Trying to Understand Web Accessibility

Northeast ADA Center Staff July 13, 2023

By: Grace Fairchild

You probably already understand that many aspects of our daily lives have migrated online—for instance, you are reading this not from a printed pamphlet, but from a blog on a website. What you may not realize is that as humanity continues the shift to digital spaces, it is vital to ensure equal access for all, including people with disabilities. Just as with physical accessibility, a lack of web accessibility is a barrier for people with disabilities trying to participate in the community. While the Americans with Disabilities Act web accessibility requirements might not be top-of-mind for those who do not rely on assistive technology, standards for features like color contrast, alternative text, or even audio transcripts, can make a world of difference for those who do.

Increasingly a Legal Issue

Outside the disability community, web accessibility largely remains under the radar, but the related lawsuits are stacking up. The legal firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP has tracked private ADA Title III lawsuits in federal court, and an article on the firm’s website, ADA Title III Federal Lawsuit Filings Hit An All Time High, reports that yearly filings have increased by 320% since 2013. The article explains that although Title III lawsuits cover all types of accessibility claims, the growth has not been in physical accessibility claims, but rather in web accessibility cases. The physical accessibility of public spaces has generally improved since the passage of the ADA, and new buildings are constructed with at least a minimal standard of accessibility in mind. Web accessibility is behind the curve in comparison.

SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) notes that for much of the internet era, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not issued explicit web accessibility standards; instead courts have set precedents in favor of stronger standards under Titles II and III (see SHRM’s article Record Number of Lawsuits Filed Over Accessibility for People with Disabilities). In the absence of official ADA standards, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standard has guided most web accessibility standards. WCAG outlines different suggested levels of accessibility and explains how websites can become friendlier to people with disabilities, but because WCAG has not been officially adopted by the Department of Justice under the ADA, it is not legally binding. Some web accessibility judgments have referenced these guidelines, but in the end, they are strictly voluntary industry guidelines.

For help with implementing WCAG standards in your organization, and particularly in higher education, see our fact sheet Web Accessibility at Colleges and Universities (PDF).

Online Access and COVID-19

Recently, DOJ has negotiated settlement agreements with several grocery and pharmacy chains, including CVS, Meijer, Hy-Vee, Kroger, and Rite Aid, over digital accessibility issues. When distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, the DOJ Civil Rights Division found that these stores used online scheduling tools that were inaccessible to some people with disabilities who use screen readers or only keyboard navigation. Recognizing the importance of equal access online, particularly in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, US Attorney for the District of Rhode Island Zachary Cunha said in a press release about the settlement with CVS Pharmacy that “…While web accessibility is always important, when it comes to critical health services like COVID-19 vaccination, making sure that everyone—regardless of disability—can access information and care is essential.” Each remediation agreement asks these stores to revise their scheduling websites to meet WCAG 2.1, Level AA accessibility standards.

New Guidance from the Department of Justice

Although the WCAG industry standards remain the most robust set of web accessibility instructions, in March of 2022, the DOJ Civil Rights Division issued formal guidance on web accessibility issues, such as contrast, color, alternative text and captions, inaccessible forms, and keyboard navigation. Again, although this guidance is not legally binding, the new web accessibility instructions from the DOJ provide a better idea of what may or may not be enforceable. now explains that these issues could mean a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act:

  • Poor color contrast: Sites should use stark, contrasting colors so that people who are colorblind or low-vision can understand the information. Many people have trouble navigating a website with white text on a grey background, for instance.
  • Communication information via color: Sites should not expect users to understand information that is communicated only via color because those who are low-vision or using a screen reader might not be able to see the difference between colors. For example, notes that forms should not just use red text to distinguish important information.
  • Leaving out alternative text: If a site includes a picture, illustration, diagram, or even a meme, it should also include alternative text describing the image in words. Screen readers and other assistive technologies need alt text to communicate information contained in an image.
  • Leaving out video and audio captions: Videos and podcasts should make captions or transcripts available for viewers who are hard of hearing or deaf. This way, all of the audience will be able to understand the audio content in conversations, narration, or other sounds.
  • Using inaccessible online forms: Digital forms are used for everything from waivers to shipping addresses for online orders, but to be accessible, they must have clear text instructions and error messages. These forms should be compatible with screen readers and other types of assistive technology.
  • Requiring mouse or trackpad navigation: Not everyone uses a mouse or trackpad to surf the web, so websites should also allow users to easily navigate using keyboard commands. Many people use keyboard commands and shortcuts, and making a website compatible with these forms of navigation ensures equal access for all.

This list is not exhaustive, but it does cover some of the main accessibility issues identified by people with disabilities. Following these guidelines and paying close attention to web accessibility will not only ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but also create an internet with more equal access for all.