ADA Compliance (Part 2): What Accessibility Means for Your Website

Welcome back to our in-depth exploration of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the last installment, we broke down the basics of web accessibility and the ADA. Today, we continue our journey to stress-free web accessibility by deeply exploring what it means to be ADA compliant in the digital era.

In this installment, we will discuss:

  • Who Must Be Accessible: Get a quick refresher on which businesses must legally comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • WCAG, Web Accessibility, and the ADA: Understand the interconnected roles of the ADA, WCAG, and web accessibility as a whole.
  • The Four Pillars of an Accessible Website: Learn about the four guiding principles of the WCAG compliance guidelines:
    • Perceivable: Understand what it means for something to be easily Perceived, and how that applies to websites.
    • Operable: Explore the significance of Operability in web accessibility and how it impacts user experience.
    • Understandable: Learn about the vital role of clarity and intelligibility in creating an accessible and Understandable website.
    • Robust: Discuss what Robustness means in the context of web accessibility, and how web content can be structured to ensure that all users can access it.
  • Understanding Disabled Users: Take a closer look at some of the most common types of disabilities and how they can affect a user’s experience when accessing online content.

The full series includes:

  • Web Accessibility Basics: Unpack the basics of web accessibility, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and how those concepts relate to your business.
  • What it Means to Be Accessible (You Are Here): Dive into what it really means for a business to be accessible, what that means for your website, and how it relates to your customers.
  • Practical Steps Towards Accessibility: Learn how you can begin enhancing your website’s accessibility, reducing your legal risk, and earning new business.

By understanding the foundational principles of web accessibility and their real-world applications, you will learn how to begin evaluating whether your business is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

We’ll begin with a brief reminder about the types of businesses that have obligations under the ADA.

Who Must Be Accessible

The ADA applies to the following business types:

  • Public Accommodations (businesses that are open to the public), regardless of business size. While by no means exhaustive, a few examples include:
    • Restaurants 
    • Retail Stores 
    • Auditorium, Theaters, and Sports Arenas 
    • Hotels 
    • Banks 
    • Service Centers (regardless of industry) 
    • Healthcare Facilities 
  • All businesses with 15 or more full-time employees that operate for 20 or more weeks per year 

As a general principle, if your business must accommodate the ADA on your physical premises, you should do so on your company website as well. For example, if you are legally obligated to provide wheelchair ramps at your physical location, it would be wise to also provide website accommodations for someone who is visually impaired.

Keep in mind, these are just examples to help clarify the concept!

WCAG, Web Accessibility, and the ADA

ADA compliance is a nuanced subject with many facets, but Web Accessibility is one such subject that is rapidly evolving and which many businesses struggle to grasp. It’s easy to understand why! By necessity, the federal definition of what makes a website “accessible” has shifted over the years and will continue to shift as we learn more about how to best accommodate people of all backgrounds and abilities.

To address the increasing importance of web accessibility, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were established, setting the bar for inclusive digital environments.

Please review the following definitions to begin understanding how the pieces of the legal web accessibility puzzle fit together:


Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): This landmark civil rights legislation, enacted in 1990, prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. It applies to both the physical and digital domains and requires businesses to provide equal access to all individuals, regardless of their physical abilities.

Web Accessibility: A broad term that refers to how usable websites, tools, and technologies are for people with a wide range of abilities and circumstances. In addition to fulfilling legal compliance obligations, web accessibility is about creating an inclusive digital world where everyone has equal access to information and opportunities.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG): Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), these guidelines provide a clear roadmap for achieving web accessibility. WCAG standards are grouped under four principles (POUR), which define whether web content is accessible.

To summarize, “web accessibility” refers to the degree to which a website or other online tool is able to be used by a wide variety of people. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) establishes web accessibility as a legal obligation, and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) lay out specific technical standards for achieving it.

A highly accessible website not only helps businesses meet their legal obligations but also enhances their reputation, expands their customer base, and serves as the foundation for an inclusive digital world.

Next, we will learn more about how WCAG defines web accessibility, putting it into terms that you can easily digest and relate to your own website.

WCAG and the Four Pillars of an Accessible Website

To fully understand the path to web accessibility laid out by WCAG, we must familiarize ourselves with the POUR principles:

Perceivable: Web content must be presented in ways that users can perceive with their senses (sight, hearing, touch).

Operable: Users must be able to effectively interact with and navigate through the website.

Understandable: Information about, and the operation of, the user interface must be clear and intelligible.

Robust: Web content must be robust enough to be reliably interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies such as screen readers.

Pillar #1: Perceivable

The first pillar of web accessibility is Perceivability, which emphasizes the importance of presenting web content in ways users can discern, regardless of their abilities or disabilities.

