Digital accessibility is a growing necessity, and organizations that test their websites for ADA compliance benefit their brand and the public.
The Americans with Disabilities Act aims to ensure that people with disabilities are not hampered in their ability to access public facilities. Countries other than the U.S. have their equivalent of the ADA. Rules differ, but digital accessibility is a focus globally.
With increasing demand for compliance and guidelines that are available now, teams should consider implementing ADA-compliant website tests. To ensure accessibility, follow the four guiding principles of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), develop a test strategy and utilize accessibility tools.
ADA compliance on the web
In July 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) outlined intentions to amend the ADA to explicitly regulate public -- state and local government -- entities to make their websites "accessible to individuals with disabilities." This followed its March 2022 guidance on web accessibility, which states that "web accessibility for people with disabilities is a priority" to the DOJ.
Leading up to the DOJ's focus on website compliance, the general legal view has been that, if website content is explicitly linked to facilities that are required to comply with the ADA, then the sites also may have to comply with ADA principles. For example, if a business offers in-person shopping and has a website designed to facilitate store visits or for online shopping, then the website is subject to the ADA.
Historically, in the U.S., courts interpret whether the ADA applies to a given website and which specific requirements would have to be met in that scenario. Seyfarth Shaw LLP, a law firm that tracks ADA lawsuit statistics, found that 2,895 ADA Title III website accessibility lawsuits were filed in U.S. federal courts in 2021 -- a 14% increase from 2020. Requirements differ in different countries -- each have their own rules and own courts to interpret them. With more lawsuits and more regulation, it's possible that your website could be subject to ADA compliance.
There are commercial and equitable dimensions to ADA compliance. It's poor business practice to present websites that are inaccessible to segments of the population. Also, for organizations with a strong social consciousness, noncompliance with digital accessibility principles might violate company policy.
The principles of WCAG
WCAG form the current standard for website compliance for both the ADA and other regulations with the same goal. Used internationally, the guidelines explain how an organization can make web content accessible to people with disabilities. It looks at text, images, sounds and code.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative intends to publish WCAG 2.2 in 2023 and is already drafting version 3. The guidelines use four principles to judge websites:
- Perceivable. Website information is accessible even if a visitor has visual or auditory limitations. Examples include subtitles for sound and audio alternatives to text, images and videos.
- Operable. A website's navigation can be manipulated by someone with visual/auditory limitations.
- Understandable. Presented information has a reasonable level of explanation, such that messages and choices can be understood by all.
- Robust. The website can evolve to reflect changes in the accessibility tools available, the nature of the material being presented and the regulations governing accessibility.
While these abstract goals can make compliance checking unclear, WCAG reference materials align specific tasks with each of the four principles. For example, keyboard accessibility fits under the Operable principle, and the reference guide explains different aspects of keyboard accessibility, such as having no keyboard trap. Still, even organizations familiar with WCAG initiatives and ADA compliance struggle to assess their own sites.
Implement ADA-compliant website tests
There's no monolithic approach to testing sites for ADA compliance. Test strategy depends on the site hosting platform, company resources for the tests and ongoing need for compliance.
Popular tools and hosting services for website development often consider accessibility from the start. WordPress, for example, is a content publishing platform committed to conforming to the WCAG 2.1 AA guidelines. Other website-builder tools make similar WCAG commitments. Customers running websites via these platforms should still check to be sure they get what they expect.
Organizations that build their own websites with HTML or those that use lower-level tools that don't enforce WCAG compliance need some mechanism to test compliance. Options range from a simple list of steps for web development teams to check to online validation tools and consulting services that maintain website compliance with digital accessibility principles over time.
To meet WCAG and/or ADA compliance goals, websites can use accessibility tools provided with major platforms for web access. Investigate accessibility checkers for the OS, popular web browsers and so on. That's also the goal of the many WCAG/ADA compliance tools available and the list of specific steps -- somewhere between 10 and 20, depending on the source -- they recommend for ADA compliance assurance.
Compliance tools can be of use, especially if you are looking to conduct a test against ADA expectations. A list of tools, provided by W3C, includes accessiBe accessScan, Monsido, WebAccessibility and UserWay.
Such tools can check a website and determine ADA compliance, though some deliver results only if the web team agrees to hear a sales pitch from the vendor. Most of these companies also offer services to improve ADA compliance and deal with identified problems. To start out on digital accessibility compliance, find a tool that offers a free website scan with immediate results and no requirement to take a sales call. Use the results to determine the next steps. This tactic is particularly helpful for SMBs.
It's not always simple to gauge whether a website is subject to ADA compliance, if a site is compliant or indeed how to fix compliance-related problems. That shouldn't deter web-facing companies from prioritizing ADA compliance and digital accessibility.
Compliance is the right thing to do for your website users. Plus, it is cheaper and easier to work toward compliance now than to be cited for noncompliance later.