Website Accessibility Lawsuits are Growing: How WordPress Sites Can Become ADA-Compliant

How familiar are you with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? Unfortunately, every year more website owners are learning the hard way when they are sued for their non-compliance with the ADA. The ADA was established to ensure that individuals with disabilities are given fair and equal access to housing, employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and government programs or services down to the municipal level.

Seyfarth Shaw LLP, a leading international law firm, reports that in 2022, there were 3,255 lawsuits filed in federal courts “alleging that plaintiffs with a disability could not use websites because they were not designed to be accessible and/or work with assistive technologies.” Every year since 2010 this number has increased by 10% or more. Website-related accessibility litigation now makes up 37% of all ADA Title III lawsuits.

So what does it mean to be “WordPress ADA-compliant?”

The ADA Applies Online Too

The ADA legislation has made it very clear that accessibility for disabled people isn’t just something that takes place in the physical world. It also applies to the digital spaces where many of us work and spend a lot of time. Workplaces and public spaces or offices providing key services need to be accessible to everyone. Websites do too.

And the digital world includes the WordPress website that you own and operate.

This is why it’s necessary to build WordPress sites that are fully compliant with the ADA.

The good news is that plenty of software programs and specialized tools will help you become ADA-compliant as a WordPress site owner. Follow a few established practices and put some important tools to use. This will ensure that your site content is available and accessible to everyone, including individuals with disabilities.

In this guide, we’ll dive into the Americans with Disabilities Act and why you need to comply with it in your online properties to avoid potential legal action. There are plenty of other reasons to build accessible websites too, and they have direct benefits to site owners.

Finally, we’ll talk you through the four key accessibility tips that you can put to use starting today.

Let’s take a look.

Why Your WordPress Website Needs To Be ADA-Compliant

United States federal law includes strong protections that completely prohibit any business from denying jobs or housing based on an individual’s physical abilities.

The ADA demands fair access to:

Beyond the physical world, the ADA protections extend to all information technology and electronic accessibility as well.

Because of this, ADA compliance impacts nearly every published website. And even if the law didn’t exist, it’s still a great practice to ensure that your WordPress site is accessible to as many users as possible.

More specifically, the ADA explicitly states that individuals must adhere to its accessibility policies if they are a private employer with a minimum of 15 staff members.

Additionally, ADA compliance is mandatory if you own a business that operates for the public benefit, like a registered charity.

Beyond that, all local and state government agency websites, including sites for schools, must be 100% ADA-compliant.

What Does It Mean to Have a WordPress ADA-Compliant Website?

Let’s first take a look at a few of the website accessibility standards enforced by the ADA:

Keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list of ADA-compliant standards. As we progress through this guide, we’ll get further into the full details of how your WordPress site can meet all ADA requirements. As we move on with the technical aspects of accessibility, keep that big picture (and its benefits) in mind.

What are the Possible Consequences of Not Having an ADA-Compliant WordPress Website?

Remember, if your site doesn’t fully meet these standards, you could find yourself in some trouble with the law. This can be the case even if you didn’t intend to exclude individuals with disabilities from being able to easily access and use your WordPress website. In fact, in the case of ADA compliance, the intent is separate from the law.

And this isn’t a theoretical threat. In recent years, several high-profile lawsuits concerning websites complying with the ADA have been filed. The most widely covered of these lawsuits was against the Domino’s Pizza brand. This case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

Building a WordPress site that’s more accessible to people with disabilities isn’t just the right thing to do. It can also greatly benefit your brand and overall business.

According to the WHO (World Health Organization), about 1.3 billion people across the world have at least one type of disability. This is about 16% of the entire world’s population. This is a lot of potential new customers and viewers of your site.

What Did Target Learn from Losing an Accessibility Lawsuit?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative offers a case study of an influential, early ADA lawsuit against a major US corporation’s accessibility-challenged website: target.com. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) was successful as the plaintiff in this case because Target’s website lacked key accessibility features:

Today, Target Corporation is a champion of web accessibility. Here’s Jason Goldberger, Target’s Chief Digital Officer and president of Target.com in 2016 explaining what he was most proud of, following a decade of work to make Target.com accessible and ADA-compliant:

… I regularly hear colleagues from many different teams talking about accessibility unprompted, and working it into their plans without any reminders from us. It’s become part of everyday conversation, and that’s pretty amazing because it wasn’t always the case. Thinking about those with disabilities is an integral part of the digital team, and to me and other blind guests, it’s another part of what makes Target special.

While accessibility can be very technical in its implementation, this is the big picture of what it supports and enables: a positive company culture in tune with the needs of its customers and potential customers as people.

How To Get a WordPress ADA-Compliant Website

Now you have a general understanding of what the Americans with Disabilities Act is and why it’s so important. Next, we’ll look at how you can make your WordPress site compliant.

Here are the four things you need to do to get there.

1. Learn What An ADA-Compliant WordPress Site Looks Like

The United States Department of Justice hasn’t yet released or published any official compliance guidelines for the ADA. However, it does give some solid recommendations.

Get Familiar With WCAG

In particular, the ADA highly encourages every organization to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), 2.0 level AA.

These guidelines explicitly state that all site visitors must be able to perceive every piece of information that appears on your WordPress site. To do this, site owners need to provide alternatives to the media riding on their sites.

Video Subtitles

Look at YouTube as an example. Since ADA compliance became required, they automatically provide subtitles for all video and audio content hosted and played back on the platform.

Accessible Forms

For example, you could consider using suggested input prompts to help clarify the information that site users need to enter into your contact forms.

Beyond that, if a user puts wrong information into a form, try to provide simple recommendations for things they can do to fix these input errors.

