ADA compliance

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C.§ 12101) is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on disability. It protects Americans with disabilities against discrimination, as per the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill’s final version was signed into law on July 26, 1990. When we think of ADA laws, we usually think of wheelchair ramps. However, websites fall under the same US federal court jurisdiction.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not specifically mention websites. However, US courts have interpreted that the act does require that all websites should have accessibility. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act has been interpreted to include websites as “places of public accommodation”. If accused of being out of compliance with the ADA, the cost to defend yourself or your business in court could be devastating for your agency or client.

In 1998 the US Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require all Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to any person with a disability. This amended section is referred to as “Section 508”. This law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Section 508 compliance could be required for any website where the organization is receiving any type of federal funding.

Recent ADA Litigation

In recent years, the number of ADA compliance related lawsuits has increased. According to CBS17, there were 2,285 ADA website lawsuits filed in the last year. An increase of 181% compared to 2017″. The higher federal courts have consistently ruled that the plaintiff has the right to the same accessibility as any other citizen. For instance, a lower California court originally dismissed the case of Guillermo Robles v Domino’s Pizza. However, the higher 9th circuit court affirmed the validity of the suit. Similarly, Hooters Restaurant (Yes, Hooters!), has been sued twice.

Understanding ADA Website Compliance

The problem with ADA compliance for a website is the vagueness of the current ADA laws. The most accepted standard is WCAG 2.0 AA. This is a set of guidelines that generally deals with the presentation of website content to the user. This vagueness, and the fact that some elements of website accessibility require human-testing has made self-compliance very difficult.

Promising Full Compliance

Promising full ADA website compliance on a delivered website can be the biggest mistake an agency or freelancer can make. There are a number of reasons why self-compliance is almost not achievable. This also applies to many of the medium and large web development agencies. I’ve seen a quote for the testing ALONE that was in the ballpark of $15,000. This was for a California-based government housing authority site. In addition, it does not include the changes to the website code, content, and design to comply with the testing.

It is critical to have an ADA policy in place to protect yourself, as the web developer, from a lawsuit. It could be a line in your contract stating that the client is responsible for ADA compliance.

The only option for full compliance is going through an entity able to provide a certificate of ADA compliance. In some cases, this organization can provide legal representation for ADA legal actions. The two I have personal experience with are Online ADA and Compliance Sheriff by Cyxtera. Both of these provide enterprise-level testing and evaluation services.

Understanding the Limitations of an ADA Compliant WordPress Theme.

I have seen WordPress themes that claim to be “ADA Compliant”. I think this can be very misleading to both the developer and the agency. It may be true that the demo version of the theme has passed both human and software testing. But there are some that I have tested myself that did not pass 100%. The problem is that as you start to add content/plugins, you run the likely risk of falling out of compliance.

It’s time to test my theory. I picked the number one Google search result for “WordPress ADA theme” and came up with In addition, I also picked one of the business themes called Business WordPress Theme – Version 1. Lastly, I did a search for “ADA checker” and came up with the “Web Accessibility by Level Access” website. Below are the results of my testing:

As seen above, the demo scored at 80%. However, the score goes down as you add content, images, and plugins to the website.

The advantage of using an ADA WordPress compliant theme is you are able to add to your ADA compliance statement. This may show the “good faith effort” that prevents most legal actions.

This website was developed with the theme “Twenty Fourteen by the WordPress team”. This was done per the following recommendation. “If you are unsure which theme to use for an accessible site, we recommend Twenty Fourteen as a beautiful, full-featured theme that is fully accessible.” from

ADA Compliance Related to Best SEO Practices

A website that has content optimized for SEO will inevitably test better than one that has not. Requirements that allow search engines to properly read your content crosses over to screen readers like JAWS, which allow the visually impaired to utilize your website. Properly tagged/named images end up being a major task if not done with consistency. The most prevalent issue I see in the course of testing is missing ALT tags on images. This will prevent screen readers from rendering the information.

