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The Ultimate Guide to Achieving ADA Compliance

Introduction

COVID-19 has accelerated the rate at which digital platforms are replacing face-to-face communications, shopping, and more, making it vital for your website to be accessible to people with disabilities.

But achieving compliance to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is about more than avoiding lawsuits and dodging complaints—it’s about creating a barrier-free online experience for people with disabilities, as well as building a company culture around accessibility and inclusion.

Today, there are one billion people worldwide who have disabilities and 61 million adults in the United States—or 26 percent of the population—living with a disability. By 2030, one in five Americans will hit retirement age with a visual impairment and likely need to use assistive technology, such as a screen reader. Achieving ADA compliance can’t be a question of “if”; it must be a question of “when.”

 

The Ultimate Guide to Achieving ADA Compliance is for you if:

  • You're responsible for establishing and maintaining accessibility for your business’s digital assets, such as websites, apps, PDFs, images, and videos.

  • You have a website that uses Java, CSS, dynamic content, and/or third-party functionality.

  • Your industry is among those most frequently targeted by web accessibility lawsuits, including retail companies and the hospitality and restaurant industry.

Download the PDF version of this guide by filling out this form—or keep scrolling to read The Ultimate Guide to Achieving ADA Compliance.

Ebook Cover: The Ultimate Guide to Achieving ADA Compliance

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Chapter 1

What Is ADA Website Compliance and Who Does It Apply To?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that was passed in 1990 and prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by businesses with 15 or more employees, state and local governments, and nonprofit organizations. According to Title III of the ADA, people with disabilities must have full access to places of “public accommodations.” This law covers brick-and-mortar establishments, such as restaurants, movie theaters, gyms, retail shopping, and more, but it also includes websites and mobile applications.

If your website or app isn’t accessible and ADA compliant, people who have visual impairments may not be able to access text, images, or videos, and people with hearing impairments may not be able to get the information they need because of a lack of video captions. A screen reader can convert information into speech for the visually impaired, but if your website isn’t designed to be compatible with assistive technology, then your website is neither accessible to people with disabilities nor compliant with the ADA.

WCAG and the ADA

More than 20 years ago, the DOJ interpreted the ADA’s Title III to apply to public websites. Although the ADA’s Title III doesn’t name a specific technical standard for determining accessibility, the most consistently cited standards for upholding compliance in court rulings are versions 2.0 and 2.1 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG provides a roadmap for how businesses and organizations can make their web content more accessible to people with the following disabilities:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Physical
  • Speech
  • Cognitive
  • Language
  • Learning
  • Neurological

The lack of an official standard has been a sticking point in many court cases, most notably the Domino’s accessibility case (Robles versus Domino’s Pizza LLC). In 2017, the case was dismissed, citing the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) doesn’t recognize any formal web accessibility regulations. However, in January 2019, the decision was reversed and sent back to the lower court—a monumental decision.

After the 2019 reversal in the Domino’s case, a group of senators, led by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, asking the DOJ to clarify once and for all how the ADA applies to websites. Previously, in 2018, 103 congressional representatives sent a similar letter urging the DOJ to clarify whether the ADA applies to websites.

Although the DOJ hasn’t released specific regulations for ensuring ADA compliance, this doesn’t excuse businesses from having to make their websites and apps accessible to people with disabilities. In the Domino's case, Circuit Judge John B. Owens wrote in the court’s opinion:

"While we understand why Domino's wants DOJ to issue specific guidelines for website and app accessibility, the Constitution only requires that Domino's receive fair notice of its legal duties, not a blueprint for compliance with its statutory obligations."

The accessibility community’s hope is that—just as the DOJ did with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which applies to federal agencies (see sidebar)—WCAG will be accepted as the standard for measuring and ensuring ADA Title III compliance. We’ll dive deeper into the specifics of WCAG in Chapter 3.

What about Section 508?
Although Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 often appears alongside the ADA’s Title III requirements, Section 508 applies solely to federal agencies.

According to Section 508, federal agencies must maintain and use accessible information and communications technologies in order to accommodate federal employees and members of the public who have disabilities. Section 508 applies to government websites and other government media. In January 2018, the government released revised Section 508 standards, which include several advancements, such as the recognition of WCAG 2.0 AA as the industry standard for accessibility.