Information on a website is generally communicated through visual or auditory means. However, not everyone can access this information in the traditional way. Some users may have visual impairments and may not be able to see small text or distinguish between certain colors. Others may have hearing impairments, preventing them from accessing auditory information.

The perceivable principle of the WCAG encourages web developers to consider these variances and ensure that everyone can perceive the content, either directly or through assistive technologies.

While WCAG offers a wide variety of recommendations related to Perceivability, they each fit into one of four overarching guidelines:

Provide text alternatives for non-text content: All non-textual content should be supplemented with textual content. One common example is including “alt tags” with images in your website’s HTML. Regardless, the solution should describe the information or function represented by an image, a video, or other non-text elements.

Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia: For video content, provide captions and/or sign language interpretation for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, and audio descriptions for visually impaired users. For audio-only content, like podcasts, provide transcripts so that users can read the content if they cannot hear it.

Create content that can be presented in different ways, including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning: This involves making sure your content can be presented in different ways without losing information or structure, and that it is easy for users to see and hear content. For example, a user should be able to continue using your website normally after altering their Operating System or internet browser’s font size (e.g., by holding control and scrolling on their mouse).

Make it easier for users to see and hear content: Users should always be able to easily make out the various visual and audio components of your content. For example, foreground text should be easily read on top of its corresponding background colors or imagery, and spoken words should be easily heard over any background music.

It is important to note that adhering to the web accessibility principle of Perceivability is not only beneficial to people with disabilities! It can also help users who are in a noisy environment and can’t hear audio, those with slow internet who can’t load images, or anyone who needs to consume content in a way that suits their individual situation or preference.

Pillar #2: Operable

The second principle of web accessibility is Operability. This principle emphasizes that all users should be able to operate and navigate a website, no matter their physical or cognitive abilities.

The “Operable” principle considers that not all users interact with web content in the same way. While some might use a mouse or a touchscreen, others may rely on a keyboard or voice commands. Therefore, an accessible website should provide various methods of navigation and interaction to cater to the needs of all potential users.

The WCAG recommendations related to Operability are focused around four primary guidelines:

Make all functionality available from a keyboard: Many users with physical disabilities cannot use a mouse and rely on a keyboard to navigate websites. As such, all functionality, including page navigation and accessing content, should be operable via keyboard. This includes providing keyboard focus to interactive elements and ensuring that keyboard navigation is logical and intuitive.

Give users enough time to read and use content: Not all users can read or navigate at the same speed. Certain users, like the elderly or those with cognitive impairments, may need more time. Therefore, avoid time-limited content or, if unavoidable, provide options to modify or eliminate time limits.

Do not use content that causes seizures or physical reactions: Avoid designing content that flashes more than three times per second, which can trigger seizures in individuals with photosensitive epilepsy. Also, avoid interactions that could cause physical reactions in users with certain types of vestibular disorders.

Help users navigate and find content: A good website design helps users understand where they are and how to get where they want to go. This can include features like a consistent navigation menu, breadcrumbs, a search function, headings and labels, and a site map.

Make it easier to use inputs other than keyboard: Consider users who rely on voice commands, eye-tracking, or other technologies to operate a website. Such users should be able to access all functionalities, including menus, forms, and commands, in a way that suits their mode of operation.

By designing your website to be operable for all users, you will create a digital environment that is more inclusive and user-friendly. This can improve user satisfaction and engagement, making your website more successful in helping you achieve your business goals.

Pillar #3: Understandable

The third principle in our exploration of web accessibility is “Understandable”. Understandability is the ability for users to comprehend the content of a website, as well as learn and operate its interface.

To make a website “Understandable,” we need to consider that users have varying abilities and limitations. Some may struggle with complex language or unfamiliar terms, while others might find it hard to understand inconsistent or unconventional website layouts. Thus, an accessible website should use clear, simple language and maintain a consistent and predictable layout and functionality.

Under WCAG, the “Understandable” principle is defined by three main guidelines:

Make text readable and understandable: Use simple language whenever possible. If the content requires anything beyond an elementary school reading level, provide supplemental content or an easy-to-read alternative. Industry-specific jargon, idioms, or complex language should be explained. Moreover, the language of each web page should be readable programmatically, allowing assistive technologies to present content correctly.

Make content appear and operate in predictable ways: To avoid confusing users, maintain a consistent layout and design across your website. Additionally, any change of context on a web page in response to a user action should be initiated by the user and be predictable. For instance, a form should not be submitted merely because a user selected an option in a dropdown menu.

