Americans with Disabilites Act and Your Website

Does your website meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act?

A client recently shared with us an email she had received:

Scores of companies, financial institutions, and other entities across the country have been targeted by plaintiffs’ attorneys for purported violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because their websites have “access barriers” for individuals with visual impairments. From demand letters to lawsuits, these plaintiffs’ attorneys are crawling the web for unsuspecting businesses with websites that fail to meet the U.S. Department of Justice-endorsed standards, under the theory that these “places of public accommodation” are violating the ADA.

This is an example of fear-based marketing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a point. Back in 2010, the Department of Justice issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking saying that it planned to say specifically that company websites are “places of public accommodation,” and therefore subject to the American with Disabilities Act. The changes in the language are expected to come out in 2018, but that notice has already been used as the basis for legal action.

Just as your office must have an entrance that’s accessible to people with limited mobility, your website has to be accessible to someone with limited vision. And that’s not all. The Americans with Disabilities Act refers to all kinds of limitations, and some of them affect people’s use of your website in ways that might not be obvious to you.

Americans with Disabilities Act requirements

According to the National Law Review, there is action already demanding that websites comply with the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0 AA). Since the new ADA requirements won’t be available till next year, beginning with the W3C guidelines makes sense. The Department of Justice Determines the legal requirements under the ADA; W3C is an international organization.

Here’s a quick overview of the Accessibility Guidelines:

  • Content must be available to everyone. That means that there should always be text, since pictures and videos may not be visible to everyone. Text can be read by assistive devices, but images can’t.
  • There should be alternatives to time-based media such as video and audio. This might include sign language, text captioning, or audio alternatives.
  • Using the site shouldn’t depend on sensory information. That is, choosing the right color or shape shouldn’t be the only way to navigate through a site. Following a path through the site shouldn’t require people to be able to see a pattern — there should be text cues, too.
  • The site architecture should be clear and predictable. Clicking on or hovering over a link shouldn’t cause surprising things to happen.
  • The site should be highly readable. Things like light text on dark ground, low contrast, highly decorated text, etc. make a website harder to read.
  • Things that are known to cause seizures in some people should not be present on your website.
  • It should be possible to access and operate the website with a keyboard (not just a mouse or touch screen) and to use assistive readers and similar devices to read all text.
  • The website should be designed to help prevent errors. For example, if there is a form to fill out, it should let users know if they have made an error (say, using a different format for a phone number than the one required) rather than just failing to respond.

These are reasonable guidelines, but you might not think of them right off. A young web designer with perfect vision may not notice readability issues. A highly visual processor may find color-based structures easier and more logical than other types and not consider how it will work for people using assistive readers.

Fortunately, you can check and see if you have issues.

Testing your website

Use the WAVE accessibility testing tool to identify issues at your website. It will show you all the possible concerns.

Note that some of the issues WAVE identifies may not be things that you can or should change. For example, it will identify the fact that you are using a PDF file. While PDFs are not universally accessible, there are times when they are the best option. A primary historical document, for example, may exist only as a PDF. In this kind of case, we usually provide a transcript of the most important parts of the text on the web page, while providing the PDF as a reference.

You may also need to use PDF files for patient forms. We often provide an interactive alternative, but some of your patients may be uncomfortable with an interactive online form, and need the option of printing the form and filling it out by hand. This can be particularly important for older populations or those with limited English. The testing tool is not intended to limit accessibility for some groups by providing it for other groups.

It provides excellent guidance for making sure your website is accessible. Then you can work with your web team to decide the best way to approach the issues.

Are you likely to be sued? It doesn’t seem likely. An article at the Seyfarth ADA blog last year identified just 61 such cases filed in an 18 month period. The new language specifically about websites planned for 2018 may make this more of an issue. But making your website accessible should be on your to-do list in any case.


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