ADA and WCAG FAQs for Developers

Why are Developers Being Tasked with Complying with ADA?

Title III of the American Disabilities Act requires that businesses and other organizations’ websites are included in the “places of public accommodation” that entail all ADA compliance regulations. Any website with reasonably inaccessible parts or content can be seen as discriminating against anyone with a disability.

Since the ADA is a strict liability law, this can cause major issues at any time for any business, as potential plaintiffs do not have to notify businesses of any issues before filing suit.

Thousands of lawsuits have been filed in the past few years and attaining WCAG 2.0 AA level standards for all web-based publicly accessible applications appears to be the best legal remedy, as federal courts have identified these guidelines as the “industry standard”.

ADA FAQs for Developers

What are the ADA and WCAG?

The American Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, and covers a wide range of protections and legal remedies for the disabled to have equal access to services from commercial, public and other entities in a number of different contexts such as entry to buildings or the reception of publicly available information.

In the context to businesses and other organizations, running afoul of ADA compliance opens them up to legal exposure. This, of course, includes websites. 

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are part of a series of standards developed as early as 1999 (WCAG 1.0) for the general enhancement of web services for disabled users who may not be able to access standard websites due to vision, hearing, cognitive or other physical impairments.

Developed by the foremost internet consortium in the world, the W3C, WCAG 1.0 contained 14 basic guidelines, which expanded to around 40 in 2008 with the inception of WCAG 2.0, and eventually, WCAG 2.1 brought the total to around 80. 

The reason the amount of guidelines can be considered fluid is because the WCAG is, after all, a set of guidelines, it is not a legal set of regulations (even though federal courts have identified it as such in certain cases.)

The WCAG was developed as an addition to the spirit of the web, in that information should be freely and easily available to all in a reasonable degree.

In a nonlegal sense, WCAG and the W3C have intended the standards to be exactly what they’re named for: a guide for developers to improve their websites, not a set of legal hurdles to necessarily jump over.

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

There are alternative and simplified versions of the WCAG published online, often by businesses with .org domains -- usually as an attempt to appear as an official rating organization themselves.

While these consulting firms and guidelines may be helpful, they are simply efforts to sign consulting contracts just like any consulting agency. Only WCAG has been recognized in court as a professional standard.

Any other accessibility standard guidelines should be compared to the WCAG in its entirety and not taken alone as a measure of compliance or accessibility.

ADA Website Compliance vs. Website Accessibility

It’s important to keep in mind that compliance with the ADA and working to achieve the accessibility standards of the WCAG are two separate issues.

It’s both important for any business or organization to avoid any legal exposure to the ADA via their website, physical location or any other point. And, it’s also important for any publicly available website to serve all users regardless of ableness or disability.

Obviously, in this context, these two issues are directly woven together, but it’s important for a web development team to keep them separate in terms of both strategy and communication, as the WCAG are not a set of strict legal guidelines like the ADA.

The WCAG was not developed to be a legal code, but a general set of standards in the spirit of the free dissemination of information on the internet and world wide web. 

Furthermore, as a natural rule at least in the history of the web to date, a legal policy is set to change must faster and erratically than web guidelines, and therefore the ADA (or other potentially relevant legislation) is set to change at any time in the political or civil sphere.

In contrast, the W3C says “WCAG 2.0 guidelines and success criteria are designed to be broadly applicable to current and future web technologies, including dynamic applications, mobile, digital television, etc. They are stable and do not change.”

While the web is clearly fluid-like public policy, web standards have shown the ability to change more slowly and with more stability at least currently. Developers can be sure that staying up to date with WCAG which is more straightforward than worrying about the legal atmosphere of the time. 

Where Developers Can Start With ADA Compliance

If you’re not confused yet, you likely will be at some point when dealing with the ADA and WCAG. Case law on the subject is extremely new, changing every day, and it’s yet to necessarily be seen exactly what the legal benchmarks are, although as mentioned above WCAG 2.0 (Level AA) has been expressed to be the standard in at least one federal court. WCAG 1,0, 2.0 and 2.1 each are measured with 3 levels of compliance (Level A, Level AA, Level AAA).

The W3C publishes a few rather lengthy and thick explanations of their WCAG 2.0 recommendations. These can be accessed here, here and here -- a set of lengthy guidelines, techniques and explanations.  

When To Hire A Consulting Firm

While smaller web teams may need full-service updates from a competent development agency, some larger teams will not want anyone touching their code and will simply want guidance from a consulting firm.

In either case, the key for developers of all levels and with any resource level is to use an ADA/WCAG compliance firm to show them exactly what needs to be done in the most efficient and executable way without unnecessary changes. 

Internal teams are naturally going to want to make the updates themselves, or at least hire a team they’ll be working with closely, and on their own timeline.

What a consulting firm needs to bring to the table is the tools and expertise to inform a web team exactly what needs to happen, even if it’s the internal team that will control how it’s actually implemented.

A full-service, experienced firm will, of course, be capable of making those changes, but it’s most important to know what to do and what not to do. This, of course, means specifics after a full, lengthy audit, not cookie-cutter template.