How do I make my website ADA compliant?

Did you just receive a legal letter about the accessibility of your website? Or perhaps you heard someone in your industry received such a letter? 

Was this your first introduction to the fact that ADA compliance applies to websites? 

If so, you are not alone. 

Receiving or hearing about these legal notices are currently the most common way organizations are introduced to web accessibility.

After learning that websites have to be accessible to people with disabilities, you might have wondered – How do I make my website ADA compliant?

This is a natural question to ask, but I find it isn’t really the right question.

4 real-life stories

To make my point I will share 4 stories of different users and their interactions with different organizations.

Story #1 

A retail company contacted us and shared with us a letter they had received from an attorney on behalf of a blind individual. The letter indicated that their client couldn’t access their website violating the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and gave as evidence errors found by WAVE (which, by the way, is against the WAVE terms of use, but it happened). The letter requested $5,000 to go away or threatened to take them to court.

Story #2 

A user of a banking website had a motor disability making it impossible to effectively use a mouse. They gave feedback to the bank, letting it know they couldn’t access their bank account with a keyboard. This meant they couldn’t access and manage their money without asking someone for help.

Story #3

A blind user couldn’t order pizza because the pizza chain’s website/mobile app was inaccessible to them. When the company ignored the user’s feedback, the user filed a lawsuit which the company is still trying to fight unsuccessfully.

Story #4

A user with color blindness was trying to determine on their health departments website which level of COVID-19 restrictions applied in their area. The graphic used only colors making it impossible for the user to determine how safe their area was currently. They had to share the health department’s image on social media to get help from the community.

Asking the right questions

The best answer to all 4 stories isn’t compliance. But if you start with asking how do I make my website compliant, this is where you will end up chasing.

I find that organizations who emphasize just compliance are more likely to look for short-cuts, more prone to quick-fix solutions that don’t work, and are constantly trying to bolt accessibility on after the fact. 

All of these actions end up being more costly and can increase liability not decrease it. 

Stiving to check off the compliance check-box isn’t the right answer.

The best answer is accessibility. 

Similarly, instead of asking “how do I make my site compliant,” the better question is “how can I make my website accessible to people with disabilities?” 

If users with disabilities can access your websites there is no liability. Also, by thinking about users, you can unlock opportunities for your organization. 

With this question you are focused on people.

Focusing on accessibility makes a difference

You want to have users of your website include people with disabilities. 

Excluding a sizable chunk (8-20% of population) of your user base is not a good business strategy.

Doing so because they have a disability is problematic. This is why web accessibility is considered a civil right included under the ADA and not a nice-to-have option for a website. 

You want people to manage their bank accounts, buy things from you, and access health information independently regardless of their disabilities. Web Accessibility is how we do that.

Organizations that focus on ADA compliance instead of accessibility tend to think short term, checklists, quick fixes, and tend to be over-focused on technology instead of focusing on people and sustained habits and strategies. 

Every week, I see dozens of web accessibility Band-AidsTM on websites that don’t help. These are some of the results of organizations focusing on compliance (albeit not very well) over people.

It’s like a building where a ramp is installed up the stairs but the top is blocked from reaching the doorway by the door.  It is clear that no one actually paused to give even 2 seconds of thought about making it accessible to the actual wheelchair user. They just checked off the compliance ramp checkbox and moved on. 

When organizations focus on Accessibility, they tend to think more about long-term strategy, sustainable improvement, culture and training, habits, creating things accessible to begin with, and real people.

With accessibility in mind, the focus becomes on people because in the end accessibility is about people. 

Here is the real kicker…

In the long-run, it is cheaper to think accessibility over compliance. 

If your website is created with accessibility in mind, you don’t have to re-factor every update to make it accessible. It is always cheaper to start with accessibility baked in to begin with than bolting it on later. I have seen so many times where website updates introduce accessibility regressions because it isn’t a part of the process and culture.

As an added bonus, an accessible website is also more usable and a better experience for all your users.

Creating websites that your users can use might sound different than what you first heard about ADA compliance. This is unfortunate, but now that we are asking the right question – How can I make my website accessible to people with disabilities? – let’s go back to story #1.

ADA bad actors

At face-value, story #1 may not seem like it fits with the other stories. The other 3 stories were about the users themselves. Story #1 is what we call a drive-by letter. In this situation, an attorney was sending out many letters to organizations using an automated checker, such as WAVE, as its only evidence of discrimination.  As we can ascertain this was simply an attempt  to get 5-20k per organization from those they were targeting.

I don’t like these types of lawsuits because they drive bad behaviors…. bad behaviors by website owners (who often don’t know better and are acting out of fear) and bad behaviors by many “accessibility companies” that are just trying to make money off of the fear these letters cause, without truly focusing on accessibility.

These letters have led to tools that promise to automatically fix things. They have led to companies will just fixing the automatically detected results, or even change their code to pass the checker, but not actually improve the accessibility. 

These types of actions are rarely, if ever, focused  on actual users who would use the website.

Even with these letters the answer is still the same: 

If you have an accessible website, you will not have the common errors detected by an automated checker. You won’t be the easy target of these drive-by letters. And if you ever were targeted, you would have lots of ammunition to push back with. 

Remember the real issue is about people, not compliance. If disabled users can use your website equally to non-disabled user by definition there isn’t discrimination. If you focus on accessibility, compliance will become a by-product, and your users will become the real winners here

The key is to focus on accessibility.

ADA for websites 101

We are at the end of this post and I still haven’t talked about how the ADA applies to websites. This is on purpose because it isn’t really the right question to be focusing on.

There are, however, a few helpful points to understand about the ADA and how it applies to websites. 

Although the ADA doesn’t mention websites specifically, we now have 20 years of court cases, settlements, and Department of Justice clarifications making it clear that the ADA does interpret your website as a public place.

To be “compliant” people with disabilities need to be able to access your website.

Additionally, these same legal actions and settlements have consistently used WCAG 2 AA as the standard for measuring accessibility. 

There is a bit of nuance to it, but a practical benchmark for “ADA compliance” is meeting or exceeding the WCAG 2.1 AA standard.

WCAG is very helpful to understand methods to make sure that users with a wide variety of disabilities can access a website in different situations. 

Just don’t get stuck focusing on compliance over accessibility and people.

Creating an Accessibility strategy

Now that we understand a bit more about what ADA compliance means and are asking the right question—the one that puts accessibility over compliance— we can get into a practical strategy on how to make your website accessible to users with disabilities.

Next article → Creating an Accessibility Strategy

Bonus keyboard Challenge

Identify the top goal you want your users to accomplish on your website and try to do it without using your mouse. Only use your keyboard.

Keyboard testing is one piece of manual accessibility testing, many users with disabilities only use keyboards to navigate your website.