Understanding ADA Website Compliance

A website developer seated at a desk using a laptop, mouse and two monitors for inspect website code for ADA compliance issues.

When customers approach our team for website development help, one of the most common questions they’re asked is “What is ADA compliance?” 

To help shed some light on this important issue, we turned to Results Repeat’s Creative Director, Greg Hoffman

With 20 years of experience in web design and front end development, Greg has the industry insight and experience to answer the most common questions about ADA website compliance – and do it in a way that everyone can understand! 

For those who are unfamiliar with this topic, what is ADA website compliance? 

GH: Historically, ADA refers to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It was put into law to ensure that organizations and businesses provide reasonable accommodations for employees, customers and visitors with disabilities.

Over time, the law has been amended to improve accessibility in a number of areas, including websites. In its simplest form, ADA compliance is all about making your website accessible to anyone and everyone who is going to be visiting it. Whether the visitor is navigating the website by a mouse, keyboard, screen/text readers, speech input software or other types of assistive technology, ADA compliance ensures that everyone who is visiting your website can interact with and use your website the same way across the board. 

Why is it important for a website to be ADA compliant?

GH: Wow! There are a lot of reasons why it’s important for a site to be ADA compliant. 

The broadest reason is that the web was created with inclusivity in mind. So the entire point of the web is to provide information and resources to as many people as possible wherever they are. That being said, you want to make sure that anyone who goes to your website can easily interact with it and use it. 

Being ADA compliant is also favorable for usability and SEO. Making sure that your website is operable and navigable benefits all of your users. Designing or updating a site with compliance in mind goes beyond standard details such as alt text and color contrast. Once you start considering those aspects, it changes how you create a website from the ground up. You become more aware of such things as spacing and placement of the information With inclusivity in mind, I think this is the most compelling reason for ADA compliance. It encourages everyone to create better looking and easier to use websites.  

From a bottom line perspective, if you have an online store that is not accessible to the approximately 61 million Americans living with a disability, you run the risk of losing 26% of your audience as soon as they visit your website. If that happens, they’ll leave your site and give their business to the competitor with a compliant site. 

Of course, there are also the legal and financial penalties organizations and businesses can face when their site is not ADA compliant. If little or no efforts are made to make a site more accessible to everyone, then potential legal and financial penalties may be levied against the company. This scenario can also damage a company’s reputation. Audiences are way more savvy these days. Their spending dollars are driven by messages and the social impact a company has. If you make your website more accessible for everyone, the word will get around. However, if you do nothing to make your site accessible, that poor word of mouth will spread even faster. 

How do you make your website accessible? 

GH: The best place to start is with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This is an 81-point checklist that offers ways to make a website more accessible. 

To truly make a website accessible involves a mixture of many different factors. First, companies will have to change the way they design, build and code their websites. After it’s built, organizations need to test their sites against the WCAG guidelines and fix any accessibility issues that are found. 

As a further safeguard against future issues, the website should offer visitors an accessibility statement that includes a link to contact the company and notify them of any accessibility issues. Giving audiences this avenue of communication generates a lot of good will and demonstrates an organization’s commitment to providing the best user experience possible. 

And of course, companies should be aware of any updates or changes to the WCAG guidelines. This ensures that the website is up to date, compliant and offers the best possible experience for all visitors. 

What is the difference between automated accessibility testing and expert testing for accessibility? (i.e., why do automotive tests not always work)

GH: Automated testing involves the use of software that checks against the accessibility standards that are outlined in the WCAG guidelines. When it discovers any issues, it flags them, and collects them in a detailed final report. Then companies can use the report to fix the identified issues. This software tends to focus on things such as page structure, navigation, font styling, color contrast, links, alt text for images, and html/css issues. 

Automated testing is really helpful for identifying and fixing common issues that can impact accessibility. Unfortunately, it has limitations. There are things automated tests cannot do. Most of them are unable to fill out/submit forms or download a PDF. They also do not zoom the screen or use a keyboard to navigate a site. Ultimately, automated tests just scratch the surface of identifying accessibility issues. That’s why manual testing is extremely important. 

