Back to all articles

Is your site compliant with US web accessibility law?

Brian Robinson
Brian Robinson
Managing Director UK
6 min read
20 June 2019

In the US, although there are accessibility standards and guidelines, companies are not yet legally bound by specific web accessibility laws. Despite this, there are a growing number of lawsuits against organisations whose websites don’t meet accessibility standards. These lawsuits have been brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.

Since 2015, there has been an increase of over 660% in the number of lawsuits filed targeting web accessibility, with the retail sector being hit hardest. Major brands including Target, Netflix and even Beyoncé have found themselves up in court facing large fines (Target ended up settling its class action lawsuit with the National Federation of the Blind for $6 million).

If you’ve done any research into web accessibility in the US, you will have found a mass of information, with no clear-cut guidance on what does/doesn’t violate ADA. (Kim Krause Berg’s article on SEJ gives a great overview of the various regulations, acts and amendments over the past ten years).

General upshot is that it’s complicated! The ADA is split into two main directives:

  • Title II of the ADA applies to state and local government entities. It protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination on the basis of disability in services, programs, and activities provided by state and local government entities. What is referred to as Section 508 web accessibility falls under Title II.
  • Section 508 is an amendment to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It’s a federal law mandating that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations. These are businesses that are generally open to the public and there are 12 categories, including schools, recreation, offices, and medical buildings. E-commerce website and public mobile applications fall under Title III, although not explicitly listed.

Issues faced by users

Customers come with a whole variety of needs that should be considered.
Accessibility and inclusive design means considering the impact that the experiences we build have on users with a range of disabilities, including:

  • visual
  • auditory
  • speech
  • cognitive
  • neurological
  • physical impairments

Recent research from Axess Lab gathered insights from disabled web users about their frustrations. The biggest problems were:

  • Small font sizes – makes information hard to read and if the site was not designed for it then increasing the size can break it.
  • Zooming issues – navigation and layout become difficult to understand when zooming in.
  • Walls of text – hard to follow and get to the information you need.
  • Low contrast – makes text hard to read and layout hard to follow.
  • Brightness – overly bright colours can give users headaches or eye strain.
  • Small touch targets – buttons and links that are too small make it difficult for users with movement issues to navigate your site.
  • Lack of captions/transcript – deaf or hard of hearing users need these to understand and engage with content, especially video.
  • Motion/animation – users with autism or ADHD are put off and distracted by ‘busy’ pages with too much animation.
  • Reliance on mouse input – some users struggle when the mouse is the only way to navigate a site.
  • Colour blindness – if the site hasn’t been designed with this in mind it could make it difficult for users to navigate or cause confusion.

Assistive technology

People with impairments sometimes use devices or software called ‘assistive technology’ to help them interact and engage with websites and apps. These include screen/text readers and speech/alternative input software or devices. UC Berkeley has some more information here.

These devices need to be considered when designing for accessibility, so that the relevant code and tags can be included.
People with impairments sometimes use devices or software called ‘assistive technology’ to help them interact and engage with websites and apps. These include screen/text readers and speech/alternative input software or devices. UC Berkeley has some more information here.

Guidelines and resources

There are a wide range of guidelines and tools out there to help you follow accessibility standards but the main international standards to follow are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) set out by W3C.
Other useful links:

Most major content management system (CMS) providers will build-in useful functionality for accessibility, such as alt text fields for images. Many of them also integrate with Siteimprove and other accessibility checkers.

Adobe offers guidance and documentation on creating accessible websites with Adobe Experience manager.

SDL offers SDL Accessibility Solution combing tools and services on accessibility.
Sitecore offers Content Governance and Compliance Services that include accessibility

Accessibility and aesthetics

It is still sometimes said that accessibility places too many restrictions on design and ruins the look and feel of a website. This is a myth. While there may be ugly accessible websites out there, there are also many websites that are both ugly and inaccessible.

Imagery, video, colour and varied layouts can all be used as long as the corresponding guidelines are followed.

Why be accessible?

Avoiding a lawsuit shouldn’t be your main motivation for creating an accessible website.

Many people are impacted by these impairments.

The above list is just a snapshot but it shows that usability and accessibility are really the same thing.

Plain language is important for assistive devices and those of us who are busy or about to scroll on to the next thing. Captions are important for deaf people and for those of us who want to watch a video on the train without having to get headphones out or disturb everyone around us. Designing for accessibility makes your site more usable for everyone.

Aren’t we always saying that we need to be more customer-centric? This means using inclusive design and meeting accessibility standards. If you don’t do this then you are alienating potential customers, frustrating existing ones and damaging your reputation.

More Insights?

View all Insights