digital creators have always been forward-thinking when it comes to inclusivity and accommodations for people with disabilities, including adding trigger warnings to potentially disturbing content or notifications to indicate flashing lights for people with epilepsy. YouTube channels such as Fab Socialism feature indicators that help neurodivergent individuals to identify verbal, facial, and emotive tones (genuine, serious, joking, etc.).

 For a complete view of accessibility modifications, you can view the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for comprehensive procedures and standards. However, the WCAG isn’t legally binding,  and WCAG non-compliance does not equate to ADA non-compliance.

Then again, your goal shouldn’t just be about ADA compliance.  Instead, aim to accommodate those with disabilities as best you can, which will make your website more accessible to the widest group of people.


Make your website more accessible

The first step to ensuring that your website is as disability-friendly and inclusive as possible is to study the frustrations that people with disabilities face. So what’s missing from most websites?

  1. Closed captioning – According to the World Health Organization, nearly 2.5 billion people are projected to have a hearing impairment of some sort by the year 2050. As more websites focus on providing multimedia content to supplement their textual content, that content needs to be disability-friendly. This includes ensuring that videos have accurate and easy-to-read closed captioning.
  1. Headings – This should seem obvious. However, many content creators, editors, site owners, etc., do not enforce strict guidelines for headings. Headings should be generously dispersed throughout a web page — especially if it contains long-form content. Many in the disabled community use assistive technology to help them read webpage content, so it’s critical that headers are used properly. For example, H1 should designate a page title, H2 should designate major subheaders, and so on, rather than be used to simply change font sizes on a page.

    Often, users will skim the headlines to ensure that the content is worth reading. The contents of a web page must be well-labeled and structured in such a way that it accommodates those with disabilities. This is one of the ten commandments of web design. 
  1. Font size – It’s important to ensure that your web page’s font size is large enough to accommodate those who have visual difficulties. While most web browsers come with zoom functionality, you should make it so that they don’t manually have to alter the default zoom settings when they encounter your website. Most guidelines recommend that you use 14 to 16 pt sans serif fonts. Recently, Bionic Reading, a revolutionary new typeface and API, was found effective in helping neurodivergent readers scan and read through text. It effectively emboldens a portion of each word. Adopting such technologies will aid in making your website ADA-compliant and disability friendly.
  1. Contrast and colors – Again, your text should be easy to read. This means picking the right colors for your background. The color of your website’s text should stand out from the background. This means using dark text forefront colors against light backgrounds and vice versa. Additionally, you’re encouraged to allow your site visitors to pick between a light mode and a dark mode.
  1. Alt text – Alternative text is descriptive text associated with each image on a website, and WordPress allows you to add it to each image as you add them to the Media Library. While most users visiting a site can’t see it (unless there’s a load-related issue), people using screen readers rely on alt-text to describe images. As a bonus, search engines like Google use alt text to better understand the content of an image when returning search results. 
  1. Keyboard only-access – Many people with mobility issues simply cannot use a mouse. Instead, they rely on their keyboards (or mouth sticks or other adaptive tech) to navigate a website. This means that to be accessible, your website and documents should be completely navigable through a keyboard. You must avoid any keyboard traps that users cannot tab out of. 
  1. Fewer distractions – It’s important to make your web pages less distracting for neurodivergent individuals. This means reducing the number of moving targets, animations, pop-ups, or videos that use Autoplay. The last point is very important, as it can also confuse visitors using screen readers. 

It’s not all about ADA compliance

Again, being ADA-compliant is important, but you should be chiefly motivated by creating platforms and products that are inclusive and accessible. This will help increase website visits and clickthrough rates. The above guide offers a few suggestions as a starting point. For more on this topic, see our article about why accessible web design is no longer optional.

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Gary Stevens avatar

Gary Stevens

Gary Stevens is a web developer and technology writer. He's a part-time blockchain geek and a volunteer working for the Ethereum foundation as well as an active Github contributor. More articles written by Gary.

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