 

Chapter 2

The Business Case for Becoming ADA Compliant

With our growing reliance on websites, e-commerce, and mobile apps, businesses must raise the bar for accessibility—but not only because of the potential for lawsuits or risk to reputation. Having an accessible website or app can open up your business to tens of millions of potentially untapped customers and give them the opportunity to use your website or app as it’s intended to be used by all.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, companies and schools have gone remote, more people are staying home in order to stay safe and healthy until the pandemic passes. Now, more than ever, businesses across industries are experiencing the hiccups and frustrations of working with legacy technologies. Just imagine what the experience is like for people with disabilities, who have been navigating these antiquated technologies, websites, and apps for years. Hopefully, these experiences are inspiring more businesses to commit to accessibility—from a place of genuine empathy and understanding.

That said, for many businesses, the case for achieving ADA compliance is often less about ethics or doing the right thing and more about the bottom line.

The Risks of Not Achieving ADA Compliance

According to Quartz, year-over-year retail foot traffic dropped 97.6 percent in March 2020, largely because of retailers closing in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. For many people with disabilities, especially those with compromised immune systems or underlying health conditions, online shopping became the only viable option during the pandemic. As brick-and-mortar locations closed, many businesses—especially small, local mom-and-pop shops—quickly set up websites in order to inform customers about adjusted hours, changes in services, and more.

Although these websites allowed businesses to serve customers better, they also made businesses vulnerable to lawsuits, because, in the mad rush to get products online, many likely didn’t consider whether they were ensuring accessibility.

Unfortunately, an ADA web accessibility defense and settlement can cost businesses tens of thousands of dollars, which does not include the cost of fixing the website or app. In 2019, web accessibility lawsuits were filed at a staggering rate of one per hour, with at least 20 percent of ADA-related cases targeted at mobile sites and apps.

Among the digital accessibility lawsuits filed in the United States:

  • 66 percent were aimed at top retailers
  • 60 percent were aimed at top restaurants
  • 21 percent were aimed at businesses that had already been sued for the same issue

In the first weeks of March 2020, accessibility lawsuits in the United States continued to be filed at the same rate as 2019—with 40 to 50 per week primarily in New York and Florida—but that rate slowed in April as everyone adjusted to lockdown and shelter-in-place orders. Now, however, cases have picked back up because, even while social distancing, it’s easy to file a federal complaint or issue a demand letter.

Speaking during a May 2020 UsableNet webinar, Melissa Daugherty, chair of Lewis Brisbois’ ADA Compliance & Defense Practice, a vice-chair of the Labor & Employment Practice, and a partner at Lewis Brisbois, shared some insights on the current environment for web accessibility in California:

"There are two significant things that we're seeing that are not represented here. The first is the vast majority of claims we're seeing in California are pre-litigation demand letters. … And then the second thing that we're seeing are California state filings."

→ Watch the Webinar: ADA Web Accessibility Lawsuits During Coronavirus

Chapter 3

Understanding ADA Compliance Requirements

As we discussed in Chapter 1, although the DOJ hasn’t cited any specific web accessibility standards for achieving ADA compliance, W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are considered the standard in the United States.

WCAG versions 2.0 and 2.1, as well as the forthcoming version 2.2, are built upon four foundational principles that describe functional accessibility and are known as POUR:

  1. Perceivable: Information and user interface (UI) components must be presented in a way that is easily processed by all users.
  2. Operable: UI components and navigation must be operable by all users, such as those using a keyboard instead of a mouse.
  3. Understandable: Users must be able to perceive and use a website, but they also must be able to understand it (i.e., the content and navigation cannot be beyond understanding).
  4. Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted not only by a variety of platforms, browsers, and devices, but also by assistive technologies.


According to WCAG, there are specific success criteria for testing your content based on three levels of conformance. Each level includes the standards from the prior level(s), comes with an increased effort to remediate and maintain, and can have an increased effect on the visual design.

WCAG 2.0 was adopted in 2008 and includes the following three levels of conformance:

  1. Level A: You must meet 25 success criteria. For example, at this level, you can’t identify something by color, as in “Push the red arrow to go back.”
  2. Level AA: In addition to meeting the 25 success criteria from Level A, you must meet 13 additional success criteria, such as color contrast standards.
  3. Level AAA: In addition to meeting the 38 success criteria from Level A and Level AA, you must meet 24 additional success criteria (for a total of 62). For example, at this level, you would need to remove any element that could cause a user to have a seizure, such as an element that blinks or flashes three times per second.

WCAG 2.1, which was adopted in 2018 and is backwards compatible with version 2.0, added more success criteria as follows:
  • Level A: Five additional success criteria
  • Level AA: Seven additional success criteria
  • Level AAA: Five additional success criteria

Among the additions in WCAG 2.1 are guidelines for improving web accessibility on mobile devices and for achieving accessibility for people with low vision and cognitive disabilities.

Although WCAG 2.2 hasn’t been released yet, some success criteria will be moving from Level AA to Level A, and there will likely be up to 12 additional success criteria to address people with cognitive and learning disabilities, as well as those who use mobile devices and read e-books.

 

Pro tip: As a general rule, most organizations should aim to achieve Level AA standards, because these are the most widely adopted standards by laws such as Section 508, the U.S. Air Carrier Access Act, and Canada’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act

 

Examples of How Accessibility Impacts Your Website

To the untrained eye, many aspects of accessibility aren’t obvious. However, the WebAIM Million, an annual accessibility analysis of the top 1 million homepages, found that there were more than 60.9 million distinct accessibility errors. The number of errors increased 2.1 percent from February 2019 to February 2020, and a whopping 98.1 percent of the homepages examined had detectable WCAG 2.0 failures.

Here are three examples of WCAG failures that commonly pop up which may help you better understand the importance of ensuring web accessibility:


1. Skip Links
Skip links allow people using a keyboard or assistive technology, such as a screen reader, to jump to the menu, main content, or footer of a webpage. To see if your website has this functionality, go to your website and click “tab” on your keyboard to see if it’s been implemented.

ADA recommendation: Skip to Content Button


2. Alt Text

Alternative text, called alt text, provides textual information for images and other non-text digital content. This fallback text is essential for people using screen readers, who may not be able to see graphical elements. Although alt text might seem simple enough to execute, the web is filled with media featuring no alt text or bad alt text, because, like many aspects of web accessibility, what makes the right alt text is often open to personal interpretation.

For example, a good tag for the image below might be <img src=”cookies.png” alt=”wooden table with square plate filled with chocolate chip cookies”>. Alt text isn’t a place to stuff keywords; it’s a place to help the reader understand the image they can’t see.

wooden table with square plate filled with chocolate chip cookies


3. Closed Captioning

Video captions deliver accessibility to people accessing audio and video content on the web. Although captions are primarily intended for those with auditory disabilities, it’s also helpful for those with language impairments or even those viewing a video in a noisy environment or a quiet environment not conducive to sound.

Although many free testing tools will pick up some of these examples and shoot out an accessibility score, at the end of the day, it’s not about numbers—it’s about the person on the other side of the computer who is trying to use your website or app.

Chapter 4

5 Steps for Achieving ADA Compliance

There are five steps you can take in order to achieve ADA compliance, but it’s important to remember that accessibility isn’t a one-and-done project. Web accessibility is an ongoing process that must be embedded in your company culture and become everyone’s priority—from marketing to the C-suite to development and beyond.

Here are the five steps you can take to achieve ADA compliance:

Step 1: Plan

Start by establishing company goals for digital accessibility, including the channels you must address, the standards you’ll abide by, and the timeline for achieving these. This step should involve nearly every department because achieving accessibility starts with a company-wide culture shift.

Key stakeholders to include:

  • UX and design
  • Development
  • QA
  • Management
  • Compliance and legal
  • Marketing


Step 2: Implement

Next, create an accessibility policy and statement. The policy should explain why accessibility is crucial to your company’s operations and speak to your executives, employees, volunteers, board members, and other internal stakeholders, while also clarifying each team’s role in the process. The accessibility statement should speak to your customers, partners, vendors, and the general public, providing a transparent look into company operations and explaining your vision, mission, and priorities.

