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What is ADA Compliance for Websites

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Words by Steven
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.The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is a piece of civil rights legislature that prohibits businesses from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Most people are familiar with the physical accommodations businesses make, but the ADA applies to the digital world as well. Under this law, websites should be as accessible as any other public place a disabled individual could enter. Ensuring your website meets ADA compliance means removing technical barriers that prevent people with disabilities from accessing your content. Failing to meet ADA compliance for websites could result in a potential lawsuit for your company. As a result, many companies should be adding web accessibility to their list of top priorities for 2018.

Understanding the ADA and What It Means for Websites

In many ways, the ADA was designed to supplement the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender or national origin. Everyone should have equal access to the same rights and opportunities. The same is true of the ADA, which mandates that public spaces should be equally accessible to all individuals. This means building ramps for wheelchair access, adding braille to signs, etc.  The ADA guarantees that individuals with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else.

How the ADA Affects Websites and Digital Publishers

As the Internet became more prominent in the 200s, lawmakers soon realized that persons with disabilities were facing new obstacles. The Internet was simply unwelcoming to individuals with disabilities. The more the Internet dominated public and social life, the more challenges people with disabilities faced.

The Advanced Notice of Rule-making

These rapid changes throughout society led the Department of Justice to revisit the ADA. The DOJ issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule-making in 2010, effectively extending these protections for persons with disabilities to include aspects of the World Wide Web, specifically, “goods, services, facilities, privileges, accommodations, or advantages offered by public accommodations via the Internet.”

The struggle to implement ADA

However, implementing and enforcing the law online isn’t the same thing as building a cement ramp outside a public library. For starters, the law does not clearly identify which websites need to be ADA compliant. Some argue that only websites that sell goods and services should meet ADA compliance.

The courts have struggled to provide clarity or consensus regarding these issues, leading to a great deal of confusion. If a website does not comply with the ADA, lawsuits can be enacted. Yet, proving discrimination in court can be an uphill climb for the plaintiff. The court’s decision will largely depend on the nature of the website in question, including the goods, services and content that it provides.

Larger institutions have the most to lose from non-compliance

Things took a turn in 2016 when the Department of Justice investigated the University of California at Berkley after a complaint was filed against the school for not providing captions for its online video content, thus excluding deaf students and persons that have difficulty hearing. As the DOJ outlined in its official correspondence with the Office of the Chancellor at UCB and the Chief Campus Counsel, UCB is subject to regulation by the DOJ and the ADA because it is a public entity.

After careful review of the school’s website content, the DOJ found UCB to be in violation of the ADA. In order to make the school’s content more accessible to students with disabilities, the DOJ directed the university to the W3C, or the World Wide Web Consortium, an international organization that’s committed to improving the quality of the Internet.

What you need to know about Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

The W3C has established what’s known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or the WCAG, a shared set of guidelines, “with the goal of providing a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally.” Designed specifically for website developers and web publishers, the WCAG focuses on making web content more accessible to persons with disabilities.

The results of the UCB case gave new significance to the WCAG, making it the definitive guide for making web content more accessible to persons with disabilities. As the courts attempt to clarify gray areas of the ADA and website compliance, many in the legal and tech communities assume that the WCAG will become the new legal standard for ADA website compliance. With that in mind, let’s dive into what makes a website ADA compliant.

What It Means for a Website to Be ADA Compliant

Website owners, designers, and content publishers should thoroughly read the WCAG. We’ll touch on some of the highlights, but if a designer is eager to thoroughly vet their website with the ADA in mind, the WCAG should be used as a technical guide. The W3C offers a variety of different versions of the guidelines based on the technical knowledge and expertise of the user. The WCAG 2 at a Glance is great for new business owners and entrepreneurs looking for a general overview. Skilled web designers and engineers should take a look at Understanding WCAG 2.0 for a more in-depth understanding of the guidelines.

The WCAG features four main categories that it uses to measure accessibility: perceivability, operable, understandable and robust.

Perceivability

“Perceivability” pertains to the actual content published on the site, including text, images, videos and multimedia content. The guidelines encourage web publishers to provide text alternatives to non-text content such as buttons, input fields, charts, graphics, images, and anything else that is vital to the user’s experience. The text should convey the same message as the non-text content, making the webpage or site more accessible to those that struggle with sensory imagery and graphic media. Text alternatives should clearly explain input fields and the functions of the website. This also includes adding captions for videos, recorded audio and livestreams or broadcasts, clearly labeling alternative text, and providing sign language interpretations for various types of media.

Operable

This category refers to the operation and functionality of a website. The WCAG recommends making a website accessible by keyboard, so that persons with disabilities can use the “Tab” command to shift from field to field, instead of operating the cursor using a mouse or a touch pad. Designers should also go to great lengths to make the site as easy to navigate as possible by using clear indicators such as large-font text for buttons and controls, clearly labeling headers and menu options, and keeping content logically organized.

Potentially seizure inducing content does not comply. Examples include bright flashing graphics and audio-visual content with a fast montage. Users should also have enough time to navigate the website. This means no flashing instructions or input fields that disappear after a short period of time.

Understandable

To make webpages more understandable, web publishers and designers should use the correct language attribute in their HTML code, so the page loads with the most commonly used language. This also applies to alternative text for images, videos, text-to-speech synthesizers and other multi-media content. Close captioning on videos in crucial, especially for the deaf community. The content of the website should also load and function in a consistent fashion. The user should be able to anticipate how the webpage will respond with each action. This reduces the chances of confusing users or catching them off-guard when navigating the site.

Robust

The “Robust” section focuses on making websites compatible with the latest norms and practices of the World Wide Web. Properly format an engineer’s code. Make sure elements have complete start and end tags, and remove duplicate characters and attributes. This ensures that the user agent parses the source code correctly, so the content displays properly for all users. Simply put, designers should stay on top of the latest HTML best practices and update their code accordingly.

The Future of the ADA

A final decision on ADA website compliance is expected sometime in 2018. This will most likely position the WCAG as the definitive guide for web publishers and designers. We still don’t know which websites and organizations are subject to regulation by the DOJ. Website owners can get a head start by familiarizing themselves with the WCAG sooner rather than later.