The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a law that was passed by the United States Congress in 1990. It is a civil rights law which prohibits discrimination based on disability. The ADA specifically defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity”. It applies to all walks of life in all situations – including website use, both desktop and mobile. The ADA covers three different Titles and requires business owners to make accessibility accommodations that will allow the disabled public to access the same service that non-disabled public can access. Being ADA compliant enables businesses and websites to be reached and used by more potential customers and limits its risk of liability.
- Title I – Covers Employment. Employers with 15 or more employees for federal, state & local government, employment agencies, labor unions, agents of the employer and joint management labor committees.
- Title II – Covers Public Services. All federal, state and local government programs and activities (and those who receive funding in the amount of $2500 or more from state and local government). This includes most colleges and universities.
- Title III – Covers Public Accommodations. Private entities that are considered a place of public accommodation or places that sell products to the public. This includes sales and rental establishments, service establishments, & those who offer goods and services to the public. Includes non-profit service providers.
Regulating ADA Compliant Websites
The Department of Justice (DOJ) looks to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for guidelines to follow reguarding how to regulate ADA compliant websites. The W3C has created the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to lead the web to its full potential to be accessible, enabling people with disabilities to participate equally on the web. The WAI brings together people from related industries, disability organizations, government & research labs from around the world to develop guidelines and resources to help make the web accessible to people with disabilities including auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual disabilities.
Testing ADA Websites
This initiative (WAI) has developed a set of technical documents and guidelines to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations and governments internationally. They are called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG – the most current version of the guidelines is called WCAG 2.1). The guidelines have testable success criteria at 3 different levels. Level A, AA and AAA. We test our websites to meet the WCAG 2.1 Level AA guidelines.
- Level A – Least requirements to be accessible. Currently Canada is following Level A, but predicted to be enforcing Level AA in the next few years.
- Level AA – The most common set of guidelines to follow and required for any website that receives federal funding. It applies to all public, private and non-profit organizations. They must follow both Level A and AA guidelines. Employers who fall under ADA Title I and Title II are required by Section 508/504 to follow these guidelines. Most countries including the European Union (EU) have adopted the WCAG guidelines at level A to AA.
- Level AAA – The most effective way to communicate to all of your customers (unless proven to causes a tax burden to your business). This is the most difficult level to achieve as it follows Level A, Level AA and Level AAA guidelines and provides not only stricter rules for accessibility, but also provides interpreters upon request. (Example: sign language interpreter available at place of business, or someone to read a menu to a guest at a restaurant, etc.) This level is not predicted to be required any time in the near future.
The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) created 2 amendments to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Section 508 and Section 504. These amendments mandate that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained & used by either employees or members of the public be accessible as effectively by people with disabilities as by those without. On January 18, 2017 the Access Board published a final ruling called the 508 Refresh that updates the requirement for information and communication technology covered by Section 508. It now must apply to electronic and information technology used by the federal government to include computer hardware, software, websites, blog posts, social media sites, multimedia such as video, documents, emails, phone systems and copiers.
- Section 508 requires WCAG 2.1 Level AA guidelines be followed by the federal government, government agencies and contractors (those who fall under ADA Title 1)
- Section 504 requires the same guidelines be followed by government programs and activities. (Those who fall under ADA Title II)
Enforcing ADA Regulations for Websites
The DOJ is expected to start enforcing regulations for website accessibility under the ADA more frequently. It is predicted to begin with Section 508 (ADA Title I), then Section 504 (ADA Title II), then businesses who offer goods and services to the public (ADA Title III) and so forth.
The DOJ does plan to have a “Safe Harbor” rule when regulations go into effect. This will hopefully allow all websites, documents and apps that were created before the regulations go into effect to have a waiver against legal action for accessibility. However, if one of these items is updated after the regulations are set, that item will then be required to be fully accessible according to the ADA regulations.