Key stakeholders to include:

  • UX and design
  • Development
  • Management
  • Compliance and legal
  • Marketing


Step 3: Test

Next, you need to actively evaluate your current level of accessibility in order to determine how much work is ahead. To get an initial gauge of where you’re at, use a free, automated online testing tool to evaluate your site for WCAG conformance. These free testing tools can determine whether your site has coding, design, content, or other elements that could prevent a person with a disability from using your site in the way it’s intended to be used.

However, automated testing isn’t enough. Automated tools only test for a portion of WCAG success criteria (i.e., the low-hanging fruit), which is why you need to do manual testing and user testing, too. It’s important to work with an accessibility expert to audit your entire user experience in order to better understand the most highly trafficked pages and common user paths. Finally, to round out your battery of accessibility testing, do user testing with people who use assistive technology, such as a screen reader.

Key stakeholders to include:

  • Development
  • Project management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • User testers


Step 4: Review and Remediate

With testing complete, do a deep dive into the findings, evaluate options, and plan for remediation. Due to the resources and expertise needed to fix website or app accessibility issues—and verify conformance—third-party support is typically required and highly recommended.

Key stakeholders to include:

  • UX and design
  • Development
  • QA
  • Management
  • Project management
  • User testers


Step 5: Maintenance

Achieving web and app accessibility isn’t a one-off project. Because many apps are updated weekly and websites change constantly, accessibility is an ongoing commitment and must be treated as such. Whenever you update your website or app, it’s imperative to ensure that you’re conforming to WCAG.

→ Download the ADA Web Compliance Checklist

Chapter 5

How to Choose a Partner to Help You Achieve ADA Compliance

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that can go into achieving ADA compliance, we understand and we empathize with you. Start by asking yourself the following questions about your website and operations in order to determine the type of remediation help you may need and gauge how much it will cost you:

  • How urgent is your need for an accessible website?
  • Does your team have the time and resources for this project?
  • Do you have the right skills and processes in place?
  • Do you have sufficient legal awareness to make your website accessible?
  • Do you have a plan to maintain accessibility as your site and content change?
  • How complex is your website (e.g., e-commerce would be complex, whereas a corporate site would be simple)?
  • Do you use any third-party integrations (e.g., live chat, ratings, payments) that will need to be brought onboard?
  • How often do you make changes to your website (e.g., weekly, monthly, annually)
  • Have you previously tested your website for accessibility?
  • Is your website built and maintained in-house or by an outside partner?


Depending on your answers, you may need to find a partner to help you achieve compliance and work with you on an ongoing basis to maintain conformance. As you begin investigating potential accessibility partners, here’s what to look out for:

What to Look for in an Accessibility Partner

What to Avoid What to Prioritize
  • Companies that use widgets
  • Companies that use overlays
  • Inexperienced agencies/developers
  • Agencies that can’t or won’t provide case studies or past client testimonials
  • Companies that use automated tools only
  • Companies that don’t offer user testing
  • Companies that use a one-size-fits-all approach to achieving compliance
  • A partner with experience (ask for relevant case studies and to speak to current clients)
  • A partner that involves real people with disabilities in the process
  • A partner that uses a proven methodology and processes that are comprehensive and go beyond just automated tools
  • A partner who is going to put you and your customers first
  • A partner who has a transparent, efficient, and customized process for your company and customers

 

→ Take the Website Accessibility Remediation Quiz

Chapter 6

Costs of Achieving ADA Compliance

The costs of achieving ADA compliance will vary depending on the answers you gave to the questions in Chapter 5. Whether you need to hire new employees, conduct accessibility training, purchase new software, or hire a third-party compliance partner will all impact your compliance costs.

If you’re concerned about costs, there is a way that your business could offset some ADA accessibility compliance costs: the Disabled Access Tax Credit. Businesses with up to 30 employees or revenues of $1 million or less can qualify for the Disabled Access Credit, which provides financial support for accessibility-related costs, such as hiring additional staff, converting files or documents to new formats, and any other initiatives that will make your site accessible to customers or employees.

Whether you’re pursuing accessibility because it’s the right thing to do or because you’ve been ordered by a court, it’s important to get an accurate estimate of the approximate cost to make your website or app accessible, as well as the cost to maintain it through changes over the course of at least a year.

