The short answer is a website does not necessarily have to be ADA compliant (legally)—but it’s a best practice.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a U.S. law passed in 1990 to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in different sectors. It was later revised by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2010 as the ADA Standards for Accessible Design—which is interpreted to include websites and other forms of electronic/information technology.
But what does ADA compliance look like concerning website accessibility—and is it necessary?
ADA Compliance for Websites is a Gray Area
Strictly speaking, none of the five titles in the ADA Act explicitly mention websites. Section 508 is the only federal law that targets websites—and it only applies to federal agency websites. With this in mind, ADA compliance for websites is a choice—but challenging to make.
Recent figures show an uptick in the number of ADA website accessibility lawsuits—increasing by up to 177% since 2017 as per the New York Law Journal. So as much as the law does not demand ADA compliance, it’s the best practice and a way to avoid incurring the hefty costs associated with these lawsuits.
Businesses Required to Comply
Who is required to comply with ADA? Title I of the federal law claims that any business that operates for at least 20 weeks annually and has more than 15 employees working full-time is under ADA’s mandate.
Title III of the Act goes on to include public transportation, banking institutions, hotels, and any other business—digital or physical—that is a “public accommodation.” This law has been interpreted by courts in the U.S. to apply to websites.
For business websites to be ADA compliant, they have to be accessible to users with disabilities. The idea is to ensure people with disabilities enjoy the same full level of access as other users. However, there are no clear-cut rules or a codified federal direction on making a website accessible or ADA compliant. Instead, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level A.A. acts as the standard of measure—and is often referenced by the DOJ, U.S. courts, and online users.
Although WCAG is not the law, it provides a useful technical reference point to help prevent discrimination of persons with disabilities and reduce the risk of website owners’ lawsuits.