Legal Risk Guide to ADA and WCAG Site Compliance

What is the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, and require businesses that serve as “places of public accommodation” to remove “barriers to access” that would prevent a disabled person from suing that businesses services or purchasing its products.

Websites are not directly addressed in this section of the ADA policy legislation (known as Title III) but many courts at different levels in the United States have determined that websites and other mobile or web-based applications or technologies apply to the restriction.

In a practical sense, the ADA is now being applied to business websites and requires that organizations websites are reasonably accessible to the disabled such as the blind, deaf or physically challenged.

"Scales of Justice" Key on Keyboard

What is WCAG?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are a set of professional standards published by several related international organizations that help maintain the internet, such as the Web Accessibility Initiative and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

WCAG 1.0 was published in 1999, with 2.0 coming in 2008 and 2.1 coming in 2018 to include a wider range of groups. Fundamentally WCAG is a set of rules (about 40 seen as required, 80 total) for websites to abide by that will allow disabled users to access and use their websites, such as providing support for screen readers or video and audio transcripts.

What about other accessibility standard guidelines

Any organization or website can publish their own set of accessibility guidelines, and businesses should be keen to ask agencies or potential consulting firms what guidelines they use. Some organizations operate under the guise of being an official organization that sets standards (such as using a .org website name) but these are businesses selling WCAG consulting, and WCAG is still the gold standard off which case law has been based up until this point.

Is it a Legal Requirement to be ADA WCAG Compliant?

Unfortunately, there is not a clear answer to this question yet, and as of 2019, a landmark case is in front of the Supreme Court which could still yet change or determine the outcome (Robles v Domino’s Pizza). In most cases, the issue comes down to whether the ADA covers only “physical spaces” (which would not include websites of course) or the entire online and digital ecosystems. Courts have decided both ways, and businesses without reasonably compliant websites are facing legal exposure.

Are businesses being sued for lack of ADA compliance?

Yes, thousands and the number is growing year over year. There were over two thousand in 2018, more than triple the year before. Restaurants, universities, hotels and retail chains have all been targeted, and of course, pizza places like Domino’s. The grocer chain Winn Dixie Store, Inc. lost a lawsuit in 2017 when a Florida court found that they did not cater to the visually impaired. New York and Florida have seen the bulk of suits, but 12 other states have seen related ADA website compliance suits over the last few years.

Will Following WCAG Prevent ADA Lawsuits?

The Federal Court in Florida that rules against Winn Dixie identified the WCAG guidelines as the “industry standard” for website accessibility. There’s unlikely a failsafe way to avoid ADA website-related lawsuits but following WCAG is the clearest remedy to sidestep potential liability.

A bill before Congress in 2017 would have required users to notify businesses within 60 days of problems before filing suit, but that failed, leaving businesses or organizations open to the potential of being blindsided at any time with compliance issues. 

What Are Some Examples of ADA or WCAG NonCompliance?

Obviously, deaf or blind users will not be able to hear or view videos on a website, but the ADA & WCAG require that a reasonable alternative be included, such as a transcript that can be accessed by a screen reader or other common technologies for disabled users. 

All publicly accessible parts of your website will need to follow a set of about 40-80 guidelines to be WCAG 2.1 compliant, which cover most reasonable examples like above with screen readers and videos.

How Does a Business Website Become WCAG & ADA Compliant?

The WCAG contains about 38 minimum rules and standards for websites to clear ADA issues and be reasonably accessible for the disabled such as blind, deaf or other cognitive and physical impairments.

The process will involve in most cases creating and adding alternative content (such as transcripts of videos or audio files, or text descriptions of images) and removing popups or disabling other functions on the website that are difficult for some disabled users.

Many developers or digital technology leads will be capable of handling WCAG updates and upgrade with the guidance of a WCAG or ADA consulting firm, both in terms of technical edits and content additions. 

What About Free Educational Content or Nonprofit Websites?

Harvard, even as a private school, was ruled to have violated the ADA by not providing accessibility to free educational content they made public on their website. The university was not selling products or services, only giving free information, and yet was deemed to need to provide for WCAG standards.

This means any organization providing a publicly available website is liable for not following the WCAG industry rules. 

How Often Might The Rules Change

At the current pace, it appears to be about once a decade. Since many businesses will update their website more often than every 10 years, organizations should have ample time to work with and WCAG or ADA website consulting agency or firm to make sure they’re up to date into the future even as technology and the web changes at a faster rate.

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.”

Read More:

ADA & WCAG FAQ Questions for Developers

ADA & WCAG FAQ Questions for Website & Business Owners

Guide to WCAG & ADA Compliance Online Tools