Fifty-seven million Americans have a disability according to the most recent U.S. Census. That includes 8 million with a vision impairment and almost 20 million who have difficulty lifting and grasping, both of which can affect their ability to use the web. Many of the people who visit your website, use your app, or buy from your ecommerce store face challenges that you may not have thought of.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in the United States in 1990 and was amended in 2008. Its goal is to alleviate the challenges faced by disabled people and ensure that they have the same access to services and opportunities as everyone else.
As we’ll discuss, the legal position of websites in relation to ADA is far from clear, but it is clear that there are business and ethical reasons to design websites that everyone can use.
Please Note: This article should not be considered legal advice. Every business and website is unique, so we recommend consulting with a lawyer for advice specific to your situation.
Does Your Website Have to Comply With ADA?
ADA was introduced in 1990 and updated in 2008. As you might expect from those dates, it doesn’t have a lot to say about web accessibility. However, recent legal decisions indicate that it may be wise for businesses to provide accessible websites regardless.
ADA requires owners of “places of public accommodation” to provide equal access to users who are considered disabled. Does a website count as a “place of public accommodation?” The answer to that question is a legal grey area.
In 2017, Winn Dixie Store breached ADA because its website was not accessible to people with visual impairments. In 2018, new regulations that would have obligated government websites to comply with web accessibility best practices were planned, but they were withdrawn by the current administration, signalling an unwillingness to encourage complaints based on web accessibility issues. However, the Department of Justice has indicated that web accessibility is considered to fall under ADA, even though there are no regulations that deal with it specifically.
As things stand, the likelihood of a business being prosecuted under the ADA for having a website that causes difficulties for people with disabilities is not clear. However, if it is not compliant, it could be subject to an ADA complaint. Many businesses have decided to implement web accessibility best practices because doing so ensures that as many people as possible can access the services and information it provides.
Given that there are no definitive legal rules for ADA compliance where web accessibility is concerned, most organizations follow the guidance of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
What Is the WCAG?
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are published by the World Wide Web Consortium. They describe in detail the design choices that websites should make to be maximally accessible to people with disabilities. The most recent version is WCAG 2.1, which was published in 2018.
The WCAG covers four types of provisions under the headings Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. Each section contains a set of accessibility guidelines and success criteria that websites have to fulfill to be considered accessible.
There are over 60 specific guidelines, so let’s focus on three to give you an idea of what the WCAG expects.
Many websites cause problems for people with visual impairments by using low-contrast text—dark grey text on light grey backgrounds, for example. The WCAG Success Criterion 1.4.6 says that text should have a contrast ratio of at least 1:7 so that people with visual impairments can read it.
A related issue concerns the size of the text. Website designs often use text that is too small, and that cannot be resized without making the site difficult to use. Success Criterion 1.1.4 says that users should be able to resize text by up to 200 percent without loss of functionality.
Finally, websites should be operable by a keyboard. That means users with movement and sight impairments should be able to navigate the site and its menus using only the keyboard. Many people with movement impairments cannot use a mouse to navigate, and a keyboard-accessible site also helps accessibility software to control the website.
One of the reasons websites and applications fail to comply with accessibility standards is the amount of work involved. For businesses with limited budgets, it is challenging to follow accessibility standards.
But standards testing doesn’t have to be a painstaking manual task. There are many tools that can automatically scan websites and highlight breaches of the WCAG.
Automating WCAG Compliance Scanning
WCAG accessibility scanning tools range from command-line tools to full-fledged applications. Here, we’ll look at three of the most widely used tools.
Pa11y is an open-source web accessibility testing tool that can be integrated into continuous integration or continuous development (CI/CD) workflows. The Pa11y project creates a range of tools and interfaces built on its core Node library. They include command-line tools that can run tests from the terminal and CI scripts. The project also offers a dashboard for automatic web testing and a JSON-based web service for organizations that want to build their own dashboard or integrate Pa11y into other applications.
WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool
WAVE provides several tools for web accessibility evaluation. The simplest is a web app that accepts a URL and displays the web page with notations for each of the accessibility issues it discovers. The web app is built on software that also powers a stand-alone API for gathering information about multiple pages, and browser plugins for Google Chrome and Firefox.
Axe for Web is an accessibility testing suite based on one of the most popular accessibility rules libraries. The web version of Axe is available primarily as browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox, but the library can be used on the command line with Pa11y. Deque, the company behind Axe, also operates a premium Axe Pro service that offers a web-based app and automatic testing.
The tools we have looked at make it easier for businesses to comply with international web accessibility standards. Complying with those international standards will help to reduce the risk of ADA complaints and also provide users with disabilities access to your websites and applications.
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