Help users avoid and correct mistakes: Design your website to prevent errors from happening in the first place. For example, if a form input requires a specific format, let users know the required format in advance. If errors do occur, provide clear, easy-to-understand instructions to help users correct them.

By making your website understandable, you’re creating an environment where users of different abilities and experiences can comprehend and interact with your content. This leads to improved user satisfaction, engagement, and success in achieving the goals of your website.

Pillar #4: Robust

The fourth and final principle of web accessibility is “Robust”. This principle focuses on ensuring that web content can be reliably interpreted by a wide variety of user agents and assistive devices, including both current and future technologies. This is the foundation of access for users who do not use standard computer technology for accessing the internet, such as blind users who leverage screen readers.

There is only one WCAG guideline for robustness:

Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.

This principle is as simple, and as deceptively complex, as the above WCAG guideline may imply. In order to remain accessible, you must remain aware of modern trends in user agents and assistive devices so that you can support all users equitably.

Understanding Disabled Users

Web accessibility is a critical aspect of designing and developing websites that cater to users with disabilities, ensuring they can access and interact with online content. As discussed above, the principles of web accessibility outlined in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are essential for creating an inclusive digital environment. In this section, we will explore a few of the most common types of disabilities that can lead users to benefit from those guidelines, and why web accessibility is crucial for allowing those users to access online content.

Visual Impairments

Visual impairments cover a range of conditions, from partial sight to complete blindness. Users with visual impairments may not be able to perceive visual content in the traditional way and as a result may struggle with elements such as small images or similar foreground/background colors. Without prioritizing the principles of web accessibility, these users may face challenges in accessing information and navigating websites effectively.

A few common adjustments that are necessary to be accessible for users with visual impairments include:

  • Providing alternative text (alt tags) for images: Screen readers can read these descriptions aloud, allowing users to understand the content.
  • Ensuring sufficient color contrast: Users with low vision can distinguish content more easily with proper color contrast between text and background.
  • Using scalable fonts: Allowing users to increase font size ensures readability for those with vision difficulties.

Hearing Impairments

Users with hearing impairments face challenges in accessing auditory information, such as videos or audio content. Web accessibility addresses these challenges by providing alternatives and ensuring that important information is not conveyed solely through sound.

Key adjustments for users with hearing impairments include:

  • Adding captions and transcripts: Captions allow users with hearing impairments to follow video content, while transcripts provide access to audio-only information.
  • Avoiding auto-playing audio: This can be disruptive for users with hearing impairments who may rely on assistive technologies.

Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities can affect a user’s ability to interact with a website using traditional methods, such as a mouse or keyboard. Web accessibility caters to these users by providing alternative ways to navigate and interact with content.

Important adjustments for those with physical disabilities include:

  • Keyboard accessibility: All functionalities and interactive elements should be accessible using only a keyboard, allowing users with physical disabilities to navigate the website effectively.
  • Voice commands and other input methods: Supporting voice commands and other assistive technologies accommodates users who may have limited physical capabilities.

Cognitive and Learning Disabilities

Cognitive and learning disabilities can impact a user’s ability to process information or follow complex layouts. Web accessibility ensures that content is presented in a clear and understandable manner.

Key adjustments include:

  • Keyboard accessibility: All functionalities and interactive elements should be accessible using only a keyboard, allowing users with physical disabilities to navigate the website effectively.
  • Voice commands and other input methods: Supporting voice commands and other assistive technologies accommodates users who may have limited physical capabilities.

General Assistive Technologies

Web accessibility is not only about catering to specific disabilities but also about ensuring compatibility with assistive technologies. These technologies, such as screen readers, braille displays, and voice recognition software, help users with disabilities access and interact with online content. By adhering to web accessibility guidelines, websites become compatible with a wide range of user agents and assistive devices, allowing disabled users to navigate and interact with the content seamlessly.

While generalized prioritization of assistive technologies may seem disconnected from individual groups of disabled users, it is in fact a core part of a healthy web accessibility strategy. By prioritizing generic approaches that work well with a variety of assistive technologies, we can support technologies we know about, technologies we don’t know about, and technologies that haven’t even been conceptualized yet.


Web accessibility, as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is a legal obligation for many companies. However, it is also a key part of how we as a society can ensure equal access to online content for all individuals.

Compliance with the ADA can be complex, and non-compliance can have grave financial and practical consequences. In our next installment, we will discuss what you can do to begin complying today.

If you would like to talk to somebody about your website, please call us at 608-294-5460 or visit the Contact Form on our website.

Note: All proprietary symbols displayed on this page are and remain the sole property of their respective trademark owners. This blog post does not represent formal legal advice. For formal legal advice, please seek the help of a qualified attorney. We additionally recommend, if possible, that you review official government guidance on the ADA, including: