The ADA’s extension to websites has been a complicated and often confusing narrative. The ADA does not explicitly address online compliance, even after undergoing several amendments in 2008. With no definitive coverage under the law, it usually falls to the courts to determine how ADA standards apply to websites—or whether they do at all.
Title III of the ADA requires that every owner, lessor, or operator of a “place of public accommodation” provide equal access to users who meet ADA standards for disability. With 70 to 80% of consumers researching a business online before visiting in person or making a purchase, one might reasonably presume that this concept extends to websites, but from a legal viewpoint, there is a surprising amount of grey area.
Various courts around America have ruled that commercial websites are places of public accommodation and thus subject to ADA rules. Other cases have concluded that websites are bound by ADA regulations if there is a close “nexus” between the site and a physical location, the most recent example being the ruling against Dunkin’ Donuts for not making its site accessible to users with low vision. Other courts have decided that the ADA, as written, simply does not offer any protections for online users. With no overarching federal rules in place, it’s difficult to make a definitive statement about whether or not any given website is governed by ADA accessibility rules.
To further obscure the issue, the U.S. recently appeared to be on the verge of adopting more comprehensive accessibility requirements for Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Federal regulations slated to go into effect in January 2018 would have held federal websites to the standards of WCAG 2.0 Level AA, the set of guidelines that provide the basis for online accessibility rules for most of Europe and many other nations around the world. The current administration, however, has withdrawn this requirement as part of a general push toward deregulation, leaving the online applications of the ADA as confusing as ever.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, ADA compliance is not mandatory for your website because it’s not at all clear how, or even if, ADA rules will be applied to any particular website. However, it’s generally a good idea to err on the side of caution. Even without clearly defined regulations to follow, hundreds of companies have been sued over the accessibility of their websites. Plaintiffs have been more successful in these suits than ever before. Failure to go through any of the hoops to make sure that your site is compliant is going to prove problematic.