ADA compliance: What you need to know

Organizations and educational institutions nationwide are increasingly becoming more aware of the need for digital accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They would have probably been alerted by a lawsuit against a similar entity or advised by their leadership and compliance teams that diversity also covers individuals with disabilities. 

If your institution is starting its accessibility journey, this article will discuss the ADA and its relationship with digital accessibility. We will also discuss a few steps you can take to achieve ADA compliance.

What is the ADA, and what does it say about websites?

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law passed in 1990. It ensures that individuals with disabilities have equal opportunities in employment, public accommodations, and government services, among other things. It was the culmination of a decades-long struggle for disability rights and has played a pivotal role in upholding the cause of individuals with disabilities.

When the ADA was originally signed into law, it was silent about websites and other forms of online content. However, a few recent amendments to the ADA and related court decisions have effectively expanded the scope of the term “public accommodations” to include websites, apps, and other types of digital media. Despite these changes, the ADA does not contain any specific guidelines for website accessibility. Instead, court decisions and settlements refer to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and the ADA website itself calls the WCAG a “helpful resource” for accessibility. 

The WCAG was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in response to the clamor for well-defined accessibility standards. The current version, WCAG 2.2, contains 86 success criteria against which web developers can measure their websites for accessibility. These success criteria follow four key principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. At the core of these principles is the need to create online experiences that are truly inclusive and empowering for users with disabilities. 

Two ways to achieve ADA compliance

As a website grows, so does the need to ensure that new content is accessible. The WCAG also changes from time to time, and what was considered compliant before might no longer be compliant today. This is particularly true for websites that have changed their appearance or multimedia content that wasn’t tested for accessibility before being posted on the website. Here are two ways to achieve and maintain ADA compliance.

1. Manual testing

The gold standard for accessibility compliance is manual testing involving a human tester, preferably an individual with a disability. The tester will use a checklist of scenarios to gauge the accessibility of the website. These scenarios include navigating the website with different devices using only a keyboard, speech navigation, or a screen reader. A manual test will reveal potential issues at the user level. The drawbacks of this method, of course, are the effort and cost involved and the lack of scalability, especially if your website keeps adding content constantly.

2. Automated checking

An automated accessibility check uses AI to scan your website for potential WCAG violations at the code level. These violations include insufficient color contrast, missing alt text, or the lack or improper use of headings and subheadings. A good accessibility checker can spot thousands of violations and prepare a report in just a few minutes. The cost of automated checking is also much lower than manual testing, making it a good option for continuous accessibility monitoring. However, an automated check won’t be able to spot issues with the user experience, which is why most accessibility experts recommend a hybrid approach to ADA compliance. 

ADA compliance: The key to increased digital inclusivity

Complying with the ADA involves more than just adding Braille books to your library or curb cuts on your campus sidewalks. It also includes making your website and content more accessible to users with disabilities. Following the WCAG success criteria and performing a mix of manual and automated testing methods can help make your website ADA-compliant and transform it into a more inclusive space for everyone.