Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) & “ADA Website Compliance”
I’m no lawyer so let’s just get this out of the way: The following article is addressing ADA website compliance from the development perspective, a whole lot of hearsay, and some research. You need to check with qualified legal counsel to determine your organization’s requirements.
A Short History of ADA Compliance
Back in 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act became law to provide equal access, and public accommodation and make illegal discrimination against people with disabilities, and tries to provide all people with equal access. Though the web was only a concept waiting to be proven at that point in history, a lot of this has been applied to websites since that time.
WCAG is What You Mean
There really is no such thing as “ADA Website Compliance”. When people say “ADA Compliance” in regards to the web, what they are referring to is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as developed by the W3C Process.
The latest set of WCAG regulations is known as WCAG 2.1, WCAG 2.0 was the current version when I wrote the first version of this article in 2019 and it is ever-changing. Version 2.2 is in draft form as of this writing and version 3 is also being worked on.
In 2018 Congress updated some of the language surrounding which websites have to meet the various levels of compliance. Again I am no lawyer and this stuff gets complicated but according to many articles (including ADA Compliance and Your Website — Should You Actually Be Worried?) any business that serves the public and has over 15 employees needs to have an accessible website. It gets a little more complicated because they’re a few different levels of ADA website compliance.
Whoa, I’m Not Discriminating Against Those with Disabilities!
No, you probably aren’t, leave it to the government lawyers to use scary accusatory language. In terms of website development and design, what we are really talking about is making “reasonable accommodations” so that users with disabilities, who use assistive technology or need other accommodations can use a website reasonably well.
So the Site Has to Be Accessible to Blind People?
… It’s so much more than that!
I have had many conversations with people about WCAG compliance where the conversation quickly becomes about blind people. I think this is an easy condition for most people to wrap their heads around, but blindness is only one accessibility issue to think about when talking about accessibility compliance.
Earlier in my career, I spent some time managing large website builds for Federal agencies. These sites had to meet certain levels of compliance at the time and I was blown away by the number of things we had to accommodate for.
From talking with clients and knowing my initial perception of website WCAG compliance, I feel like we often simplify what “accommodation” might mean. Though the site does have to be built so screen readers (used by blind people), allowing them to easily traverse the content, you must also make accommodations for other handicaps – examples include:
- The ability to increase the font size by 200% without affecting the overall user experience.
- Include text transcripts for all audio and video files.
- Ensure that the contrast of text versus background colors meets specific requirements.
- That all images have text descriptions associated with them.
- Images may not include text that is important to the information on the site.
- Site must be navigable without the use of a mouse (“tab navigation”).
My point here is that the compliance regulations are designed to allow “reasonable accommodations” to many different handicaps and situations, the extent of these accommodations will be determined by what level of compliance you must meet.
Dear Developer, Please Make My Site ADA Compliant
Over the years we have gotten requests from clients of standing websites to make their site compliant. This request is a rough one for two main reasons:
- A lot of the compliance items have very little to do with the developer.
- Compliance is best something considered during the original build and can be quite challenging to introduce into an already built site.
How Much Responsibility for WCAG Compliance Falls on the Web Developer?
Let’s dig into this: In a bid for a new website built through one of our agency partners we put together a 37-point list of things that needed to be considered to meet the AA compliance level. Here is what we found:
- 19 were things that must be accounted for by the designer
- 7 were the responsibility of the content manager/writer
- 7 were a combination of responsibilities between the writer and designer
- Only 4 items fell strictly on the developer.
Less than 2% of WCAG Compliance, Actually Has to do With Web Development
With less than 2% of what it takes to make a site AA compliant falling on the developer, you can just imagine that retrofitting an already built website would be quite a challenge!
The biggest challenges we have seen in such requests (especially with WordPress sites) have to do with sliders, galleries, and strict layout (the ability to increase font size by 200% is likely to break your layout unless it was planned for). We have also seen challenges with the integration of social media, in that provided widgets and share, services do not include the required attributes to be compliant.
Retrofitting an Older Site to WCAG Compliance Can be a Big Job
We have found that most of the pre-existing sites that we have received these requests for have been tough to retrofit without considering large modifications. In these cases, our clients have opted to simply settle for a “best-effort” scenario knowing that the site would not pass a compliance test.
WCAG Compliance and Building a New Website
I have talked about retrofitting a site, but what about building a new site?
Things are easier in this scenario (kind of), they’re only easier because with a new site you are starting with a clean slate and you can plan accordingly.
However, you absolutely must make sure that the designers, content managers/writers, and developers understand the need to meet an ADA website compliance level before starting any part of the project. It’s not enough to tell the web developer after the design is complete that the site must be compliant.
Again, I use the example of the requirement to make it so text can be enlarged 200% without changing how the site functions. Designs with tight boxes and intricate layouts may break if the text is enlarged so this is a great example of something that must be considered during the design phase.
Is My Website WCAG / ADA Compliant? How do I Test it?
How bad is it really?
I have good news and bad news for you if you have never tested your site for ADA compliance and it was not a consideration during the design, build and content creation phases:
Good News: It’s probably not as bad as you would think. If your site was built fairly well and it’s not too crazy, then you might be surprised how well it stands up to a compliance test.
Bad News: The items that you do not pass may include things that are not easy fixes.
There are many services out there that will test a site and produce a compliance report for you. Some of them are free and others cost money.
Back in my days of managing very large government builds, we hired a consultant whose only job was to ensure that the final product was compliant. This person conducted developer, designer, and content creator education, and testing, and generated reports of what needed to be addressed during several rounds of design and development.
My point is that this can become a big deal, though the good news is that there are free services like WAVE that will allow you to scan your web pages and get an idea of how compliant (or not compliant) your site might be.
The Future of WCAG Compliance Based on Lawsuits
I’m not trying fear-monger here, really. However, I believe the future of ADA website compliance within the United States (ADA only applies to the U.S. but many other countries have their requirements) is going to become a more and more important issue for many organizations and those that design and build websites for them.
In 2017 a Federal Judge ruled that Winn-Dixie’s (a grocery store chain) was in violation of ADA laws and ruled that company must set aside $250K to update its website. This was one of the first lawsuits of its kind, but it certainly won’t be the last. Domino’s Pizza also lost a large lawsuit in 2016, “Robles v. Domino’s Pizza”, where they had to pay a penalty and rebuild a large portion of their website/application.
The Future of WCAG Compliance
I’m personally very curious to see what requirements, assuming they are either going to be taken more seriously and/or enforced, are going to do to web development practices across the board.
Right now, we are hearing more and more about and we have plenty of clients who have sites that could potentially fall within the definition of an organization that would have to be compliant (again I am no lawyer). Also as a personal note, I can imagine some of the designers we work with would have challenges producing the same level of impressive designs with the constraints of compliance.
Whose Responsibility is WCAG Compliance?
This is the question that scares me the most, in fact, I plan to update our client agreements to state that unless compliance (or other legal requirements) is clearly defined in the scope, we are not responsible for meeting compliance.
We often say here at FatLab that we just do as we are told and only give our opinions when asked (this applies to our website support business). I’m curious as to whether anyone might hold their developer/designer responsible for not advising them on or not building their site to meet compliance should they face legal action.
As for FatLab in 2022, I think we are going to take the approach that we will take responsibility for compliance only when the client makes it a requirement of the project scope. We will also have a caveat that compliance will be our responsibility at launch only because it is the client’s responsibility to ensure that any content updates and edits continue to meet compliance moving forward.