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DOJ Guidance on the ADA and Web Accessibility for Businesses and State and Local Governments
On March 18, 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued guidance on how public and private entities can ensure that their websites are accessible to individuals with disabilities, as required under Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Title II of the ADA applies to state and local governments, while Title III applies to businesses that are open to the public (also known as “public accommodations”).
Although these entities are currently not required to follow any specific or formal standards for designing or setting up a website, the DOJ guidance suggests using guidelines currently employed by the federal government and other resources. The guidance also describes common website barriers, provides sample enforcement cases and indicates that the agency will continue prioritizing website accessibility in its efforts to enforce the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication.
This Compliance Overview provides the DOJ’s guidance.
Website Accessibility and Why It Matters
Inaccessible web content means that individuals with disabilities are denied equal access to information. An inaccessible website can exclude people just as much as steps at an entrance to a physical location. Ensuring web accessibility for people with disabilities is a priority for the DOJ. In recent years, a multitude of services have moved online, and people rely on websites like never before for all aspects of daily living. For example, accessing voting information, finding up-to-date health and safety resources, and looking up mass transit schedules and fare information increasingly depend on access to websites.
People with disabilities navigate the web in a variety of ways: People who are blind may use screen readers, which are devices that speak the text that appears on a screen; people who are deaf or hard of hearing may use captions; and people whose disabilities affect their ability to grasp and use a mouse may use voice recognition software to control their computers and other devices with verbal commands.
The ways that websites are designed and set up can create unnecessary barriers that make it difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to use websites. However, these barriers can be prevented or removed so that websites are accessible to people with disabilities.
Whate are some barriers to Website Accessibility
Some examples of website barriers include:
- Poor color contrast—People with limited vision or color blindness cannot read text if there is not enough contrast between the text and background (for example, light gray text on a light-colored background).
- Use of color alone to give information—People who are colorblind may not have access to information when it is conveyed using only color cues because they cannot distinguish certain colors from others. Also, screen readers do not tell the user the color of text on a screen, so a person who is color blind would not be able to know that color is meant to convey certain information (for example, using red text alone to show which fields are required on a form).
- Lack of text alternatives (“alt text”) on images—People who are blind will not be able to understand the content and purpose of images—such as pictures, illustrations and charts—when no text alternative is provided. Text alternatives convey the purpose of an image, including pictures, illustrations, charts and others.
- No captions on videos—People with hearing disabilities may not be able to understand information communicated in a video if the video does not have captions.
- Inaccessible online forms—People with disabilities may not be able to fill out, understand and accurately submit forms without assistance like:
- Labels that screen readers can convey to their users (such as text that reads “credit card number” where that number should be entered);
- Clear instructions; and
- Error indicators (such as alerts telling the user a form field is missing or incorrect).
- Mouse-only navigation (lack of keyboard navigation)—People with disabilities who cannot use a mouse or trackpad will not be able to access web content if they cannot navigate a website using a keyboard.
The ADA applies to state and local governments (Title II) and businesses that are open to the public (Title III).
State and Local Governments (Title II)
Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all services, programs and activities of state and local governments. State and local governments must take steps to ensure that their communications with people with disabilities are as effective as their communications with others. Many state and local government services, programs and activities are now being offered on the web. These include, for example:
- Applying for an absentee ballot;
- Paying tickets or fees;
- Filing a police report;
- Attending a virtual town meeting;
- Filing tax documents;
- Registering for school or school programs; and
- Applying for state benefits programs.
A website with inaccessible features can limit the ability of people with disabilities to access a public entity’s programs, services and activities available through that website—for example, online registration for classes at a community college could inhibit people with disabilities from signing up for classes. For these reasons, the DOJ has consistently taken the position that the ADA’s requirements apply to all the services, programs or activities of state and local governments, including those offered on the web.
Businesses Open to the Public (Title III)
Title III prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by businesses open to the public (also referred to as “public accommodations” under the ADA). The ADA requires that businesses open to the public provide full and equal enjoyment of their goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations to people with disabilities.
Where necessary, businesses open to the public must take steps to provide appropriate communication aids and services (often called “auxiliary aids and services”) to make sure they effectively communicate with individuals with disabilities. For example, communication aids and services can include interpreters, notetakers, captions or assistive listening devices.
Examples of businesses open to the public include:
- Retail stores and other sales or retail establishments;
- Hotels, inns and motels;
- Hospitals and medical offices;
- Food and drink establishments; and
- Auditoriums, theaters and sports arenas.
A website with inaccessible features can limit the ability of people with disabilities to access a public accommodation’s goods, services and privileges available through that website—for example, a veterans’ service organization online event registration form could prevent people with disabilities from signing up. For these reasons, the DOJ has consistently taken the position that the ADA’s requirements apply to all the goods, services, privileges or activities offered by public accommodations, including those offered on the web.
How to Make Web Content Accessible to People With Disabilities
Although businesses and state and local governments must ensure that the programs, services and goods they provide to the public—including those provided online—are accessible to people with disabilities, the DOJ has not published regulations detailing standards for web accessibility. This means that businesses and state and local governments have some flexibility in how to prevent discrimination and conduct effective communication.
To ensure the best possible accessibility to online content, businesses and state and local governments should consider various website features. The DOJ strongly recommends that businesses and state and local governments consider existing technical standards as guidance on how to ensure accessibility of website features. This guidance includes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the Section 508 Standards, which the federal government uses for its own websites.
Web Accessibility Is a DOJ Priority
When Congress enacted the ADA in 1990, it intended for the ADA to keep pace with the rapidly changing technology of our times.
Since 1996, the DOJ has consistently taken the position that the ADA applies to web content. As the sample cases below show, the DOJ is committed to using its enforcement authority to ensure the goods, services, programs and activities businesses and state and local governments make available to the public are also accessible to people with disabilities.