ADA Compliance for Websites in Plain English

Blind woman listening as she touches her phone.

This definitive guide to ADA website compliance (updated for 2024 with a new section on the ADA Title II web accessibility rule published in April 2024) explains everything website owners need to know about the law, the legal landscape, and the technical side of making their website ADA compliant.

This guidance is written by an attorney and the author of The ADA Book, Kris Rivenburgh. Kris hyper specializes in ADA website compliance and has created several resources, including this one, to help website owners understand and navigate ADA compliance.

Additionally, the contents herein rely upon numerous authoritative resources cited throughout the guide:

  • Americans with Disabilities Act, Title III
  • Department of Justice
  • Code of Federal Regulations
  • William D. Goren, ADA expert
  • World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

We will cover the subject organized into multiple sections and ordered chronologically from foundational concepts to next steps for website owners.

(Reader’s Note: Medium articles are limited to only H2 headings and no H3s. To maintain structure and topical equivalence, I have limited use of H2s to the true subtopics for organized bullet lists and their respective explanations.)

The Law

  • ADA Title II Web Accessibility Rule (update)
  • What is ADA website compliance?
  • What is the law for making a website ADA compliant?
  • What is the DOJ’s stance on how the ADA applies to websites?
  • How do state and federal courts interpret the law?

Litigation

  • Why are businesses being sued over website accessibility?
  • What are typical ADA website lawsuit settlement amounts?
  • Can businesses be sued in other states?

Application

  • Who does ADA website compliance apply to?
  • Is ADA website compliance mandatory?
  • What are exemptions for ADA website compliance?
  • What are requirements for ADA website compliance?

In Practice

  • How to check if your website is ADA compliant?
  • What does an ADA compliant website look like?
  • What industries have been impacted most by lawsuits?

WCAG

  • What is WCAG?
  • Is WCAG a legal requirement?

Services

  • What is a website accessibility audit?
  • What is website accessibility remediation?
  • What is user testing?

Next Steps

  • How do I make my website ADA compliant?
  • How do I get certification of accessibility?
  • What is the cost to make a website ADA compliant?
  • Why is training so important to ADA compliance?
  • ADA Website Compliance Resources

ADA Title II Web Accessibility Rule

In April 2024, the Department of Justice (DOJ) published a historic update to regulation under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This new Title II rule is now officially published in the Federal Register.

Title II covers state and local governments which includes public entities like schools, police departments, voting offices, social services, hospitals and so on.

The new Title II web accessibility rule applies to:

  • websites
  • web content
  • mobile apps
  • documents (PDFs, word processing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations)

Under the new ADA Title II rule, these digital assets and content must be WCAG 2.1 AA conformant by a specified two or three year deadline (depending on the population of the area the public entity resides in).

There are five notable exceptions:

There are 5 exceptions for content that doesn’t need to be WCAG 2.1 AA conformant by the compliance deadline:

  1. archived web content
  2. preexisting electronic documents
  3. content posted by an independent third-party
  4. individualized documents that are password-protected
  5. preexisting social media posts

The compliance dates are as follows:

  • For public entities of a population of 50,000 or less: April 26, 2027
  • For special district governments: April 26, 2027
  • For public entities of a population of 50,000 or more persons: April 24, 2026

Even though this doesn’t directly impact private entities as far as Title III is concerned, this is an absolutely massive update to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

First, the update already indirectly impacts private entities because of the existing private litigation and the potential defenses and counters that can be made by defense attorneys and plaintiffs’ lawyers, respectively.

Second, we are extremely likely to see several themes carried forward into updated regulation under Title III of the ADA which directly impacts places of public accommodation (i.e., most private entities).

As it stands, the new Title II website accessibility rule already affects private entities who are contracted with the government to provide services and products.

Read more on ADA Title II website accessibility on my blog.

What is ADA website compliance?

ADA website compliance is a colloquial or informal term in reference to making a website compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

What is the law for making a website ADA compliant?

