The large number of people who have disabilities, coupled with the challenges that they face, is one of the reasons that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990.² As its name suggests, the ADA is designed to protect individuals with disabilities in the United States. The ADA essentially makes it illegal for any government entity or business to provide goods and services to the general public without ensuring that the entities are accessible by people with disabilities. In today’s digitally driven world, many businesses fail to follow web accessibility best practices. In fact, this is why the Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SANPRM) was created by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). To ensure that they are implementing digital accessibility best practices, organizations are encouraged to use the WCAG 2.1 technical requirements.³
Yes, in time non-ADA compliant websites will be penalized in the search engines. It's already on their radar. But for now they are still negatively affected, just in an indirect way. Live traffic behavior (user experience) is now factored into Google's algorithm and is a ranking signal. Negative user interactions absolutely have negative affects on rankings.
Currently, there is a safe harbor clause that allows your existing content to remain as it is, unless altered after January 18, 2018. However, the guidelines do pertain to any page that has been updated after that date. So if you want to avoid the legal costs of being found non-compliant with the ADA, it’s best to make the necessary changes to your website now.
In short, the ADA is meant to protect disabled individuals as they go about their daily lives. These regulations ensure that people with disabilities are not denied entry into the above places or denied services by a company due to their disability. It is important to note that these regulations are now applicable to services that are provided online or through other digital formats. For example, if a company accepts job applications online, then it must ensure that a person with a disability can also apply for the job online. In other words, it is illegal to have barriers on the website that would keep the disabled individual from successfully completing their application. Fortunately, the ADA guidelines help to remove barriers and ensure that the Internet remains a space that people of all backgrounds and disabilities can use.
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.
The fastest, most certain way to be sure your website is in compliance is to contact a qualified web design agency and have them perform an audit of all your online properties. Make sure you interview the agency thoroughly first, as not all agencies are up to speed on ADA website compliance rules. A qualified web design firm will be able to identify any violations of ADA Website Compliance and outline a plan for updating your online content and properties.