Preventing “Drive-by Lawsuits”

A “Drive-by Lawsuit” is when an attorney/law firm files multiple cases, in hopes of a quick settlement. The “defendant” or owner of the website is faced with the prospect of a trial. This can cost 2-3 times as much as settling the litigation out of court.

Steps can be taken to mitigate your legal risks even if you or your client is not able to afford the cost of full ADA compliance and testing. An ADA compliance statement on your website is a good first step. This statement should list the steps you have taken in regard to ADA compliance. It should also list a contact person for any complaints. Your legal counsel should review this statement.

The other obvious action is to make the best effort within the website’s content, design, and code. For instance, I have been using Achecker to give me a basic idea on areas of improvement during development. The amount of time I am able to spend will depend on the clients budget. A forty-hour WordPress site will probably not have the budget for another 10-15 hours of basic design/code fixes needed for ADA compliance.

The key to preventing “Drive-by Lawsuits” is to go beyond the minimal effort. The type of website and the volume of traffic will dictate how vulnerable the website is going to be.

Testing is the Biggest Expense

ADA testing requires expensive software that many freelance developers and agencies don’t have access to. In addition, real ADA compliance will require experienced human testing. Software testing can yield inaccurate scores. The initial phase will require testing to achieve compliance. Furthermore, ongoing testing is also crucial to ensure the page remains compliant. This testing, in most cases, will run over $10,000.

ADA Compliance is an Ongoing Effort

ADA compliance is an ongoing effort. A website professionally ADA tested as it goes live, might not be compliant a few weeks later. Adding content is the number one factor that could cause your website to fall out of compliance. Even without content changes, CMS, jQuery, and plugin updates can alter the state of the website.

Understanding Development and Design Costs

Design and development costs related to basic ADA compliance will depend on a number of factors. These include the number of pages, content and image state, third-party plugins/software, and the number of individual page designs. There are cases where a developer has to drastically change the website’s functionality and design in order to achieve compliance. I have generally only been willing to give a very flexible estimate for design and development hours I need to achieve and improve on the current score.

Designing for ADA & Accessibility Compatibility

Some individuals with poor vision may have issues viewing contrasts. This means they may not be able to distinguish between bright or dark areas. Everything tends to appear around the same brightness. This makes it hard to distinguish borders, outlines, edges, and details. Any text that is too close in luminescence (brightness) to the background can be hard to read.

The WCAG 1.4.3 covers contrast ratios. It states the following for successful compliance:

Ensure color contrast of at least 4.5:1 for small text or 3:1 for large text, even if the text is part of an image. Large text has been defined in the requirements as 18pt (24 CSS pixels) or 14pt bold (19 CSS pixels). Note: Elements found to have a 1:1 ratio are considered “incomplete” and require a manual review.

There are many tools out there to verify the contrast ratios. I have found the contrast ratio tool from Deque University to be very helpful. This allows you to input your foreground and background colors into the calculator to determine the contrast ratio is at least 4.5:1.

ADA compliance starts in the design concept and scoping phase of a website. There are some design concepts, along with functionality, that will make achieving full accessibility difficult or impossible to achieve.

Developing for ADA & Accessibility Compatibility

As you begin to understand what areas of your code and content will cause accessibility issues, you can make adjustments in your overall development strategy. It’s critical to learn what areas of the WGAG 2.0 standard are consistently being violated to saving time on fixes afterward. This may require the developer to alter how the website is being built.

It is best with a lightweight bootstrap framework or an ADA compliant starter theme when developing in WordPress. As you continue to gain experience building more accessible sites, you become aware of widgets, plugins, or add-ons that are inherently problematic to accessibility.

Early involvement in the scoping and design phase is critical to delivering a more accessible website for your users. In many cases, a creative idea may cause problems in development later on.


Website accessibility and ADA compliance is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also the law! Allowing users of all capabilities to interact with your website will increase your customer base. It is important to understand the legal, practical (cost), and technical areas in order to develop an ADA accessibility strategy for your agency or company. Please contact me for a free consultation.

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