ADA Compliance and Accessibility for Websites

ADA Compliance and Accessibility for Websites
What Is ADA Compliance for Websites?
What Is 508 Compliance?
Why Does Web Accessibility Matter?
ADA Compliant Website Checklist
Web Accessibility for Persons Who are Blind or Low Vision
Web Accessibility for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing
Accessible Web Design and Other Compliance Considerations
ADA Compliance and Section 508 Website Checker
Additional Resources for Website ADA Compliance

The internet is perhaps the most important and influential tool of the modern era. It has provided access to unprecedented quantities of human knowledge and information to almost 4.4 billion people, or more than half of the world’s entire population. The internet has revolutionized how humans communicate, interact, and connect with each other. In fact, access to the internet is so vital that the UN considers it to be a universal human right.

However, many people with disabilities cannot access, or have difficulties, using the internet. This is largely because many websites are not constructed with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in mind. Non-compliant website design can prevent millions of people from accessing the internet and all of the benefits it has to offer. Making websites accessible for everyone should be of utmost importance for developers and anyone else with a website.

This guide to website accessibility will explain what ADA compliance looks like online and why accessibility matters, in addition to providing a checklist you can use to ensure your website is ADA compliant and as accessible as possible. This information is especially pertinent to people with disabilities as well as web designers, but it’s also relevant to everyone who currently uses or might use the internet. Website accessibility is an issue that affects the internet and all of its users, not just people with disabilities or those with websites. Creating compliant and universally accessible websites ensures that everyone can access and use the internet to its fullest extent.

What Is ADA Compliance for Websites?

Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on disability in public life, including employment, education, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The ADA also requires employers to make accommodations for employees with disabilities and mandates certain requirements that make public places more accessible. This has led to huge advancements in accessibility for people with disabilities in everyday life.

These same kinds of accessibility requirements, however, have not been implemented across the internet, as lawmakers have yet to adjust to this new virtual “public place.” Despite the ADA Amendments of 2008, there are currently no federal laws requiring the internet to be ADA compliant. And though Google has had a significant impact in encouraging websites to prioritize accessibility by featuring ADA compliant sites higher in search results, there is still a long way to go before the entirety of the web is accessible.

What Is 508 Compliance?

Section 508 acts as an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Passed in 1998, the amendment requires federal agencies to make their “information and communication technologies” accessible to people with disabilities. Under Section 508, a website or technology is only considered “accessible” if individuals with disabilities can use it as effectively as non-disabled people. Not all federal agencies or websites have to be Section 508 compliant, and exceptions are made for different reasons, including national security and maintenance access. Section 508 compliance also extends to nonprofits that receive federal funds, public schools, and public colleges and universities.

Even if you aren’t required to make your website compliant with Section 508, it’s still important for website designers and IT professionals to consider doing so. When creating a strategy for your website, you don’t want to alienate anyone, especially any potential key audience segments. Many of the things you can do to make your website more accessible are fairly simple. Examples of Section 508 compliant elements include making the text easier for screen readers to convert to audio, ensuring all visual elements have descriptive text associated with them and transcribing all audio clips and videos on your website. The comprehensive list of Section 508 standards can be found on the United States Access Board website.

Why Does Web Accessibility Matter?

Web accessibility matters because people with disabilities need to be able to use the internet as effectively as people without disabilities. The internet is a largely necessary part of daily life, and people with disabilities have an equal right to its ease of access. Further, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 15 percent of the world’s population has a disability. This translates to roughly one billion people, making people with disabilities a huge portion of the world’s entire population.

In contrast, very few websites are actually accessible and useful for people with disabilities. According to a 2019 study conducted by The WebAIM Million, of the top 1 million website homepages on the internet, 97.8 percent had detectable Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG 2) errors that led to a “notable end-user impact.” Keep in mind, however, that this study only analyzed the homepages of popular websites and used automatic tests to uncover these errors. This WebAIM Million study suggests that the overall accessibility of these websites is incredibly low for people with disabilities.

