A young blind woman uses a Braille keyboard to navigate a website.
If your business serves the public, it's imperative that your website is ADA compliant. — Getty Images/Chansom Pantip

Having a website that is accessible to those with vision, hearing, or other impairments is the online equivalent of putting out the welcome sign on your business’s front door.

However, the lack of standards for what constitutes compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) discourages some companies from making website accessibility a priority, but it doesn’t have to be that way. According to a 2023 WebAIM report, of the top 1 million websites, over 96% of homepages had elements that did not comply with the ADA.

“I think most businesses could very easily bring their sites into compliance, and the side benefit of doing so is that Google, or other crawlers, would most likely give those sites a boost to their SEO,” said Kevin Richards, CEO and founder of Ventura Web Design. “It’s also just the right thing to do, which should be enough of a reason all by itself.”

Jessie Jackson, senior consultant and practice lead at OSF Digital, agreed.

“The whole point is [that] everyone should be able to shop equally,” she told CO—. “It’s better for everyone to be able to access your content and if they can’t, you are doing yourself a disservice as well as the customer.”

A surge in lawsuits claiming violations of the ADA has heightened awareness of the issue.

“People are either scared they are going to get sued or have been sued,” said Jeff Kosc, partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP.

[Learn how to protect your business from an ADA compliance lawsuit.]

How the ADA applies to web design

Under ADA Title III, various businesses — including small ones — must ensure accessibility for individuals with a disability in both physical locations and online domains. While the ADA lacks specific website-compliant standards, U.S. courts often refer to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, an older version of guidelines from 2008, as the benchmark but specifically recommend WCAG 2.1 (from 2018) Level AA conformity. WCAG sets criteria covering design, development, and content creation, which includes color contrast and keyboard accessibility. Nearly all businesses that serve the public need ADA-compliant websites.

Both WCAG versions offer three tiers: level A (basic), level AA (enhanced accessibility), and level AAA (the strictest version). While level AAA isn’t mandatory, aiming for WCAG 2.1 Level AA is sufficient to minimize one’s legal risks.

Critical items within WCAG 2.1 include providing alternate content formats, ensuring screen reader compatibility, maintaining sufficient color contrast, and avoiding seizure-triggering content. Specifically with online stores, ADA compliance involves simplifying navigation, enhancing button labeling, and streamlining the checkout process. You can conduct a manual audit or use tools for automated audits to inspect and remediate your website to meet WCAG standards.

Making online documents (such as PDFs and presentations) accessible is also important, which may require further expert assistance. Testing and remediation using software features or hiring an expert helps ensure that document accessibility aligns with WCAG guidelines.

Recently, a new version of WCAG was released in 2023, WCAG 2.2, where the criteria mainly stayed the same but the wording was readjusted.

It’s better for everyone to be able to access your content and, if they can’t, you are doing yourself a disservice as well as the customer.

Jessie Jackson, senior consultant and practice lead, OSF Digital

The importance of having an ADA-compliant website

As a business owner, you should prioritize ADA compliance on your website for ethical reasons and to ensure equal access for persons with disabilities. Neglecting this can lead to legal consequences like demand letters or lawsuits. Updating your website so it’s ADA compliant can benefit your business by broadening your audience, enhancing user experiences, and showcasing inclusivity.

Furthermore, not complying with ADA regulations can damage your brand’s reputation, alienating a significant portion — 27% — of American adults who have a disability. Failing to accommodate the needs of customers with disabilities can reflect poorly on your business and may even signal disrespect, potentially impacting your company’s reputation.

To help ensure your website is ADA compliant, start with the following steps.

Create alt tags for images

The first thing you can do to make your site ADA-friendly is to ensure that images are accessible to everyone. You can achieve this by labeling each image with “alt tags.” Alt tags are HTML code containing text descriptions to help visitors to your website create a mental picture of photos that they cannot see. Assistive devices used by vision-impaired people convert these alt tags to Braille or read them aloud. For example, an alt tag on a photo may say, “A curly-haired toddler playing with yellow toy truck.”

Other types of images, such as pull-down menus, PDF icons, and functional buttons, like “Submit” and “Buy” displayed as graphic elements, also need their own alt tags so that assistive devices announce their presence, enabling consumers to navigate to the “About Us” portion of a website, download a PDF document, and activate the “Buy” command.

And if your site utilizes video, be sure that you don’t forget to include captions on the video so that hearing-impaired visitors can enjoy the full experience, Richards added.

Test site accessibility

To gauge your site’s accessibility, do not use your mouse to navigate your site. Instead, use only the up and down keyboard arrows, the tab button, and other keyboard commands.

This exercise will reveal where additional text-based navigation will help those who rely on keyboards exclusively. Using only a keyboard, can you click on a link or close out a dialogue box? Are you able to select and deselect an item?

It’s not only vision-impaired people who cannot use a mouse that requires hand-eye coordination. Sighted users with poor muscle control or limited use of their hands also rely on assistive devices instead of a mouse to navigate websites.

Another test is to go image-free by turning off image display. This will let you view a site in text mode only, also revealing where more alt tags may be needed.

Other design elements for ADA compliance

Here are some crucial action items to include when updating your website for ADA compliance:

  • Use appropriate color contrast. Proper color contrast ensures that those with visual impairments can distinguish certain website elements — text, background, and interactive elements need a distinct contrast.
  • Convey information through more than color. Relying solely on color to provide information can hinder those who have color blindness or other visual issues. Vital data should use multiple methods such as text or symbols to guarantee accessibility for website visitors beyond color perception.
  • Provide legible fonts. Your choice of fonts significantly affects the readability of your website, so avoiding thin or overly decorative fonts is a must — especially for those with visual impairments.
  • Give clear and consistent navigation. Having effective navigation prevents users from getting confused and frustrated and helps retain website visitors. Well-structured navigation helps users easily find the content they’re looking for. Consistency in menus and links enhances user understanding, which will improve their overall experience, leading to more engagement and conversions on your website.
  • Avoid content that can trigger seizures. To prevent seizures, don’t include content like rapid flashing lights. Webpages should not contain anything that flashes more than three times in a second to ensure user safety.
  • Ensure CAPTCHA accessibility to distinguish humans from bots. WCAG allows CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) on websites for security purposes only if alternatives for different senses are provided.

At this time, the WCAG is the go-to resource covering every conceivable aspect of accessibility for those willing to confront a complex but manageable set of voluntary guidelines.

“I work with several website developers, and we are seeing more and more clients seeking to add a condition to development contracts [to ensure] that the site is compliant with the WCAG standards,” said Kosc.

Until legal website accessibility standards are established, the voluntary WCAG remains the de facto road map for now.

[Read more: What Small Businesses Should Know About Disability Insurance]

This story was originally written by Denise Power.

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