Also, it’s important to remember that if you’re beholden to a settlement agreement, you should remediate as early as possible so the deadline and costs don’t sneak up on you. Doing web and app accessibility right the first time means that you don’t have to go back and fix things that could have been caught during the initial remediation phase.

→ ADA Accessibility Remediation Calculator

Chapter 7

5 Common Misconceptions About Achieving ADA Compliance and How to Overcome Them

If we had a penny for every time we heard one of these misconceptions about ADA compliance, we’d be able to make every site and app accessible for free. Here are the five biggest misconceptions and how to overcome them:

Misconception #1: Achieving Accessibility Only Involves the Development and Design Teams

If your goal is to achieve ADA compliance, then everyone at your organization has to share the same commitment to accessibility because everyone has a role to play—including customer support, content creators, testers, in-store associates, HR, and so on. When everyone is onboard with the same target of compliance, not only does your company culture change to one driven by accessibility, but it can also help reduce ADA compliance costs because every digital asset and corner of your digital footprint will be taken into consideration.


Misconception #2: Achieving Compliance Is a One-Time Project

Similar to how accessibility isn't only a problem for development or design to solve, accessibility also isn’t a one-off project. The initial accessibility remediation is a small piece of a larger, long-term process that requires company-wide buy-in, ongoing commitment, and a budget in perpetuity. Companies that take a project-based approach typically slip out of compliance later as digital assets evolve, resulting in lost time, money, and potential lawsuits.


Misconception #3: The Business Benefits of Ensuring Accessibility Aren’t Worth the Cost

Achieving accessibility not only improves usability for people with disabilities, but viewing accessibility as an innovation can have far-reaching benefits for all users. Did you know that the typewriter, telephone, punch cards, text-to-speech technology, email, and voice controls were originally created to benefit those with a disability? These innovative technologies ended up having much broader applications, but their origins were founded in delivering accessible experiences.

Accessibility improvements can help your website’s SEO and improve usability for all users. Furthermore, committing to accessibility will help your company avoid costly lawsuits and lost customers because your website has barriers to people with disabilities. When you’re proactive about accessibility and not reactive, you can save your company time, money, legal fees, and hassle.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, achieving accessibility shows your customers and users that you care about them and that you want them to have access to the same experiences as everyone else.


Misconception #4: Becoming Compliant Will Slow Us Down

With the right training, tools, resources, processes, and partners, you can include accessibility in your software or product development lifecycles—instead of treating accessibility as something extra to tackle, it will simply be part of the process.

With a technology platform like UsableNet Assistive, you can have a fully accessible website within weeks—not months. By using an accessibility management platform like UsableNet AQA, you can help your team scale and keep pace with rapid code and content changes.


Misconception #5: Compliance Can’t Be Achieved in a Cost-Effective Manner

If achieving accessibility is a priority for your business, you can budget for it. The important thing to remember about accessibility is that the value of having a website or app that is in compliance with the ADA is priceless for people with disabilities.

The right partner will help you find a solution that ensures your site is accessible in the most cost- and time-effective way possible, while also delivering the best technology and services so you can scale when you need to. An option like UsableNet Assistive can deliver ADA compliance fast and for far less than hiring or training internal teams.

Chapter 8

Achieve ADA Compliance with UsableNet

Here at UsableNet, we’re not legal experts (we're accessibility experts), but we regularly host webinars featuring lawyers who specialize in ADA defense. It’s these partnerships with expert lawyers that help us ensure our accessibility testing process and platform hit all the right notes for achieving compliance.

If you’re ready to make sure that your websites, apps, and other digital assets are fully accessible to users with disabilities, then you need a partner with unmatched expertise in technology and knowledge of industry best practices. No matter what level of assistance you need to achieve ADA compliance, we can reduce your costs by establishing a streamlined process that includes:

  • Conducting automated, manual, and user testing—plus, training your team members to do testing themselves
  • Implementing a scalable automated testing technology to help with remediation and maintaining accessibility
  • Testing for usability
  • Providing regular reports that accelerate remediation and improve oversight
  • Integrating seamlessly into your current processes and technology investments


We recognize the complexity of the task at hand, and we’re here to provide a steady, helpful hand to guide you through it.

→ Speak with an ADA compliance expert.

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