Learn how to make an ADA-compliant website
About one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, have a disability. In the United States, it’s about one in four adults. Providing equal access to web content is essential not only because it expands your audience, but it’s also a civil rights issue.
It’s important to note that businesses have encountered accessibility lawsuits for not providing website compliance with the ADA. However, we want to make it clear that this article is not intended as legal advice. It is only to inform readers about ADA compliance and how to incorporate it into a website.
What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Examples of disabilities that fall under this federal civil rights law include, but are not limited to:
- Blindness or low vision
- Major depressive disorder
The ADA is broken up into five sections, or titles. Each title covers a set of requirements for different kinds of organizations, each with intentions to prevent discrimination and improve accessibility:
- Title I: Employment
- Title II, Subtitle A: State and local government services
- Title II, Subtitle B: Public transportation
- Title III: Businesses that are open to the public
- Title IV: Telecommunications
- Title V: Other important requirements (i.e., prohibiting retaliation against a person who has asserted their rights under the ADA.)
This article will just focus on websites that belong to Title II and Title III organizations. If you want to learn more about which organizations fall under these titles, check the ADA website.
In 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) revised regulations for Title II and Title III of the ADA, requiring newly designed facilities, public accommodations, and commercial facilities “be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.” These revised ADA regulations were primarily intended to provide people with disabilities increased accessibility to general public amenities and physical locations—from parking lots to courtrooms to swimming pools.
Does my website have to be ADA compliant?
Both Title II and Title III of the ADA prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. This means that if a Title II or Title III website does not provide web accessibility features for people with disabilities, that business is not ADA compliant.
TITLE II: State and local governments
State and local governments offer a variety of their services, programs, and activities to online users. This includes paying parking tickets, filing police reports, registering for schools, and filing tax documents or other online forms. As a result, the ADA requires that state and local government websites offer web accessibility features for people with disabilities to access these services, programs, and activities.
Title III: Public businesses
Businesses that are open to the public—also known as places of public accommodation—also tend to offer services online. This includes grocery stores, banks, hotels, hospitals, food and drink establishments, sports arenas, and other businesses (regardless of physical location). Thus, the ADA requires that these types of businesses must provide web accessibility features that enable people with disabilities full and equal enjoyment of their goods, facilities, advantages, or services.
Is my website ADA compliant?
The ADA’s requirements for Title II and Title III websites are clear. However, the law for how these websites must comply is not standardized. As of early 2023, there aren’t laws, standards, or federally codified rules on what is or isn’t ADA compliant.
Since the DOJ made revisions in 2010, the ADA states that websites do need to be accessible for people with disabilities, but it has not provided clear, standardized guidelines or regulations for Title II and Title III businesses to meet. Only federal websites have codified rules, but standards for Title II and Title III websites are currently on a case-by-case basis.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, “businesses and state and local governments have flexibility in how they comply with the ADA’s requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. […] Businesses and state and local governments currently choose how they will ensure that the programs, services, and goods they provide online are accessible to people with disabilities.”
However, this doesn’t mean that just because the rules aren’t standardized, businesses can simply announce their website is compliant and move on. The ADA states that even though there’s flexibility, businesses and state and local governments “still must ensure that the programs, services, and goods that they provide to the public—including those provided online—are accessible to people with disabilities.”
How do I make an ADA-compliant website without codified rules?
It does seem confusing that the ADA requires businesses to make their web content accessible but doesn’t state how to do so or what rules to follow. So, if you’re feeling confused, don’t worry. Since 2010, thousands of businesses have encountered accessibility issues, but the DOJ announced in 2022 its intentions to revise the ADA and standardize its accessibility requirements.
For now, your business should still make the best effort to provide appropriate accommodations for people with disabilities.
ADA-approved website standards: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
First published in 2008, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is a web accessibility initiative that created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG (version 2.1). It discusses a variety of recommendations for making websites accessible to people with disabilities.
For years, the federal government has used the WCAG to standardize website compliance with the ADA. Several other companies abide by the latest version of the WCAG, so it’s a great place to start if you want to achieve ADA compliance.
The WCAG can be difficult to decipher, so let’s just go over the four principles of accessibility and the three conformance levels. (You can visit the WCAG website to learn more about web accessibility guidelines.)
Principle #1: Perceivable
The WCAG defines this principle as “information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.” Simply put, users should be able to discern or properly identify the information presented on a screen.
