The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, if the government entities receive federal funding, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 generally require that state and local governments provide qualified individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, or activities unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of their programs, services, or activities or would impose an undue burden.2 One way to help meet these requirements is to ensure that government websites have accessible features for people with disabilities, using the simple steps described in this document. An agency with an inaccessible website may also meet its legal obligations by providing an alternative accessible way for citizens to use the programs or services, such as a staffed telephone information line. These alternatives, however, are unlikely to provide an equal degree of access in terms of hours of operation and the range of options and programs available.
Do all websites have to be ADA compliant? Technically, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title III, which concerns public businesses, does not specifically address websites. Local and state government websites must be accessible under Title II of the ADA and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. However, ADA civil suits have been brought against businesses with inaccessible websites, and courts have ordered some businesses to make their websites accessible.
Courts have essentially taken three positions when approached with this issue. Some courts take the position that the ADA applies to all commercial sites because the law was meant to protect disabled individuals from having a more difficult time than able-bodied individuals from doing business. That is why the website Scribd was unable to get a case summarily dismissed and ended up settling.
The legal issue for websites is whether website operators are operating “a place of public accommodation.” The statute lists 12 different types of public accommodations including somewhat of a catchall that includes “other sales or rental establishment.” The list, created when the law was passed in 1988, conceivably covers most commercial establishments, but does not expressly include websites.
Any business that is considered a “place of public accommodation” is required to provide equal access to services under the nondiscrimination requirements of Title III of ADA. When you look at the guidelines closely, this includes hotels, entertainment venues, legal and accounting firms, retail stores, and virtually every business that is not a private club, including businesses that exist solely on the web.
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For instance, if you have a video that displays the benefits of your product, but it doesn’t have captions, then people who are deaf or hard of hearing will not get to find out how great your product is. The same goes for when you have images with no alternate text. The point of the alternate text is to allow screen reading tools to describe the image to someone who is blind, so if you don’t have that text, some of your audience will miss out. Similarly, it’s important to ensure your website is fully accessible without a mouse so that people with physical limitations can use it.
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On July 26, 2010 (on the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act) President Obama stated that ADA accessibility must also apply to the Internet. With that declaration, the Justice Department was tasked with setting rules for ADA accessibility for the Internet and websites. Since that time, the Justice Department has formulated recommended rules for ADA website accessibility. Those rules will soon be refined and officially released in the near future. Until then, there is a set of guidelines currently in place (http://www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG20/quickref) for websites to become ADA accessible. Even with these guidelines in place, many hospitality businesses have not yet complied with the guidelines. Now is the time to begin the process of making your current website ADA accessible or to consider a new website design that is ADA accessible.
For instance, if you have a video that displays the benefits of your product, but it doesn’t have captions, then people who are deaf or hard of hearing will not get to find out how great your product is. The same goes for when you have images with no alternate text. The point of the alternate text is to allow screen reading tools to describe the image to someone who is blind, so if you don’t have that text, some of your audience will miss out. Similarly, it’s important to ensure your website is fully accessible without a mouse so that people with physical limitations can use it.
Many people with disabilities use assistive technology that enables them to use computers. Some assistive technology involves separate computer programs or devices, such as screen readers, text enlargement software, and computer programs that enable people to control the computer with their voice. Other assistive technology is built into computer operating systems. For example, basic accessibility features in computer operating systems enable some people with low vision to see computer displays by simply adjusting color schemes, contrast settings, and font sizes. Operating systems enable people with limited manual dexterity to move the mouse pointer using key strokes instead of a standard mouse. Many other types of assistive technology are available, and more are still being developed.
Your website is often the first thing your customers see when they’re searching for a business or service on the web. As the face of your organization, your website needs to be attractive and functional, offering the latest features that users now expect. To plan and design a site that both reflects your company’s mission and values and appeals to customers takes a professional web designer. While free online services can help people set up websites, web designers can provide a unique solution made specifically to meet customers’ personal or business needs.

People with disabilities that affect their sight, hearing, or mobility may have difficulty accessing certain parts of websites and other online properties unless certain accommodations are made. Just as businesses may need to make adjustments to their physical location so that disabled customers have easy access to the premises, companies may need to adjust certain aspects of their websites so individuals with disabilities can take full advantage of all the features and services.
This is an article that most other website developers probably don’t want you to read. The reason is that most other web designers basically like to think of themselves as all-powerful wizards with magical powers. And they use complex technical jargon and terminology to intimidate and mystify their clients into thinking that what they do is more complex than it is.
UPDATE: Since writing this post in August 2017, several important changes have taken place in the laws regarding ADA compliance for websites. On December 26, 2017, the Department of Justice announced that they have withdrawn the Obama-era Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking mentioned in this article which intended to require ADA website compliance. The DOJ’s withdrawal announcement stated, “The Department will continue to assess whether specific technical standards are necessary and appropriate to assist covered entities with complying with the ADA.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was first passed in 1990. Twenty years later, the US Department of Justice released an update called the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. These standards cover the design of physical spaces and have been interpreted to include web locations as well, so it can be difficult for the would-be accessible website designer to use them.


What do you want your website to look like? Consider websites that are similar to the one you’d like to build, ideally in the same industry or serving similar types of customers. Build a set of examples of types of pages, design aspects, and website features that you can hand off to the web designer — the person you hire should have experience creating websites with the features you want. If they don’t have the right skill set, they’re not the right pro for you.
Two agencies within the U.S. Department of Labor enforce parts of the ADA. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) has coordinating authority under the employment-related provisions of the ADA. The Civil Rights Center (CRC) is responsible for enforcing Title II of the ADA as it applies to the labor- and workforce-related practices of state and local governments and other public entities. Visit the Laws & Regulations subtopic for specific information on these provisions.

Technology is changing, and many website designers are using creative and innovative ways to present web-based materials. These changes may involve new and different access problems and solutions for people with disabilities. This Chapter discusses just a few of the most common ways in which websites can pose barriers to access for people with disabilities. By using the resources listed at the end of this Chapter, you can learn to identify and address other barriers.


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 roughly 1.66 billion people around the world making online purchases in 2017, one might reasonably presume that this concept extends to websites, but from a legal standpoint, there is a surprising amount of grey area.
Poorly designed websites can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities, just as poorly designed buildings prevent some people with disabilities from entering. Access problems often occur because website designers mistakenly assume that everyone sees and accesses a webpage in the same way. This mistaken assumption can frustrate assistive technologies and their users. Accessible website design recognizes these differences and does not require people to see, hear, or use a standard mouse in order to access the information and services provided.
The words in the tag should be more than a description. They should provide a text equivalent of the image. In other words, the tag should include the same meaningful information that other users obtain by looking at the image. In the example of the mayor’s picture, adding an “alt” tag with the words “Photograph of Mayor Jane Smith” provides a meaningful description.
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