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Is Your Website ADA Compliant?

Written by Jonathan M. Rosenthal


The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is a law that was passed in 1990, before the internet became a way by which goods and services were commonly accessed. The purpose of the Act was to accommodate and protect the rights of individuals with disabilities to access public places. Because reliance on the internet has since become a foundation for daily access to public services, there has since been focus on website compliance.

Federal courts in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana require websites that grant access to public services to comply with the ADA and hold their operators liable for violations. Unfortunately, websites are naturally very difficult for individuals with disabilities to access or use. Websites designed without accessible features can present barriers to individuals with disabilities, so it is imperative for website operators to understand how to bring their websites into compliance with the ADA.

To help website operators make their sites more accessible by disabled users, the World Wide Web Consortium developed standards and guidelines known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. The Department of Justice stated that it will rely on WCAG 2.0 to implement internet accessibility regulations under the ADA, which it has not yet accomplished. Until the DOJ or Congress takes action, these guidelines are not mandatory, but instead provide useful ways for website operators to remain lawful within the ADA.

WCAG 2.0 is organized into four design principles, all of which must be met in order to satisfy “accessibility.” The DOJ will consider a failure to meet one of the four criteria as a violation of the ADA: (1) Perceivable, (2) operable, (3) operable, and (4) robust. Further suggestions are offered in each section for ways website operators may comply with the ADA.


1. Perceivable

Information and interface components must be presented to users in ways they can perceive. WCAG 2.0 provides four guidelines by which operators can maintain their websites so that disabled users may perceive their content in order to comply with the ADA: (a) Text alternatives, (b) time-based media, (c) adaptable, and (d) distinguishable.



a. Text Alternatives

Websites should provide text alternatives for non-text content. Users may require changing non-text content into other forms, e.g., large print, braille, speech, symbols, or simpler language. However, some non-text components do not serve an equivalent purpose to text. The following non-text content may provide text alternatives that do not suffice as equivalent to the original content:


-Controls and inputs, which should have names that describe their purposes.


-Time-based media. Text alternatives should provide descriptive identification when possible.


-Sensory content. If the non-text content is meant to provide a sensory experience, then a text alternative should describe the content.


-Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart (CAPTCHA). Content that is intended to confirm whether the user is a person or a computer, text alternatives should identify and describe the purpose of the CAPTCHA content. Alternative forms of CAPTCHA should be provided using output modes for different types of sensory perceptions.


-Decoration, formatting, and invisible can be ignored by assistive technology.


b. Time-Based Media

Time-based media refers to content that has a temporal dimension, e.g., video, slides, and audio. Except when the audio or video is an alternative to text and is clearly labelled as such, website operators provide the following:


-Equivalent alternatives for audio-only and video-only prerecorded content.


-Synchronized captions for all prerecorded and live audio content.


-Audio description for all prerecorded synchronized video content that includes capturing the ‘sense of the video,’ e.g., pauses in the audio.


-Sign language for all prerecorded and synchronized audio content.


c. Adaptable

Website content should be presented in multiple ways while maintaining information and structure.


-Information, structure, and presentation can be automatically determined or are available by text.


-Sequences in which content is presented should automatically be determinable when sequences affect the meaning of the delivered information.


-Instructions to operate website content should not be solely relied upon by characteristics such as shape, size, visual, location, orientation, or sound.


d. Distinguishable

Website operators can make it easier for users to see and hear content, such as separating foreground from background.


-Use distinguishable colors to convey information, indicate an action, prompt a response, or to distinguish a visual element.


-Audio content that plays automatically for more than three seconds should provide a mechanism to pause or stop the audio or to control the content’s volume.


-Text and images should have a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1, except:

  • Large text and images should have a contrast ratio of at least 3:1.

  • Incidental text or images that are either pure decoration, not visible, or part of a picture that contain significant other visual content has no contrast requirement.

  • Text that is part of a logo or brand name has no contrast requirement.


-Without the use of assistive technology, users should be able to resize text up to 200% without loss of content or functionality except for captions and images of text.


-When possible, assistive technology should be capable of conveying images of text as regular text except when:

  • The image of text can be visually customized to the user’s requirements

  • A particular presentation of text is essential to the information being conveyed.


-Audio-only content that contains primarily speech in the foreground, is not an audio CAPTCHA or audio logo, and is not a vocalization intended to for musical expression, at least one of the following should be true:

  • The audio does not contain background sounds.

  • The background sounds can be turned off.

  • The background sounds are at least 20 dB lower than the foreground content unless the sound lasts for only 1 or 2 seconds.


-To visually present blocks of text, a mechanism should be available to achieve the following:

  • Foreground and background colors that can be selected by the user

  • Width that is no more than 80 characters.

  • Text that is not justified (aligned to both the left and the rights margins).

  • Line spacing that is at least space-and-a-half within paragraphs, and paragraph spacing is at least 1.5 times larger than line spacing.

  • Text that can be resized without assistive technology up to 200% so that it does not require the user to scroll horizontally to read a line of text on a full-screen window.


-Images of texts that are only used for pure decoration or where a particular presentation of text is essential to the information being conveyed.


2. Operable

User interface components of a website must be operable through the use of assistive software. WCAG 2.0 provides four guidelines by which operators can maintain the operability of their websites to comply with the ADA: (a) Keyboard, (b) enough time, (c) seizures, and (d) navigable.



a. Keyboard

All website functionality should be available from a keyboard.


