In 1990, President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Its primary goal was to remove barriers from disabled people so that they could enjoy or make use of any kind of business, entertainment, transportation, or any other “public accommodation.” That’s why we have ramps on street corners, building regulations that require elevators and handrails, and crosswalks that beep or click when it’s safe to walk. But does the ADA apply to websites, too?
How the ADA Applies to Websites
This summary of the ADA’s Title III, the provision related to Public Accommodations says that
“Under Title III, no individual may be discriminated against on the basis of disability with regards to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation.
Public accommodations include most places of lodging (such as inns and hotels), recreation, transportation, education, and dining, along with stores, care providers, and places of public displays.”
So the question of whether the ADA applies to websites depends on what a Public Accommodation is. Of course, when the ADA was drafted, websites didn’t exist, and so the ADA only applied to physical places. But now, even if you can’t actually stay in a room on the Internet, or actually eat on the Internet, you certainly can make arrangements for those things online, whether from your desktop, laptop, tablet or phone. Plus, you can get educated, be entertained, work, display content, and provide services online, too.
And that makes the ADA apply to websites — including yours — at least so far as the Supreme Court is concerned.
ADA Website Compliance and the Law
The Journal of the American Bar Association says that the Department of Justice has “not provided regulations on the scope of the law in terms of web accessibility.” and that “We are in a state of no regulation…No regulations are going to happen anytime soon, and the number of lawsuits year after year has been increasing exponentially, partially as a result of that.”
According to the law firm Seyfarth Shaw, who was interviewed for the ABA Journal article, President Trump’s Unified Agenda (in which a presidential administration tells the public what regulations are under review by the Department of Justice) says that the “DOJ has placed web accessibility, medical equipment, and furniture rulemakings under Title II and III of the ADA on Inactive List.” (emphasis added)
In other words, the DOJ isn’t going to try to clarify whether, or to what degree, the ADA applies to websites.
But that doesn’t mean the courts aren’t going to try. In 2016, a blind man named Guillermo Robles sued Domino’s Pizza because he couldn’t order a pizza from the company’s website. The case went all the way to the Ninth Circuit, which ruled in Robles’ favor. Domino’s appealed to the US Supreme Court, who announced in October 2019 that it would not hear the appeal, essentially asserting that the ADA does apply to websites.
Will You Be Sued Because Your Website Isn’t ADA Compliant?
Now that it is well known — or reliably believed — that the ADA applies to websites, all website owners whose sites are not already ADA compliant are liable to not only be sued one day, but to receive threats that they will be sued.
An article at Slate.com says that the “U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Retail Federation, had been urging the Supreme Court to issue a ruling on the case, arguing that applying the ADA to websites would spur a flood of lawsuits, be prohibitively expensive, and might even deter companies from having an online presence.”
The Journal of the American Bar Association compiled statistics on ADA Lawsuits related to websites, and found that they were growing rapidly. Over the last four years, they found the following:
- 2015: 57 lawsuits filed
- 2016: 262 lawsuits filed
- 2017: 814 lawsuits filed
- 2018: 2258 lawsuits filed
And these statistics do not even reference the tens of thousands of letters threatening lawsuits by unscrupulous attorneys looking for a quick return on out-of-court settlements, which is a threat that will affect significantly more website owners than actual lawsuits.
In November 2018, the LA Times published an article about a small hotel in Palm Springs, called the Avanti, who was sued because a prospective guest could not make a reservation online. The article said that, “Fixing the site would cost about $3,000, which hotel manager Jim Rutledge said he is willing to pay. But the lawsuit demands the hotel also pay damages to the plaintiff, and Rutledge said his lawyers advise him that he may have to settle for between $8,000 and $13,000.”
Note that these figures do not include attorneys’ fees, which will increase the total payout substantially.
What Does ADA Compliance For A Website Mean?
You might be wondering what ADA Compliance for a website means. In a nutshell, it means that all people must be able to use your website, including…
- Those who see poorly
- Those who cannot see at all
- Those who hear poorly
- Those who cannot hear at all
- Those who cannot move a mouse
- Those who cannot use a keyboard
This might seem like an impossibility, but it actually can be done. There are devices and software that look for and read special information — called metadata — embedded in a website. You may have heard of metadata before: the term generally means “information about the information.” But this is a specific kind of metadata about the images, videos, graphics, navigation and other features of your website that tells special devices or software about those elements.
These devices and software either enhance the features of a browser, or take the place of a browser, to describe audibly what people cannot see, to show visually what people cannot hear, and to make it easier to navigate and use a website for people who have limited abilities.
Here are a few examples for how the ADA applies to different features of websites.
Visual ADA Compliance Examples
If there is a photo of your office staff on your website, the metadata for that photo shouldn’t just say “XYZ Staff”. Instead, it should include more detail, and might include a phrase like “Photo of XYZ Company staff: John and Sally Smith, co-owners; Tracy Jones, division manager; Billy White, Sales Manager…” and so on, so that a screen reader can describe the photo to someone who is visually impaired.
The meta data might also tell a person with limited vision about the content of the website. And colors need to have sufficient contrast so that those same visually impaired people can more easily see the content. Headings need to be coded differently than regular text so that they not only look different, but are different internally. The list goes on and on.
Navigation ADA Compliance Examples
Auditory ADA Compliance Examples
Many websites use sound in a variety of ways. A testing website might use one sound to indicate a right answer, and a different sound to indicate a wrong answer. Captions or popups might be required to give the hearing-impaired an indication about what is going on. Videos are also very popular, and while closed-captioning on your videos might have been an optional feature at some point, it’s now a requirement for ADA Compliance.
How Do I Make My Website ADA Compliant?
So now that you understand that the ADA applies to your website, that your website needs to be ADA Compliant, and some ways that might be done, how do you get started?
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the international organization that helps to determine website standards. So far they have drafted three versions of their Website Content Accessibility Guidelines. The current version is WCAG 2.1, which you can see here.
Being compliant is not a single yes/no question, so like with most compliance issues, there are degrees of compliance — and it’s nearly impossible to be 100% compliant. Before anyone can start making a website ADA Compliant, you need to know to what degree you might already be compliant because there is no point in redoing work that has already been done.
Many tools used to build modern websites — in particular WordPress and several related tools — are foundationally ADA compliant, so long as they are used in a compliant manner. Many website themes — the basic software that controls the look and features of a website — are built to allow ADA compliance. So are many page building tools, contact form plugins, and other software used to build websites. Our current preferred tools generally allow coding for ADA compliance.
Whether we built your website, or someone else did, the first step is to Assess the current level of ADA Compliance for your website. You can learn more about how we do that with our Web Accessibility Assessment service.
Now that you understand how the ADA applies to websites, you might still have questions about the ADA. Many of those questions are already answered on our ADA Website Compliance FAQ. If you still have questions, including specific questions about your site, then fill out the ADA Website Assessment Request, or call our office at 818-592-6370.
IMPORTANT: WE CANNOT GUARANTEE 100% WCAG COMPLIANCE, OR THAT YOU WON’T BE THE TARGET OF A LAWSUIT, OR THAT YOU WON’T BE THE TARGET OF MALICIOUS THREATS, OR ANY OTHER POTENTIAL OR REAL DAMAGES OR CONSEQUENCES RESULTING FROM THE WORK WE DO OR DO NOT DO FOR YOU, YOUR COMPANY OR YOUR WEBSITE.
NOTHING ON THIS PAGE SHOULD BE CONSTRUED AS LEGAL ADVICE. PLEASE CONSULT YOUR OWN ATTORNEY FOR LEGAL OPINIONS.