Manual testing involves a team of experts accessing and navigating your site to identify potential accessibility issues. Through the use of multiple assistive devices, they will try to simulate any and all potential obstacles a user with a disability may encounter.

This type of comprehensive subjective and objective testing cannot be accomplished by an automated test. For example, an automated test can recognize that an image has alt text. However, it cannot confirm if that alt text accurately describes the image. While automated testing cannot determine if the alt text is right or wrong, manual testing can. 

Manual testing contains the human element that is missing from automated testing. That difference can determine if there are deeper accessibility issues on a website.  

Should you expect your website developer to be an ADA expert? Or should you consult an outside vendor? 

GH: Most website developers are knowledgeable of ADA compliance and WCAG guidelines. The best developers strive to stay up to date with the latest WCAG standards. Yet, I do not believe that most website developers would consider themselves experts in ADA compliance. 

For any organization that is really serious about ensuring that their website is ADA compliant, I would recommend that they consult an outside vendor that specializes in ADA compliance. 

Companies should work with website developers who are aware of ADA standards and can guide them toward making the best decision for compliance. And many times, that decision involves the help of an outside vendor. 

What are the most common ADA compliance issues you see on websites?

GH: Issue involving alt text on images is probably the most common issue I see. Many times companies forget to add alt text to the images or the images are mislabeled.  This usually happens when a large amount of photos are added to the site at once. For example, developers may add 50 images to a site and alt text is attached to 48 of those images. While that may not seem like a huge deal, it is a major issue for visitors who live with a disability. Two images without alt text still equates to two strikes against the website’s accessibility. 

Color contrast on a website is another common issue. This is mostly because websites are built according to the brand’s style guide. Unfortunately, a company’s branding may not meet the minimum contrast guidelines for text. That means branded logo colors cannot be used as headings or CTA button links because they are not compliant. 

Website designs that are incompatible with keyboard navigation is another major issue. Companies have to make sure that a keyboard can, at the very least, tab through a website and trigger all interactive elements on a page. 

Ambiguous text is something that is often overlooked. This commonly happens when websites feature buttons that state “Read More”. Without proper context, a visitor who is using an assistive screen reader does not know what “Read More” refers to. That’s why it’s important to avoid ambiguous text and make things easier for everyone to understand. To solve this type of issue the text on the button can be changed to “Read More About Our Job Opportunities” or code can be added to the button that offers a more descriptive call to action. 

Issues involving spacing and layout are also quite common. These issues are easily overlooked because a lot of ADA checklists focus on website code structure and less so on basic design elements. I often see sites with CTA buttons that are too small or the improperly spaced text that is illegible. Properly laying out a website goes a long way toward ensuring ADA compliance and offering a more enjoyable user experience for everyone. 

Do you recommend accessibility overlays on websites? Why or why not? 

GH: I really think the jury is still out on this topic. Right now, I think the biggest misconception with overlays is that they’re a quick, easy solution for all ADA issues. And that’s simply not the case. They often create a false sense of security that leads companies to believe that they no longer have to worry about accessibility issues. Meanwhile, overlays cannot resolve any coding issues, or understand context.  

While they can be helpful fixing surface issues, they still are not devoid of their own issues. Though not routinely common among overlays, there have been instances of overlays being counterproductive. Case in point, there have been examples where an overly overrides the fine-tuned browser settings of visitors who assistive technology. That means all of the work these visitors have spent making their browsers accessible for them has been erased by an overlay.    

I think overlays have the potential to become a reliable tool for ensuring ADA accessibility in the future, but at the current moment, they’re still in their infancy. 

For companies that choose to use an overlay on their website, I would recommend that they continue to improve their website from the ground up to remain ADA compliant. 


If you’re interested in learning how Results Repeat’s website development team can help your company with website designs, rebuilds and ADA compliance, please contact us today! 

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