The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that every “place of public accommodation” should be accessible to people with disabilities. All goods and services available to anyone must be available to people with disabilities. This is probably not news to you. What may be news is that your website is a place of public accommodation. What do you need to know about your website and the Americans with Disabilities Act?
What makes your website a place of public accommodation? After all, when the ADA was passed in 1990, e-commerce didn’t even exist. Nobody was thinking that the internet would be a public place. Perhaps you don’t agree that it is. Too bad. The Department of Justice (DOJ) says that it is, and they get to make that decision.
It’s complicated…but not that complicated
Various lawsuits decided by various courts have complicated this somewhat. Some decisions seem to say that a website does not have to be accessible if there is no physical place connected with it. That is, a restaurant with a physical location must have an accessible website, but a website that offered recipes with no physical location or products would not have to be accessible.
On the other hand, Netflix has been judged to be covered by the ADA. We don’t think there’s any physical location involved there, and it seems unclear that Netflix offers physical goods or services.
We say that your website should be accessible because that’s the right thing to do, whether anybody is likely to sue you or not.
The Department of Justice seems to us to be pretty clear on this. “Inaccessible web content means that people with disabilities are denied equal access to information. An inaccessible website can exclude people just as much as steps at an entrance to a physical location. Ensuring web accessibility for people with disabilities is a priority for the Department of Justice,” they said in their recent guidance on the subject. “In recent years, a multitude of services have moved online and people rely on websites like never before for all aspects of daily living. For example, accessing voting information, finding up-to-date health and safety resources, and looking up mass transit schedules and fare information increasingly depend on having access to websites.”
The guidance lists some specific characteristics of websites that can create obstacles for people. For example, a low level of contrast between your text and the background the text is on can be hard for people with limited vision to read. Having no alt text on your pictures can keep people who use assistive readers from understanding them. Posting videos without captioning or transcripts can make it hard for people with limited hearing to get the information in the videos.
However, the DOJ says that they are not trying to provide a complete set of rules. Instead, they point to the Web Accessibility Initiative. The WAI gives clear accessibility standards and you can test your website against these standards.
Your website and the Americans with Disabilities Act
How likely is it that your website has accessibility problems? Here are some questions that can help you determine the urgency of this questions:
- Do you have a WordPress website? In general, WordPress websites are highly accessible. It’s a priority for developers. Unless you or your designer made bad choices (like pale gray letters on a pale gray background) it’s probably pretty good.
- How old is your website? No website is older than the Americans with Disabilities Act, but we have met websites that have been online since the late 1990s. If your website is very old, it may not be ADA-compliant.
- Did you make it yourself? While a professionally built website is likely to be made with an awareness of accessibility issues, DIY sites may not be. You probably wouldn’t intentionally build your website so that it can’t be navigated with a keyboard, but you could violate accessibility standards by accident.
You can test your website with a WAVE Report. WAVE here stands for Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool. Type in your web address at the linked page and you will get a listing of the errors or alerts. Think of it as a checklist of improvements you can make for your website.