What Does It Mean To Be ADA Compliant? Find Out.


I often hear clients, prospective clients, and others in the industry say they want to have an ADA-compliant website. I know what they mean — but how, exactly, can a site achieve compliance? That's a good question, because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn't actually spell it out.

According to the text of the law, the ADA “...prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public accommodations and requires places of public accommodation and commercial facilities to be designed, constructed, and altered in compliance with the accessibility standards established by this part.”  But there's no set of ADA standards for strategists, designers, and developers to follow. The goal, though, is to comply with the spirit of the law.

How can your site do that? We strongly recommend following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 developed by W3C, an international, vendor-neutral group. These are best practice standards for web code and content. WCAG 2.0 is based around four principles of accessibility: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, Robust (POUR).

Here are a few potential action items that may result from a WCAG 2.0 review:

  • Select colors so that body copy and header text are clearly discernable from their backgrounds.
  • Ensure that links are distinguishable from the text around them; they must contrast significantly from the surrounding text and/or marks, such as an underline.
  • Organize your main content so that headings nest logically (H1 > H2 > H3).
  • Include descriptive alternative text for all images.
  • Provide in-line captions for video content.
  • Avoid use of “click here” (or similar call outs) for link text; instead use the actual description of the link destination, such as “register for classes.”
  • Avoid PDFs when possible. Where necessary, PDFs must be navigable via keyboard - scans of documents are not accessible - and must include form labels.
  • Visitors must be able to interact with all page elements via keyboard.
  • Each web page should have a descriptive title.

WebAIM has an excellent WCAG 2.0 checklist that will help your communications team develop an ADA-compliant website.

What about Section 508? Unlike the ADA, Section 508 outlines specific requirements for websites, and applies to colleges and universities that receive federal funds. Its guidelines are similar, but not identical, to WCAG 2.0.

Section 508 guidelines are being revised, and are likely to be closer to  WCAG 2.0 when the process is complete (expected later in 2015). Even so, colleges and universities should still review the current Section 508 and address any requirements not addressed in WCAG 2.0.

I believe compliance with the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires websites to follow the clear guidelines established by WCAG 2.0 and Section 508.