The internet, in its current state, is difficult (and sometimes nearly impossible) for individuals with disabilities to access. However, this is not the only reason that accessibility is important. There are additional, far-reaching advantages to creating universally accessible websites, which can benefit not only people with disabilities and those with websites but the majority of internet users in general:

  • Avoids Legal Complications: If you build an accessible website, you can preempt any potential legal issues, such as claims of discrimination against people with disabilities, from arising. This will also ensure your organization can work with different groups or government agencies that require websites to be universally accessible.
  • Broadens Audiences: If your site is accessible, more people can use it. This can lead to more traffic, more users and, ultimately, more customers. While accessibility does not guarantee an increase in profits, it does provide an opportunity to garner a larger audience of users who may be interested in your business.
  • Creates a Better Site: Generally, universally accessible websites are of a higher caliber. Following guidelines for ADA compliance can help developers build a better website, as the guidelines tend to overlap with web design best practices.
  • Generates Positive PR: If your website is accessible, it can give a boost to your organization’s reputation, help you stand out from your competition, and demonstrate your passion for and dedication to being inclusive of everyone.
  • Improves Usability for All: Accessibility makes websites easier to use, but that doesn’t only apply to people with disabilities, as non-disabled people can also benefit from sites that are more useable.
  • Normalizes Accessibility: Websites designed with ADA compliance in mind help normalize accessibility. This, in turn, can help those working to meet accessibility needs across a variety of platforms.
  • Improves Search Engine Optimization (SEO): Accessible websites can improve your search engine rankings. As mentioned above, Google gives priority to sites that are accessible; in addition, many accessibility features make it easier for search engines bots to evaluate your site, which can further boost your rankings.

ADA Compliant Website Checklist

Because the need for and benefits of web accessibility can be overwhelming, you may not be aware of what you actually need to do to make your website ADA compliant. Planning for accessibility before developing your site is part of creating a thoughtful, deliberate and high-quality web design. You can make changes to your site after its creation to improve accessibility, but for the best results, you should begin preparations as early in the design process as possible.

Though each individual with a disability is unique, there are certain site elements and features that make your site more accessible for the community of individuals with disabilities at large. Here is a checklist of different site elements that you can use to make your website ADA compliant and more usable for people with disabilities:

Web Accessibility for Persons Who are Blind or Low Vision

Though the elements listed here can be useful for anyone, people who have visual impairments—including people who are blind, have limited vision or are colorblind—have specific needs in terms of web accessibility and can benefit greatly from the following:

  • Alternate Image Text: Images and videos on your site should have descriptive text attached to them. This allows screen readers to read that text, which then describes the image or video aloud. Good graphic design is more than just visually appealing content; it should always include this text in order to engage every visitor that comes to the site.
  • Color Coding and Contrast: Color should not be the sole element used to convey meaning or information. There should also be adequate contrast between the color of the font and of the page, in order to make the text easier to read. You should also offer multiple color schemes so users can pick the one that they can see best.
  • Descriptive Titles, Headers, and Links: All pages should have unique titles and headers, and all hyperlinks should have unique anchor text. Further, all titles, headers, and links should be descriptive of the associated information. Headers should also be formatted with heading style designations instead of changes in font, color, or size. Do not remove the underline from your hyperlinks.
  • Flexible Text Size: Users should be able to change the font size on a page to make it either smaller or larger. Do not hardcode the size of your text on your website.
  • Text Instead of Images for Important Information: Do not convey important or critical information with images; always use text, so text-to-speech readers can read it aloud. If you do have an important image or graphic, be sure to include alternate text or a description.
  • Screen Reader Accessibility: Design your website so it can be easily read by screen readers and text-to-speech programs. Links, lists, and headers should be clearly identified with descriptive, non-generic terms. All language on the page should be concise and easy to read and appropriately identified so screen readers can clearly communicate the information on the page.
  • Zoom Functions: Users should be able to use the zoom feature on your site, both on desktop and on mobile. Do not disable zoom functionality on either version of your site, and ensure that your layout can adapt to up to at least 200 percent zoom on desktop.

