Website Accessibility Under the ADA

Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, at a time when the Internet had a relatively minor impact on the daily lives of Americans. Today, the Internet plays a critical role in personal, civic, educational, commercial, and professional life. Public agencies increasingly rely on the Internet as an efficient and comprehensive method of communicating with and providing services to constituents. Although many individuals with disabilities rely on the Internet as an essential tool, not all websites are designed to give persons with disabilities equal access to information and services online.


ADA regulations do not expressly address accessibility requirements for website and mobile applications; however, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) takes the position that Title II of the ADA, which applies to state and local government programs, covers Internet website access. Public entities such as school districts, county offices of education, and community college districts should ensure their websites comply with accessibility guidelines.

Legal Requirements

Websites of state and local government entities are covered by Title II of the ADA. (See 28 C.F.R. § 35.102 [the Title II regulation “applies to all services, programs, and activities provided or made available by public entities”].) The DOJ also interprets Title III (public accommodations), and relies on several court decisions, to apply ADA accessibility requirements to websites of private businesses. (See, e.g., National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp. (N.D. Cal. 2006) 452 F.Supp.2d 946, 953 [the first case in which any court ruled that the ADA applied to a retail website].)

In 2010, the DOJ issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking indicating its intent to promulgate regulations under Title II and Title III of the ADA to address requirements for website accessibility. The notice indicated the DOJ would develop website accessibility rules “in the near future” and continue to enforce the website accessibility on a case-by-case basis. The proposed regulations have not materialized, and the DOJ has delayed its targeted release several times. In the absence of regulations, the DOJ relies on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 guidelines issued by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international organization that develops standards to ensure the long-term growth of the Internet. (Click here to see an overview of the Guidelines.) The DOJ pursues enforcement of website accessibility as part of its authority to conduct “compliance reviews” under the ADA.

In a recent DOJ settlement with four U.S. cities, investigations found each city’s online employment opportunities website was not fully accessible to people with disabilities. Under the settlement agreement, each city agreed to ensure its hiring policies and procedures do not discriminate against any applicant on the basis of disability, including by: “ensuring that its online employment opportunities website and job applications conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, which are industry guidelines for making web content accessible.”  (More information on the settlement can be found here.)  In settlements with private companies, the DOJ likewise required company websites and mobile applications to conform to the WCAG 2.0 guidelines.

WCAG 2.0 Guidelines for Website Accessibility 

The DOJ recognizes the WCAG 2.0 guidelines as the industry standard for web content accessibility and is expected to adopt these guidelines as the web accessibility standards in its forthcoming regulations. As ADA regulations do not directly address website accessibility, the WCAG 2.0 guidelines provide the best guidance for educational agencies to ensure their websites comply with the ADA.

The WCAG 2.0 guidelines are based on four principles of accessible online content: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. The guidelines address each principle, and Success Criteria under each guideline describe specifically what must be achieved to conform to the standard.  The 12 guidelines are:

  1. Perceivable

1.1 Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.

1.2 Provide alternatives for time-based media.

1.3 Create content that can be presented in different ways (for example simpler layout) without losing information or structure.

1.4 Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background.

  1. Operable

2.1 Make all functionality available from a keyboard.

2.2 Provide users enough time to read and use content.

2.3 Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures.

2.4 Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.

  1. Understandable

3.1 Make text content readable and understandable.

3.2 Make Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.

3.3 Help users avoid and correct mistakes.

  1. Robust

4.1 Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.

Until DOJ regulations are available, educational agencies should consider taking all possible steps to make their websites accessible. By implementing the WCAG 2.0 guidelines to the extent possible, public agencies with web presence can ensure equal access for users with disabilities.

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