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) generally prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation under Sec. 12182 (a).

Also, Sec. 12182 (b)(2)(A)(iii) also requires that no individual with a disability is treated differently because of the absence of auxiliary aids.

This requirement is explained further in the Code of Federal Regulations, 28 CFR § 36.303(c)(1) which states that a public accommodation shall furniture auxiliary aids to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities.

Because the ADA was signed into law in 1990, it does not explicitly state how to make modern digital technology such as websites and mobile apps ADA compliant.

What is the DOJ’s stance on how the ADA applies to websites?

Department of Justice signage on building.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is the regulatory and enforcement agency behind Title II and Title III of the ADA. This is to say, the Americans with Disabilities Act is the DOJ’s domain and they are looked to as the authority on ADA compliance by many entities, including U.S. state and federal courts.

Title II of the ADA applies to state and local government entities.

Title III applies to businesses, including nonprofits, that serve the public (also referred to as public accommodations).

The DOJ’s stance is that Title II and Title III does apply to websites.

Per the DOJ’s web guidance published on March 18, 2022:

Title II:

the Department has consistently taken the position that the ADA’s requirements apply to all the services, programs, or activities of state and local governments, including those offered on the web.

Title III:

the Department has consistently taken the position that the ADA’s requirements apply to all the goods, services, privileges, or activities offered by public accommodations, including those offered on the web.

How do state and federal courts interpret the law?

Most litigation concerning website accessibility has taken place in California, New York, and Florida. Recently, more complaints have been filed in other states including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

Interpretations of whether the ADA (or parallel anti-discrimination state laws such as the California Unruh Civil Rights Act and the New York State Human Rights Laws) apply to websites have varied widely.

In the federal court system, California is in the 9th circuit, New York is in the 2nd circuit, and Florida is in the 11th circuit.

The 9th Circuit and California Court of Appeals have taken the position that online-only businesses are not covered by Title III, but websites tied to a physical location may be.

However, most New York federal courts (2nd Circuit) have taken the position that online-only businesses are covered by the ADA.

Why are businesses being sued over website accessibility?

Lawyer presenting document to bewildered couple.

Due to the DOJ’s stance and courts generally being receptive to hearing cases concerning website accessibility, an entire sector of digital accessibility litigation has risen.

Essentially, plaintiffs’ law firms have leveraged the DOJ’s stance and the uncertainty of what exactly constitutes an ADA compliant website to initiate litigation.

Thousands of complaints centered around website accessibility are filed every year. And multiples more demand letters are sent, resulting in many matters being resolved privately.

Even if a complaint is filed, the overwhelming majority of cases are settled without ever going to trial.

What are typical ADA website lawsuit settlement amounts?

Most ADA website litigation settles for between $5,000 and $20,000.

Settlement amounts vary based on a number of factors including:

  • plaintiffs law firm (experience)
  • strength of the case
  • stage of litigation
  • jurisdiction
  • revenue of the defendant
  • defense attorney

New York lawsuits typically settle for higher amounts.

Also, settlements range higher for larger companies and lower for small businesses.

Can businesses be sued in other states?

Yes, a website owner can be sued in other states.

Even if court decisions in one state or one circuit preclude a business being sued in that jurisdiction, a complaint may be filed in another state.

Some website owners mistakenly think that because they are not located in one of the more litigious states such as New York, California, and Florida that they will not be sued. This is not the case.

Who does ADA website compliance apply to?

Man browsing retail website on laptop.

Title III of the ADA applies to public accommodations. In Sec. 12181(7) Definitions, a non-exhaustive list of 12 categories is provided as examples of entities covered:

(7) Public accommodation

The following private entities are considered public accommodations for purposes of this subchapter, if the operations of such entities affect commerce

(A) an inn, hotel, motel, or other place of lodging, except for an establishment located within a building that contains not more than five rooms for rent or hire and that is actually occupied by the proprietor of such establishment as the residence of such proprietor;

(B) a restaurant, bar, or other establishment serving food or drink;

(C) a motion picture house, theater, concert hall, stadium, or other place of exhibition entertainment;

(D) an auditorium, convention center, lecture hall, or other place of public gathering;

(E) a bakery, grocery store, clothing store, hardware store, shopping center, or other sales or rental establishment;

(F) a laundromat, dry-cleaner, bank, barber shop, beauty shop, travel service, shoe repair service, funeral parlor, gas station, office of an accountant or lawyer, pharmacy, insurance office, professional office of a health care provider, hospital, or other service establishment;

(G) a terminal, depot, or other station used for specified public transportation;

(H) a museum, library, gallery, or other place of public display or collection;

(I) a park, zoo, amusement park, or other place of recreation;

(J) a nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private school, or other place of education;

(K) a day care center, senior citizen center, homeless shelter, food bank, adoption agency, or other social service center establishment; and

(L) a gymnasium, health spa, bowling alley, golf course, or other place of exercise or recreation.

Is ADA website compliance mandatory?

legal books with scales of justice.

ADA compliance is mandatory for most entities who are open to the public in the United States.

Technically, a strong argument can be made that the ADA does not apply to websites, yet. This can, in part, be evidenced by the DOJ issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) under Title II for websites and mobile apps on July 25, 2023.

However, practically, plaintiffs law firms have effectively made the ADA applicable to websites through litigation; if website owners want to avoid risk of lawsuit, they should address website accessibility.

What are exemptions for ADA website compliance?

Title III of the ADA does not apply to religious organizations (e.g., churches) and private clubs.

Note that with private clubs, specific requirements must be met. Just charging for membership or imposing annual fees does not necessarily mean an organization is exempt.

One widespread myth is that having fewer than 15 employees can make an entity such as a small business exempt from ADA compliance. The 15 employees exception is for Title I compliance (for employers). Title III has no such exception.

What are requirements for ADA website compliance?

In the DOJ’s web accessibility guidance, DOJ stated that businesses and state and local governments have flexibility in how they comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication.

And the legal standard is meaningful access. Per William D. Goren, one of the foremost authorities on the Americans with Disabilities Act:

I prefer to think of meaningful access in the same way that I think of reasonable modifications under title II and title III of the ADA. That is, what modifications can be made so with to get the person with the disability to the same starting line as a person without a disability…

While meaningful access is the standard, it leads back to the problem of uncertainty: how exactly do you make a website meaningfully accessible?

Practically, when many people ask about requirements, they are asking, what do I need to do to not get sued?

The best practices for ADA compliance are 1) full WCAG 2.1 AA conformance and 2) publishing an accessibility statement which includes at least one method of contact for support and a means of providing feedback.

These best practices are extracted from settlements resulting from DOJ private enforcement actions against various entities concerning digital accessibility.

However, even more specifically, there are 15 accessibility issues that plaintiffs law firms repeatedly claim in litigation. I highly recommend prioritizing these issues first.

You can find instructions on exactly how to find and fix these 15 issues in my training program, the ADA Compliance Course. You can learn more about the course at ADACompliance.net.

How to check if your website is ADA compliant?

computer with report charts and graphics.

Many people mistakenly believe they can check for ADA compliance with an automated accessibility scan. This belief is so pervasive, many people refer to scans as ADA compliance checkers.

While scans are very helpful tools, they are also extremely limited and in no way reveal whether or not a website is ADA compliant.

The best way and most thorough way to check for material compliance is by conducting a WCAG 2.1 AA audit. An audit is always conducting manually by a technical accessibility expert.

If a website has issues that create a barrier to access — or a large number of accessibility issues, in general, it likely wouldn’t be considered ADA compliant.

If a website is free of accessibility issues — or just has a relatively few minor issues — then it wouldn’t likely be considered compliant.

Remember that, importantly, it is plaintiffs lawyers who have the discretion to litigate. With this in mind, it’s always best to be as close to WCAG conformance as possible.

What does an ADA compliant website look like?

Nicely designed website on laptop.

An ADA compliant website can have any type of design or functionality.

Many people ask to see examples of ADA compliant websites but virtually all websites (ecommerce, informational, landing pages, agency, etc.) can be remediated or fixed to be accessible.

While we might be making some minor modifications to the look (e.g., ensuring color contrast or transforming images of text into text), we’re mostly just ensuring that the website has the correct coding in place and the content (audio, video, images, text) provides for alternatives.

What industries have been impacted most by lawsuits?

Literally hundreds of different types of entities have been sued including small businesses, non-profits, associations, corporations and others.

Some industries affected by ADA website lawsuits include:

  • Art Galleries
  • Banking
  • Breweries
  • Cannabis
  • Clothing
  • Cryptocurrency
  • Dentists
  • Doctors
  • Education
  • Finance
  • Food
  • Gambling
  • Grocery
  • Healthcare
  • Hospitals
  • Jewelry
  • Precious metals
  • Restaurants
  • Retailers
  • Schools
  • Sports

Notably, Shopify website owners have been the target of numerous complaints.

What is WCAG?

WCAG stands for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These guidelines are technical standards for web accessibility that are recognized around the world.

WCAG is published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) through their Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

There are different versions and conformance levels for WCAG. The versions are:

  • 1.0
  • 2.0
  • 2.1
  • 2.2

The conformance levels are:

  • A
  • AA
  • AAA

Although there are different versions, they are largely backwards compatible which means the subsequent versions build upon previous versions.

For example, WCAG 2.1 AA can be broken down to WCAG 2.0 AA + 12 additional success criteria.

Success criteria are the various requirements to conform with a given conformance level and version of WCAG. Think of success criteria as things to do to make your website more accessible.

With conformance levels, think of level A as a minimum, essential baseline. Think of AA as providing a strong level of accessibility. And think of AAA as a very strict level of accessibility that, in some cases, can be more aspirational than practical.

Is WCAG a legal requirement?

attorney taking notes while listening to phone

WCAG is not a legal requirement for ADA compliance, but it is frequently referenced as a guide for whether or not a website is accessible.

And, as mentioned previously, the DOJ has invariably required WCAG conformance in its settlements resulting from private enforcement actions.

Further, it is an inevitability that WCAG will be incorporated into upcoming Title II and Title III regulations.

Additionally, WCAG is already incorporated into several laws including Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and the European Accessibility Act.

Although WCAG may be incorporated into the law, it is never the law itself and thus the term WCAG compliance is incorrect. Compliance is reserved for the law. Conformance is the correct term for technical standards.

What is a website accessibility audit?

Laptop showing graphics for assessment and analysis.

A website accessibility audit is a formal evaluation conducted by a technical accessibility expert that results in a report with, optimally, a list of all accessibility issues that reside on a website.

An audit is basically a grading of a website against WCAG; any instances where the website is non-conformant, the report should reflect that issue.

An audit is always conducted manually. Even if an automated scan or other tools are used to reduce error and find issues faster, an expert will always manually review results detected through automation.

Audits can involve any number of methods of evaluation including:

  • visual inspection of the website
  • inspection of the code
  • screen reader testing

Audits will detail a number of specifics involving environments used. For example:

  • browser
  • device
  • operating system
  • screen reader
  • other assistive technology

Audits will also name the WCAG version used.

Further, it’s crucial that the scope of an audit is defined so expectations are clear on what pages, assets, and potentially subdomains or external portals are included within the scope of an audit.

What is website accessibility remediation?

Remediation means to fix the accessibility issues on a website. With remediation, the issues listed in an accessibility audit are resolved and accounted for.

Remediation involves both code and content remediation.

Note that overlay widgets (also called plugins or toolbars) can never make a website accessible or ADA compliant.

What is user testing?

Blind man in front of computer with headphones on.

User testing is accessibility testing conducted by an accessibility professional with one or more disabilities, often using assistive technology.

User testing is often conflated with an audit. Although the two types of assessments are related, they are distinct from one another.

An audit is a technical evaluation of a website.

User testing is more of an experiential evaluation of a website: what issues does the tester come across while testing?

Moreover, testing is usually limited to one or a few hours whereas an audit will take as long as necessary to evaluate all pages defined in the scope.

How do I make my website ADA compliant?

The most thorough approach is to have your website audited and remediated by a reputable provider. Completing the process with documented user testing is an excellent third step.

Beyond a recorded user testing session, other documentation such as a statement of conformance (which acts as a certification of web accessibility) can bolster a website owner’s claim to having an ADA compliant website.

Using the same provider for both services is highly beneficial because it saves money and time and ensures that remediation doesn’t linger on for months.

It also saves clients from the difficulty of finding an agency equipped to fix technical accessibility issues.

After remediation, you may want to re-audit your website again to ensure all issues have been resolved.

As mentioned above, another route may be to have your website user tested by a professional with a disability.

Either or approach or both can act as an excellent filter system for ensuring a website is WCAG 2.1 AA conformant and follows best practices for ADA compliance.

The other best practice for material compliance is posting a conspicuous accessibility statement that provides at least one reliable contact method for support and feedback. It’s also highly recommended that your accessibility statement demonstrates your commitment to accessibility. This can involve listing investments made or actions taken in furtherance of accessibility.

How do I get certification of accessibility?

The best way to certify your website’s accessibility is through a statement of conformance issued by a reputable provider.

The provider may also issue their own certification documentation. However, the document should not explicitly certify ADA compliance because no digital accessibility provider is a governing body.

What is the cost to make a website ADA compliant?

The cost for accessibility services can vary greatly based on a number of factors including:

  • the complexity of the website
  • the number of accessibility issues on the website
  • the scope of the project
  • the accessibility company

WCAG 2.1 AA audits usually start at $3,500 and range upward of $12,500.

Remediation from specialized providers usually rivals that of the audit cost.

Re-audits typically cost 1/3 to 1/2 of the original audit cost.

Professional user testing usually starts at $750 and ranges up to $2,000 for an hour to 1.5 hour session. User testing often includes a recording of the session and documentation of the results.

Why is training so important to ADA compliance?

Woman smiling while taking notes and looking at laptop.

Training your digital team is crucial because making your website accessible is only part of the objective. It’s also essential for you to maintain accessibility.

If your content manager uploads inaccessible content or your web developer updates code incorrectly, your website’s accessibility can quickly deteriorate.

ADA Website Compliance Resources

The ADA Compliance Program is a done-for-you service that includes an audit, code remediation, and user testing. You can find out more about this program at Accessible.org.

You can also book a consulting session with me through Accessible.org

The WCAG Course is on-demand training that provides plain English explanations of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The course includes video and text explanations along with illustrations on how to meet success criteria and code examples. You can learn more at WCAGCourse.com.

The ADA Compliance Course is training designed to help prevent lawsuits. This course gives students step-by-step instructions on how to find and fix the 15 most commonly claimed accessibility issues in litigation. The course also helps website owners and their digital teams strategically approach accessibility and prioritize issues.

You can learn more at ADACompliance.net.

Would you like to certify your website as accessible? Read my guide to ADA website compliance certification so that you can get the appropriate documentation.

What exactly is a website accessibility audit? My write-up on audits will help you understand what goes into an ADA website compliance audit.

Working on WCAG 2.2 conformance? Study the latest version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines with my WCAG 2.2 checklist.

Are you new to ADA compliance and website accessibility? Read my website accessibility for beginners introduction.

Researching VPATs? Read why you should know what an ACR or accessibility conformance report is. My VPAT guide is essential for procurement teams.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is just one of the laws that concerns website accessibility. Read my 504 website compliance and 508 website compliance guides. Companies with employees in Ontario may also be interested in my AODA website compliance requirements explainer.

Learn the difference between WCAG 2.0 vs. WCAG 2.1.

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