-Users should be able to operate the website content through a keyboard without requiring keystroke timing except where the underlying functions require input that depend on the path of the user’s movement and not just the inputs.


-If content can be accessed by a keyboard, then the user should be able to leave the content by a keyboard.


-All content function should be operable through a keyboard without requiring specific timing of keystrokes.


b. Enough time

Website users should be provided with enough time to read and use content.


-Whenever a time limit is set to access content, at least one of the following should be applied:

  • The user can turn off the time limit before the time begins tolling.

  • The user can adjust the time limit before it begins tolling and at least up to 10 times the original setting.

  • The user is warned before the time limit expires and provides an option to extend the time limit by at least 20 seconds with a simple keyboard action, and the user can extend the time at least ten times.

  • Exceptions:


-The time limit is a required part of a real-time event and no alternative to the time limit is possible.


-The time limit is essential and extending it would invalidate the content.


-The time limit is longer than 20 hours.


-“Pause, stop, and hide.” For moving, blinking, scrolling, or auto-updating content, a mechanism should be available to:

  • Pause, stop, or hide content that moves, blinks, scrolls, or automatically updates, lasts more than five seconds, and is presented together with other content, unless the movement, blinking, or scrolling is essential to the activity.

  • Pause, stop, or hide automatically updating information that starts automatically and it presented together with other content unless the automatically updating content is essential to the activity.


-Timing should not be an essential part of website content except for non-interactive synchronized media and real-time events.


-Users should be able to postpone or suppress content interruption except emergency interruptions.


-When an authenticated session expires, the user should be able to continue the activity without data loss after re-authentication.


c. Seizures

Avoid designing content in a way that is known to cause seizures.


-Content should not flash more than three times per second.


-Websites should not contain anything that flashes more than three times per second.


d. Navigable

Website operators should provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine their location in the website.


-Provide a mechanism to bypass blocks of content that are repeated on multiple pages.


-Provide titles for web pages that describe the pages’ topics or purposes;


-Allow content to receive focus in an order to preserves meaning and operability when particular sequential navigation of the web page has meaning and purpose


-The purposes of links should be determinable from the link’s text except where the link’s purpose is intended to be ambiguous to the typical user.


-Provide multiple ways to locate a web page with a set of web pages except where the web page is the result of or step in a process.


-Headings and labels should describe the topic or purpose.


-Indicate content that is accessible through a keyboard.


-Provide the user’s location within a set of web pages.


-Organize content by section headings.


3. Understandable

Information and operation must be understandable. WCAG 2.0 provides three guidelines by which operators can maintain their websites so that disabled users may understand their content in order to comply with the ADA: (a) Readable, (b) predictable, and (c) input assistance.


a. Readable

Website content should be readable.

-The default language of each web page should be compatible for automatic determination.


-The language of each passage or phrase should be compatible for automatic determination except for proper nouns, technical terms, word of indeterminate language, and words or phrase that have become part of the vernacular of the immediate surrounding text.


-Provide a mechanism to identify specific definitions of words or phrases used in an unusual or restricted way, such as idioms and jargon.


-Provide a mechanism to identify the expanded form or meaning of abbreviations.


-Provide an alternative text that is not more advanced than lower secondary education level when the original text is more advanced than the lower secondary reading level.


-Provide a mechanism to identify specific pronunciation of words where their meanings are ambiguous without knowing the pronunciation.


b. Predictable

Web pages should appear and operate predictably.


-A web page component does not change context when receiving the user’s focus.


-Changing the setting of content does not automatically change its context unless the user has been advised of such before using the component.


-Navigational mechanisms that are repeated on multiple web pages should occur in the same order whenever repeated unless changed by the user.


-Components of the same functionality should be identified consistently.


-Changes of context should only be initiated by the user or a mechanism should be provided to turn off such changes.


c. Input Assistance

Websites should be constructed to help disabled users avoid and correct mistakes.


-Input errors should automatically be detected, the error item identified, and the error described to the user.


-Labels or instructions should be provided when content requires the user’s input.


-When a web page consists of legal commitments or financial transaction, one of the following should be satisfied:

  • Submissions are reversible.

  • Data entered by the user are checked for input errors and the user is provided with an opportunity to correct any errors.

  • A mechanism is provided for reviewing, confirming, and correcting information before finalizing the submission.


-Provide context-sensitive help.


-When the user is required to submit information, one of the following should be satisfied:

  • Submissions are reversible.

  • Data entered by the user are checked for input errors and the user is provided with an opportunity to correct any errors.

  • A mechanism is provided for reviewing, confirming, and correcting information before finalizing the submission.


4. Robust

Website content must be robust enough that it can be reliably interpreted by a wide range of reasonable user agents, including assistive technologies. WCAG 2.0 provides one guideline by which operators can maintain their websites so that disabled users may understand their content in order to comply with the ADA.


a. Compatible

Maximize website content compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technology.


-Where content uses markup language: its elements should have complete start and end tags; the elements should be nested according to their specification; elements should not contain duplicate attributes; and IDs should be unique.


-The name and role of all interface components should be automatically determinable. The state, properties, and values that can be set by the user should be automatically set. And notification of changes to these items should be available to the user.


To test whether a website is accessible according to the WCAG 2.0 standards, web designers may perform a free test by visiting http://wave.webaim.org or https://www.w3.org/WAI/test-evaluate/ .


For the full version of this article with legal background and citations, please click here.

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