That’s a question I asked myself a lot during my 20-hour+ research journey to better understanding ADA compliance. As the world's dependency on digital continues to grow exponentially in a post-pandemic world, the importance of accessible websites also grows.My goal was to understand what ADA compliance is, why it matters, and what we need to be initiating for our clients right now. ADA compliance has made headlines for the last several years in the marketing world (and beyond) because there is a growing movement of legal repercussions against companies that have inaccessible websites.
And anytime legal gets involved, money inevitably gets involved. Lawsuits, court fees, lawyer fees – money gets involved quickly.
So here’s a couple of caveats before you read on:
Alright, now that we’ve got the icky legal stuff out of the way, let’s dig into the good stuff: What do these acronyms mean and why should you care.
An ADA-compliant website ensures that the full online experience is accessible to all. This includes people with disabilities, such as visually impaired users, colorblind users, hearing-impaired users, and more.
Under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA), the Internet is considered a “place of public accommodation.” If you aren’t in compliance or have at least showed an effort to be in compliance, you may face legal repercussions.
ADA compliance falls on a sliding scale but generally falls into three levels. Level A includes primarily baseline efforts to make your website more accessible to those with disabilities, like ensuring the design passes the colorblind test and organizing the navigation structure logically. Level AA is much more complex, involving things like captioned video content and explaining words that might be hard to pronounce. Level AAA has some components that are nearly impossible to achieve, and really only apply in certain specific industries.
What does that look like? It depends on the level of ADA compliance.
On the simpler end, Level A, that includes things like:
Building on Level A, Level AA takes it up a notch with things like:
And lastly, Level AAA builds on the prior two levels with things like:
You can see a full list of these requirements here.
That depends greatly on the size of the business, industry, and appetite for potential future risk. Laws are always slow to keep up with technology, but we continue to see an increase in inequality and anti-discrimination laws applied to digital presences.
WUHCAG summarizes it well here:
"Recent years have seen an increase in legal cases brought by charities against companies with bad web accessibility. This trend will continue as those companies reach out-of-court settlements and promise to improve their websites. Acting early might save you a lot of money in the long-term."
If you’re a larger organization and reach a broad audience, it’s vital that you implement ADA measures on your website. To be frank, even the most basic websites should comply with most of Level A. Large companies that have the means to implement ADA compliance that have chosen not to will undoubtedly face legal and social pressures to evolve in the next several years. Additionally, large businesses may want to consider hiring a legal counsel that works specifically in the realm of ADA compliance.
If you’re a small or medium-sized business, your potential risk is much lower. Small and medium-sized companies will likely have more flexibility, as they may not have the resources or means to implement changes. For those companies, showing any effort towards compliance may be sufficient over the next few years. As time goes on and tools continue to evolve, ADA compliance will become easier and easier to apply to even the smallest site. As the process becomes easier, the expectations for all companies – no matter the size – will continue to grow.
Lastly, organizations that serve a disabled audience should naturally prioritize ADA compliance efforts. This is the obvious route – both from a legal and moral standpoint.
As far as the level you should be striving for, my recommendation would be to strive for Level AA. Level A is sufficient for now in many cases, but it doesn’t do much to future-proof your website. Level A addresses some very basic accessibility needs. Most of the websites we design and develop meet many or all of the Level AA standards. I’m not the only one that recommends this. Essential Accessibility has a great, in-depth article on what level you should be striving for here.
When it comes to Level AAA, much of the criteria may be nearly impossible for companies to reasonably accomplish. For example, sign language interpretation of live events may not be feasible for all organizations – especially smaller organizations. The World Wide Web Consortium notes:
“It is not recommended that Level AAA conformance be required as a general policy for entire sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content.”
That said, there are plenty of Level AAA elements that are easy enough to apply. The deciding factor on whether you should be implementing Level AAA compliance comes down to your users – what will make your website more accessible to your user base?
Beyond the legal and social expectations, there’s a serious business case to be made for why ADA compliance is so important. According to the United States Census Bureau, 6 percent of the US population, 19,113,001 people, suffers from hearing or sight impairments. The number jumps up to 20.3 percent, 10,383,196 people, in those over the age of 65. That is a large group of potential customers you may not be reaching with an inaccessible website.
In addition to vision and hearing impairments, according to the Genetics Home Reference, 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women is colorblind. This can have an enormous impact on website usability. For example, if the colors you’re using to distinguish an important call-to-action button aren’t noticeable to someone with a color vision deficiency, you may be losing an opportunity to convert on your site with a huge number of people.
There are legal, social, and business reasons to support accessibility online, but perhaps the most powerful reason is that creating a more accessible world - whether in the physical world or digital - is the right and moral thing to do.
If you haven’t already begun implementing some level of ADA compliance, I highly recommend that you explore it in 2020. This has become even more vital through the increase in online activity due to COVID-19. Those individuals who perhaps would have accessed your products or services at a physical location must navigate them in a digital space. Creating an accessible experience is more important than ever.
Here are a few of my favorite resources to help you get started:
We regularly share insights on how we approach marketing. Get on the list.