- Examples: prerecorded audio, closed captions, alt text, color contrast
Principle #2: Operable
The WCAG defines this as “user interface components and navigation [that is] operable,” meaning that a website’s interface and navigation should be accessible and functional.
- Examples: functional keyboard navigation, limited flashing/animations, logical menu navigation
Principle #3: Understandable
The third principle, understandable web content, is fairly straightforward. The WCAG defines it as “users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface.” This means writing content with legible words and less jargon.
- Examples: language is understandable by screen reader, pop-up error identification, predictable navigation
Principle #4: Robust
The WCAG defines the fourth principle, robust web content, as content that is “robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.” Simply put, this means that as technology evolves, users should still be able to access the content even with assistive technologies like text-to-speech readers.
- Example: content is clear for assistive technology to fully support user
Three conformance levels: A, AA, and AAA
If you run an accessibility audit, you should hit at least a Level AA conformance for each guideline (Level A is the minimum and Level AAA is the maximum). Level A Success Criteria may not always include content that’s usable by the majority of people with disabilities, so to cover all your bases, aim for Level AA Success Criteria for every guideline in the WCAG.
- Level A: the minimum level that a webpage can achieve to meet WCAG standards.
- Level AA: satisfies all Level A and Level AA criteria, meaning a webpage achieves target accessibility and is usable for the majority of people with disabilities.
- Level AAA: satisfies all levels, meaning a webpage exceeds accessibility requirements.
Tips for creating web accessibility for people with disabilities
Whether you’re a small business or you own a local government site, these tips can help you create a fully accessible website and provide equal access for people with or without disabilities.
Alt text and alt tags
Alt text—short for alternative text—is a description of an image on your website that is essential for visually impaired users who use screen readers. If your images do not include alt text, a screen reader will tell the user that there’s an image on your site, but it won’t be able to tell them what the image depicts.
The best way to make effective use of alt text is to keep the description short, use proper punctuation, and identify all images. Also make sure to repeat any text that appears in the image but don’t repeat the image caption (a screen reader will end up reading it twice if you repeat the image caption in your alt text).
Text transcripts for video content and audio files
Providing text transcripts for video and audio files can also help increase accessibility for your audience. You should make sure to include a text transcript if you embed a video or audio clip in your website or you include a link for users to experience on other web pages.
Some video websites—like Vimeo or YouTube—automatically transcribe videos to create closed captions, but they may not always be accurate. If you include a video, make sure you edit the closed captions for accuracy.
A general alternative to providing text transcripts or closed captioning is to publish your script as a blog. That way, people who use screen readers can easily access your content, and you can increase your audience by providing that content in a second format.
As mentioned in the second principle of the WCAG—operable web content—try to make sure your webpage has an organized layout and logical structure. No matter if users are accessing your website on a desktop, via mobile, or with assistive technology, always make sure your content is in a logical order. This also includes having an accessible menu, links, and buttons.
Distinct color contrast can impact a website’s readability, especially for older individuals and those who are color-blind. Use colors with a large contrast ratio, which generally means darker colors against a light background. Make sure that every element on your website has contrasting colors—including links, buttons, footnotes, menus, and other navigational features.
Headers that establish a hierarchy
People who use screen readers especially rely on headers and tables to determine what is most important on a webpage. By using HTML headings like < H1 > or < H2 >, users can identify important sections of your content instead of relying on other elements like colors, bold text, or font style.
Plain language and readability
Writing content that’s easy to read is important for almost everyone who interacts with your website. The internet gives users instant access to nearly infinite resources, meaning people prefer to skim rather than read lengthy texts online.
So, make sure to break up your paragraphs into 1-3 sentences and include bullet points, bolded keywords, and summaries. Try to keep jargon to a minimum and define words that a general audience may not be familiar with.Perform a software audit
Perform an accessibility audit
Once you’ve incorporated all your digital accessibility features, you should perform an accessibility audit. An accessibility audit is a web accessibility tool, program, or application that scans your site and determines if it is usable and compatible for people with disabilities—usually by measuring standards from the WCAG. While not all of these programs are free, it is almost always worth the money spent.
Why ADA compliance and website accessibility matter
While building an ADA-compliant website is a legal requirement for Title II and Title III businesses, you shouldn’t do it solely to avoid an accessibility lawsuit. Creating websites that promote equal access can improve your SEO, expand your audience, and boost your website performance.
But most of all, it can make users feel valued. Building online spaces that enable nondiscrimination and effective communication can make users feel that you welcome their business, and you care about providing reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities.