UPDATE: Since writing this post in August 2017, several important changes have taken place in the laws regarding ADA compliance for websites. On December 26, 2017, the Department of Justice announced that they have withdrawn the Obama-era Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking mentioned in this article which intended to require ADA website compliance. The DOJ’s withdrawal announcement stated, “The Department will continue to assess whether specific technical standards are necessary and appropriate to assist covered entities with complying with the ADA.”
Because they only read text, screen readers and refreshable Braille displays cannot interpret photographs, charts, color-coded information, or other graphic elements on a webpage. For this reason, a photograph of a mayor on a city’s website is inaccessible to people who use these assistive technologies, and a blind person visiting the website would be unable to tell if the image is a photo, a logo, a map, a chart, artwork, a link to another page, or even a blank page.

ADA website compliance is about making sure that everyone has equal access to all the elements on your website and apps. That may mean you need to provide alternatives for some of the functions and content on your site in order to meet ADA website compliance standards. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the accommodations that need to be incorporated into your website to meet the ADA guidelines:

Webpage designers often have aesthetic preferences and may want everyone to see their webpages in exactly the same color, size and layout. But because of their disability, many people with low vision do not see webpages the same as other people. Some see only small portions of a computer display at one time. Others cannot see text or images that are too small. Still others can only see website content if it appears in specific colors. For these reasons, many people with low vision use specific color and font settings when they access the Internet – settings that are often very different from those most people use. For example, many people with low vision need to use high contrast settings, such as bold white or yellow letters on a black background. Others need just the opposite – bold black text on a white or yellow background. And, many must use softer, more subtle color combinations.
Enacted in 1990, this civil rights statute was created for the purpose of limiting discriminatory practices towards individuals with disabilities. This act and its amendments guarantee equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. Both public and private entities are affected by the ADA.
In some circumstances, longer and more detailed text will be necessary to convey the same meaningful information that other visitors to the website can see. For example, a map showing the locations of neighborhood branches of a city library needs a tag with much more information in text format. In that instance, where the map conveys the locations of several facilities, add a “longdesc” tag that includes a text equivalent description of each location shown on the map – e.g., “City Center Library, 433 N. Main Street, located on North Main Street between 4th Avenue and 5th Avenue.”

Recent years have seen an uptick in federal lawsuits filed against businesses and governments, alleging that their website violates the ADA by being insufficiently accessible to people with disabilities. In 2017, there were at least 814 such lawsuits against organizations in a variety of industries, from banks and credit unions to restaurants and e-commerce websites. The defendants include small businesses as well as major corporations such as Nike, Burger King, and the Hershey Company.
Because they only read text, screen readers and refreshable Braille displays cannot interpret photographs, charts, color-coded information, or other graphic elements on a webpage. For this reason, a photograph of a mayor on a city’s website is inaccessible to people who use these assistive technologies, and a blind person visiting the website would be unable to tell if the image is a photo, a logo, a map, a chart, artwork, a link to another page, or even a blank page.

Google and the government are already making asks around their expectations of accessibility as a cornerstone of website development. Google already rewards sites that check many accessibility boxes with higher rankings and the government has signaled that web accessibility standards will be required for government contractors. By building a more accessible website now, you may significantly impact your SEO and ranking potential, not to mention open the doors to possible work as a government contractor.
Basically, there are standards which apply to US federal agencies, and State or Local Government websites (not business/personal websites). While some disability discrimination laws do mention websites, they don’t specify the technical standards required to comply with the law. Regardless of ADA’s lack of stating websites must be fully accessible, the Department of Justice seems to rule on the side of “they should be”.

The 2014 case involving Peapod, an online grocery retailer emphasizes that being ADA compliant goes beyond your website. The settlement required Peapod to make its mobile applications accessible by March 2015 and its website accessible by September 2015. Since mobile apps are fast becoming the preferred method of online shopping, e-commerce sites must focus on app accessibility too. 
Leading web developers have been pioneering accessibility and publishing standards since 1994. In 1999, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). In essence, the people who determine how the internet is written came together to advise web developers on how to make websites accessible not only to people with disabilities, but to all web users, including those with highly limited devices.

Without a definitive ruling, there is room for a difference of opinion. That’s exactly what happened in 2015 in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that Netflix is not subject to Title III of the ADA because it has no physical place of business. This opinion was unpublished, meaning it is not intended to be considered legal precedent, but it certainly makes it confusing for businesses that are not sure where they stand under the ADA.


(emphasis added). The fact that public accommodations have “flexibility” in how to comply with the ADA’s effective communication requirement has been lost in the past eight years, even though DOJ made this point in its 2010 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) for websites.  In that document, DOJ stated that a 24/7 staffed telephone line could provide a compliant alternative to an accessible website.  The few courts to have considered this argument in the context of an early motion to dismiss have recognized its legitimacy, but have allowed cases to move forward into discovery on this and other issues.  There have been no decisions on the merits addressing the viability of having a 24/7 telephone option in lieu of an accessible website.
It is worth noting that before the settlement, Netflix attempted to argue that, due to its role as a streaming video distributor, any legal action should pertain to the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), which, at the time, did not call for closed captions on content that had not previously aired on US television. However, the court ruled that these two laws are not mutually exclusive and that Netflix was not protected from ADA prosecution because of compliance with the CVAA.
Poorly designed websites can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities, just as poorly designed buildings prevent some people with disabilities from entering. Access problems often occur because website designers mistakenly assume that everyone sees and accesses a webpage in the same way. This mistaken assumption can frustrate assistive technologies and their users. Accessible website design recognizes these differences and does not require people to see, hear, or use a standard mouse in order to access the information and services provided.
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