ADA Website Compliance: What You Should Know in 2020


Why does it seem like you need a law degree to understand ADA Compliance?

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:

  1. I’m not a lawyer. The advice in this blog does not constitute legal advice.
  2. The world of ADA compliance changes frequently. This content was last updated in May 2020.

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.

gavel and laptop

American with Disabilities Act (ADA), What is it?

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 mean, in simple terms?

Essential Accessibility summed this up nicely in a recent article. Principles of an accessible site are:

  • Perceivable: The contents of the page must be detectable to everyone, no matter their disability. They can’t be hidden from people who can’t see small print, for example.
  • Operable: All users must be able to interact with the components of the page. A website mustn’t provide buttons that can only be clicked by using a mouse, since some people with disabilities can’t use a mouse, and instead use a keyboard, voice control, or some other interface.
  • Understandable: All users must be able to understand the meaning of the information on the page, as well as the instructions for interacting with the page’s components.
  • Robust: No matter what a web page looks like or what it contains, it has to remain able to be used and understood on a wide variety of devices using a wide range of assistive technologies like screen readers.

What does that look like? It depends on the level of ADA compliance.

On the simpler end, Level A, that includes things like:

  • Text alternatives for images
  • Captions on video content
  • Logical navigation structure
  • Colorblind-proof color usage
  • Label form elements and give instructions



Don't Do:


  • Keyboard accessible page structure
  • “Skip to content” bypass blocks options
  • And more...

Building on Level A, Level AA takes it up a notch with things like:

  • Captions on live video content
  • Contrast between text and background

Examples of Poor Legibility and Good Legibility of text over a photo

  • Offering multiple ways to find pages
  • Consistent navigation
  • Error suggestions when a user makes a mistake
  • Contrast ratio between text and background is at least 7:1

Example of contrast ratio between text and background

  • Ability to resize text without loss of content or function
  • And more...

And lastly, Level AAA builds on the prior two levels with things like:

  • Live audio has text alternatives
  • Sign-languages interpretations are available for video content
  • Abbreviation explanations
  • Pronunciation explanations
  • Detailed help and instructions for functionality throughout the site
  • No content flashes more than three times per second
  • And more...

You can see a full list of these requirements here.

What should companies be doing about ADA compliance in 2020?

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.

ADA legal compliance meeting

What level of ADA Compliance should you be striving for?

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?

It’s about more than legal risk, It's the Right Thing to Do 

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. 

Next Steps

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:

And, if you need help with evolving your website to meet ADA compliance criteria, we can help! Get in touch here! 

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