It was clear from the beginning that the ADA affected every kind of business in the physical realm, but it’s less obvious that it covers websites and online spaces. The 1990 bill obviously did not predict today’s huge breadth of internet use. The past decade brought a range of rulings from the U.S. courts, with some insisting that websites do not qualify as a "public place of accommodation."
However, as the internet became more important and websites played a bigger role in the way that consumers interact with businesses, the way that the ADA is applied to web accessibility began to change. Since 2017, a clear consensus has emerged that the ADA also covers the online world.
Disability rights activists, legal scholars, and court rulings have agreed that websites, internet portals, and online stores also need to be accessible for people with disabilities under the ADA.
The Department of Justice's official letter reaffirms the ADA’s application to websites
In September 2018, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote an official letter to members of Congress that said, “The Department first articulated its interpretation that the ADA applies to public accommodations' websites over 20 years ago. This interpretation is consistent with the ADA's requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities."
In March of 2022, the Department of Justice further clarified the ADA’s application to website accessibility. Publishing a comprehensive guide, the DOJ demonstrates the necessity for state and local governments, as well as public-facing businesses, to ensure their websites are accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Bottom line: Today, U.S. courts apply ADA accessibility requirements to the online domain, which means that websites, along with other web-based software, such as emails, videos, online documents like PDFs, and mobile apps, should comply with ADA rules.
What are the ADA website compliance standards?
Part of what makes ADA title III compliance so difficult is that the law doesn’t specify what you need to do to make your website accessible. As Assistant Attorney General Boyd wrote to Congress: “Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.”
Although the DOJ has declined to adopt any official legal standard for the ADA, it has frequently referenced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.
Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is considered the most important set of web accessibility standards today. As such, it has a profound impact on the way international web accessibility policy is shaped and updated.
Many rulings set WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the goal for website accessibility, even though this isn’t codified into law. At the moment, WCAG 2.1 is the best measure of web accessibility when it comes to federal law, and it’s unlikely that a site that conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA would be sued for lack of accessibility.
You can use this ADA website compliance checklist to see if your website conforms to WCAG 2.1 Level AA.
The consequences of having a website that isn't ADA-compliant
Presenting a website that does not comply with the ADA presents people with certain disabilities with unjust digital barriers. Discrimination is both morally wrong and a violation of federal law.
Therefore, those with non-compliant websites open themselves up to receiving ADA website compliance demand letters. These are sent by individuals or advocacy groups, alerting owners of non-compliant websites of the accessibility issues existing within their websites. The demand letter will include a detailed description of the various accessibility gaps found on the website, a deadline by which these issues will need to be resolved, and a proposed monetary settlement to avoid litigation.
In 2022, more than 1500 demand letters were sent every week. As long as your website has accessibility issues, you can potentially receive such a letter.
Additionally, and independent of receiving a demand letter beforehand, owners of non-compliant websites can potentially face more significant legal recourse, such as ADA website compliance lawsuits.
The rate at which ADA website compliance lawsuits are being filed is at an all-time high.In 2023, there were 4,065 lawsuits filed over web accessibility issues. This marked a 43% increase from 2022, and close to a 400% (!) spike from 2017. It doesn’t reveal the increasing number of ADA legal complaints and ADA compliance demand letters that were filed against businesses with non-accessible websites in the last few years, because they never become part of the public record.
And, as long as accessibility issues persist on your website, you can potentially be met with such a lawsuit.
The implications for SMBs
Web accessibility cases against giants like Domino's, Nike, and Beyonce made the headlines, but the majority of lawsuits have been filed against small and medium businesses. It’s estimated that 77% of ADA lawsuits in federal and state courts in the first half of 2023 were filed against small and medium retail businesses.
Since it’s almost inevitable that the court would find in favor of the plaintiff, small business owners often feel that they have no choice but to settle out of court. The cost of defending a lawsuit would destroy even a medium-sized business, but the average ADA website lawsuit settlement still comes to $35,000.
If you are a small business owner, we recommend you read our guide on small business ADA compliance by pressing here.
The implications are clear: a non-accessible website is a major liability for any company operating on the web today. As mentioned above, members of the various disability communities command a collective spending power of over $13 trillion. When you treat them with the online experience they deserve and are so often denied, you make it easier for them to explore your goods and services and potentially become your customers.
In 2024, digital accessibility has become a fundamental principle for all marketers and businesses who understand that users’ needs always come first. If you want to keep your business safe from ADA web accessibility lawsuits, appeal to customers with disabilities, and feel that you are upholding the social fabric, you need an accessibility solution for your website.
The implications for web agencies
Web agencies need to keep ADA title III requirements in mind, too. If a client gets sued for having a non-accessible website, that client will turn to the agency that designed it. The client could insist on getting their money back, ruin that agency’s reputation for failing to comply with legislation, or even sue the agency for having created a non-ADA-compliant website. Hundreds of web agency owners have expressed their fear that their clients would get sued if they don’t provide accessible sites, but that any manual solution would take months to implement and cost thousands of dollars. For more information on this topic, you can check out our guide on ADA compliance and web design.