Web Accessibility for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing

There are also ways you can improve your site’s accessibility for the deaf community, and those who are partially deaf or hard of hearing. Web accessibility best practices for these individuals include:

  • Audio Transcripts: For all audio clips and videos on your site, provide a text-based transcript for users. You should also take care to ensure these transcripts are accessible to screen readers.
  • Closed Captioning and Subtitles on Videos: You should provide closed captioning or subtitles, regardless of spoken language, on all of your videos. When using automated captioning software, make sure the captions are accurate and update them if necessary.
  • Multiple Contact Options: When listing your contact information on your site, offer multiple methods of contact. Include your phone number and email address, at the very least. You could also provide a web form and physical or mailing address if needed.
  • Simple English: Avoid jargon, uncommon words, and overly complex sentence structures. For many deaf and hard of hearing people, sign language is their first language, not English.

Accessible Web Design and Other Compliance Considerations

There are a great number of other accessibility features you should consider adding to your website. Many of these features are simply part of creating a high-quality website, and people will generally find them useful, whether or not they have a disability:

  • Avoid Animations, Autoplay and Popups: Animations, audio and video clips on autoplay, pop-ups and other automatic flashing or moving elements on a web page can be highly distracting or even potentially dangerous for some users. Always offer a warning before unexpected flashing or movement, and allow users to turn off these features on your site.
  • Button and Link Size: Pay attention to the size of your buttons, links and other touch targets on your site. People who aren’t using a mouse may have difficulty clicking on these items if they are too small. It’s equally important to make sure these elements are not too big, as users who have difficulties with motor control may accidentally click on something unintentionally.
  • CAPTCHAs: Ensure your CAPTCHAs are accessible or can be skipped over if users cannot complete them. Traditional CAPTCHAs that block access to users who cannot successfully complete them can prevent some people with disabilities from using your site at all.
  • Keyboard Accessibility: Make your site fully accessible to those who only use a keyboard to navigate. Most sites allow users to navigate with a mouse, and many mobile sites allow for the use of touch screens, but keyboard accessibility is a necessity for many users.
  • Multi-Touch Gestures: Think twice before requiring users to do more than one gesture at a time, or in quick succession, to utilize your website, particularly on your mobile site or app. Multi-touch gestures can be difficult or impossible for some users to do successfully.
  • Avoid Purchase Time-Outs: Many sites will cancel a purchase if users take longer than a designated amount of time to complete it, but purchase time-outs pose large problems for users. Not only is it inconvenient to go through the process of adding things back into a cart, but some users may also take more time to do so than others.
  • Skip Navigation Links: Allow keyboard-only users and screen readers to skip over repetitive content, such as your navigation or headers, to get directly to the main content of a page.
  • Text Summaries: Whether or not they have a disability, some users cannot (or may struggle to) read long sentences or paragraphs. Break up the text into smaller paragraphs, use headers and subheaders to make it easier to read, or provide shorter summaries of the text.

ADA Compliance and Section 508 Website Checker

If you are unsure if your website is ADA compliant or section 508 compliant, you can always use a web accessibility checker. This helps developers test their website to verify whether or not it adequately meets expectations or requirements. There are a variety of online checking tools available for you to use.

  • A11y Color Contrast Accessibility Validator: This tool checks the contrast on a given web page, displays the color combinations that fail the WCAG guidelines and suggests solutions to fix any issues.
  • Android Developers Accessibility Tester: This guide to accessibility testing specifically pertains to Android mobile apps.
  • Accessibility Insights for Web: This Google Chrome extension created by Microsoft helps developers and web designers find any accessibility issues or errors on their site.
  • aDesigner: This program simulates visual impairment to help developers verify that people who are blind or have low vision can use their website.
  • CynthiaSays: This tool helps users find accessibility errors in their web content, compares them to section 508 and WCAG guidelines, and provides feedback on specific web pages.
  • Photosensitive Epilepsy Analysis Tool (PEAT): This tool helps developers identify any potential seizure risks in web content and software.
  • Readability Grader: This website helps developers and writers make sure their content is easy to read.
  • Section 508 Test for Accessibility: These testing resources and information can help developers ensure their site is up to section 508 standards.

Don’t hesitate to hire trusted professionals to help test and develop your website to make sure that you cover all of your bases.

Additional Resources for Website ADA Compliance

For more information and further reading on website accessibility and ADA compliance, consult the following resources: