The Department of Justice recently released new web accessibility guidance for the Americans with Disabilities Act. The updated guidance was inspired by a large number of requests from the disability community for clarity on website accessibility laws. Unfortunately, this guidance was less clear than many had hoped for.
Disclaimer: The following is my understanding, and is not legal advice.
What the DoJ web accessibility guidance did say
People with disabilities deserve to have an equal opportunity to access the services, goods and programs provided by government and businesses, including when offered or communicated through websites.Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division
They also stated that “the department recently entered into numerous settlements with businesses”. That means the Dept of Justice is once again pursuing businesses that do not have accessible websites.
In all of the examples listed in the press release, the settlement agreement between the company and the DoJ was that the website in question would be updated to meet “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1, Level AA, published by the World Wide Web Consortium”.
In all of the examples, the companies would be required to test the websites regularly with automated tools as well as manual testing by people with disabilities.
What the web accessibility guidance did not say
The Department of Justice does not have a regulation setting out detailed standards, but the Department’s longstanding interpretation of the general nondiscrimination and effective communication provisions applies to web accessibility.
Businesses and state and local governments can currently choose how they will ensure that the programs, services, and goods they provide online are accessible to people with disabilities.
Existing technical standards provide helpful guidance concerning how to ensure accessibility of website features. These include the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the Section 508 Standards, which the federal government uses for its own websites.ADA web guidance
This is where the web accessibility guidance from the Department of Justice was disappointing to many. They did not provide any specific metrics that could be used to say “this meets the ADA requirements”.
Examples of what businesses should do to make websites accessible include (but are not limited to) the following practices… This is not a complete list of things to consider. There are many existing resources to help businesses and state and local governments with making websites accessible to people with disabilities, some of which are included at the end of this document.ADA web guidance
This section was better than nothing. But it still failed to provide a specific set of criteria that needed to be met.
What to expect going forward
While I don’t have a crystal ball, I can make some educated guesses. This is not legal advice.
The Justice Department looks like it will continue to pursue website accessibility, at least through the end of the current administration (2024). Based on the history of the DoJ it will stick to very large businesses.
For all other businesses, that means it will continue to be lawsuits filed by individual firms and plaintiffs. And those lawsuits will cite the DoJ’s work pursuing accessibility. The lawsuits will also make use of the specific items listed in the new ADA guidance.
In nearly every lawsuit settled in the last year, the website has been required to comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 level AA.
For more information on legal risks of website accessibility, check out our article on accessibility risks: business & legal.
What to do regarding website accessibility
Take the new ADA guidance as a minimum checklist, but not a comprehensive checklist. What I mean is get to work immediately on the easiest items on the ADA web accessibility guidance checklist. Then tackle the more challenging ones. Then work towards getting your website all the way to meeting the WCAG 2.1 level AA guidelines.
If all of this sounds daunting, you can get started on your website accessibility journey with a $99 quick audit. It is a limited scope audit of just one page of your website giving you a quick answer to the question “is my site good, bad, or ugly when it comes to accessibility?”.
Start with the easiest parts
Website accessibility can be extremely daunting, so I always recommend starting something small. The following four items can be tackled in a couple of hours if you have a small website or well-coded website.
Add an accessibility statement. This can literally be done in 10 minutes.
Update your website colors so that they are readable. While they didn’t explicitly state “legible fonts”, you should use legible fonts. Please take a look at my accessible colors & fonts article for more details.
Don’t rely on just color for indicating important information. Again, please take a look at my accessible colors & fonts article for more details.
Make sure your website works with text size and zoom. Many people use their browsers to set a minimum font size. They also can use their web browsers’ zoom functionality to more easily see text. A properly coded website will handle this smoothly.
If your website is well-coded, and you’ve followed good practices when adding content, the font & color updates can be done in a couple of hours for your site. If your site is poorly coded or non-ideal practices have been used for adding content, it can take a lot longer.
Then tackle the next set of web accessibility items
This next set of items can be time-consuming and is mostly manual work. This focuses primarily on your web content within pages. Many people can learn to do the following tasks with some training, time, and effort. If you don’t have the time for it, then hire an accessibility specialist to take care of the work of updating your web content for you.
Proper alt text for images. Alternative text is the text that a screen reader will read out when it encounters an image. The correct alternative text (or alt text) for an image is determined based on context. This means that the same image could have different alt text for different situations. W3C has a good guide on alt text.
Pro Tip: End your alt text with a period (.) – it makes a screen reader pause briefly before continuing. The overall experience is much nicer.
Make sure your videos include captions and transcripts. If you have video or audio content on your website, make sure that content includes captions and transcripts. For audio-only content (such as a podcast), just transcripts are needed.
For transcripts, there are a number of companies that can autogenerate captions and transcripts. If your speakers are clear and with little to no accent, you’ll frequently get over 90% accuracy on an automatic transcription. You’ll then need to do a lot less manual work to check the transcript.
Pro Tip: Make sure your transcription isn’t “hidden”. I’ve seen some websites which include a transcript, but hide it behind an inaccessible accordion.
Make sure that your website headings follow a logical order. Every page of your website should have exactly one h1 tag, and then should follow a logical order. Just like a table of contents. In fact, if you have a longer article or blog post, a table of contents plugin can be awesome. A logical order means you don’t go from h1 to h4 without proper h2 and h3 in between.
Pro Tip: Nearly all themes (including those listed as “accessible”) use incorrect heading order for their sidebars and footers, so you will usually need to correct that with someone who knows how to edit themes properly.
Accessibility checks to get assistance with
The following accessibility guidelines to make a website accessible can be very difficult to do without experience in accessibility testing. You are either going to need to invest a lot of time to learn how to do these, or you should hire an accessibility tester to do it.
Make sure your online forms have clear errors for everyone. Also, make sure they can be used with both keyboard and assistive technologies including screen readers.
Make sure your website can be used with just a keyboard. People with visual impairments and people with physical limitations use just their keyboard to navigate a computer.
Test your website using automated tools. Automated tools can typically detect around 30% of issues. This means they can definitely be helpful, but they are by no means through.
Full WCAG 2.1 level AA guidelines
This is not a complete list of things to consider. There are many existing resources to help businesses and state and local governments with making websites accessible to people with disabilities.ADA Web Guidance website
In all of the examples of the Justice Department settlements, the company agreed to make its website meet all of the guidelines for WCAG 2.1 level AA. To me, this is a very clear indicator that the department of justice views meeting WCAG 2.1 level AA as necessary for a website to be accessible.
How to get started with a quick accessibility audit
If all of this sounds daunting, you can get started on your website accessibility journey with an inexpensive quick audit. It is a limited scope audit of just one page of your website giving you a quick answer to the question “is my site good, bad, or ugly when it comes to accessibility?”.