Doing this is a lot more helpful (and accessible) than displaying only a generic error message with user input that isn’t valid.

Support Screen Readers and Keyboard Navigation

You probably already have some site visitors that are interacting with your site using screen readers. For people doing this, descriptive alt text is extremely helpful for them to understand the images displayed on your WordPress site.

Individuals with manual or visual dexterity issues often find it much easier to interact with websites by using navigational controls like a keypad or keyboard. For users doing this, you’ll want to have a consistent and clear structure of site navigation.

You could also provide visual indications of elements that are currently in focus. These elements will be activated the next time your site visitor performs an action, such as pressing the ‘Return’ key on their keyboard.

2. Do an ADA Compliance Review To See Where You Currently Stand

Accessibility isn’t a simple topic. In fact, it’s a huge topic that involves many different design ad interface elements used to create a WordPress site that’s more user-friendly. If a website owner overlooks only one accessibility-related factor, it can easily prevent a site user (and potential customer) from having a positive experience on their site.

Website Accessibility Evaluation (WAVE)

A good place to start assessing your site’s user experience (UX) quality in light of accessibility standards is a suite of tools called Website Accessibility Evaluation (WAVE). WAVE will scan your WordPress site and list all the potential problems with accessibility. This is an incredibly valuable tool to use that helps identify the huge range of issues that could impact site usability.

When viewing this list from WAVE, you’ll be able to click on accompanying icons to get more information about each accessibility error that has been detected. The tool will even suggest resources for you that will provide even more insight into each issue with usability.

Unfortunately, WAVE is a limited tool that can only scan a single webpage at a time. To accelerate the process of scanning your entire WordPress site, it’s a good idea to install WAVE for Firefox or WAVE for Chrome extensions (depending on the browser you prefer).

The extensions will allow you to run WAVE on every webpage you are currently viewing.

3. Always Follow WordPress ADA-Compliant Best Practices When Creating Accessible Sites

After you’ve tested the accessibility of your site and compiled the results, it’s time to address each individual issue that you’ve identified.

It’s imperative that you take full stock of your site’s content. Consider if you’re able to provide alternative media outputs for what you’ve already published.

Transcription Services

If you’re not able to have your content transcribed by a professional, there are some software tools that will auto-generate the captions for you.

Unfortunately, some of them are a bit sloppy and inaccurate at times. But if using transcribing software tools is your only option, it’s better than not providing any transcribing of your content.

You’ll also want to provide written text alternatives to your WordPress site’s visuals. This incredibly useful practice greatly benefits all users experiencing your website through accessibility tools such as screen readers.

ALT Text and Images

In WordPress, it’s simple to add descriptive alt text to your images and visuals right in the Media Library.

In addition, many WordPress site owners seeking ADA compliance have found that it’s best to avoid including text within your website images. Large amounts of text in images will make it more difficult to describe your graphics to the visually impaired using only your alt text.

Instead, consider whether you could build a similar effect using code. As an example, you could add the info you’re attempting to convey as plain text. Then use CSS to style it.

Contrast Ratios

To fully support site visitors that are impaired visually, it’s a good idea to maintain a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for all text. You’ll also want to make all text resizable up to 200%.

The challenge you’ll have is providing this kind of flexibility without affecting the functionality of your site. This will likely require that you do a lot of usability testing before making your changes live.

If you want to learn more about accessibility issues that impact your site, running all of your site content through the WAVE tool is important. Then, take time to read all of the resources that WAVE suggests.

The guidelines set by the WCAG are widely accepted as the industry standard when it comes to accessibility. But it’s a good idea to also look at the accessibility checklist from WebAIM. This tool aims to condense WCAG 2.1 official specifications.

4. Install Plugins That Improve WordPress ADA Compliance

Many different plugins and tools in the WordPress repository promise to lead you toward WordPress ADA compliance. For example, you can quickly scan your entire website for issues with accessibility by using WP ADA Compliance Check Basic.

WP ADA Compliance Check Basic

This useful plugin suggests resources that give more info about each issue it detects, much like the WAVE tool. But with this, you’ll also get a direct link to the affected code. This is extremely useful when you need to resolve complex issues with accessibility.

Another tool to consider is the Accessibility Checker plugin. This plugin attempts to be the WordPress-specific version of WAVE while allowing you to scan your entire WordPress site from within the dashboard.

Equalize Digital Accessibility Checker

As a WordPress website owner, there are many different ways to make a site that’s more accessible. However, choosing the wrong theme to run your site on can override all of your efforts.

The WordPress.org theme repository is filled with themes that are designed by professionals. However, even the most experienced WordPress designers sometimes overlook important principles related to ADA compliance and accessibility.

WP Accessibility

To help resolve this issue, the WP Accessibility plugin will address issues that occur within WordPress themes. After you download and activate the plugin, you’ll want to navigate to Settings > WP Accessibility within the WordPress dashboard.

Once there, you’ll see various settings that are related to site accessibility that you can turn off and on. This will depend on how your theme is set up.

The settings will include adding an outline to the link :focus state for improved keyboard navigation and providing more information about image content using longdesc.

Don’t Use an Accessibility Overlay

It’s important to remember that there are no true plug-and-play solutions that will create a completely accessible, ADA-compliant website. Some plugins may claim to be plug-and-play, but it’s not possible. Compliance plugins are perfect for scanning sites for issues and making tweaks to improve the issues. But watch out for plugins that try to use an overlay approach. Also, watch out for plugins that claim they offer 100% WordPress ADA compliance just by downloading and activating the plugin.

These “accessibility overlays” should be avoided.

It’s Time To Create a WordPress Site That’s ADA-Compliant

Making your WordPress site accessible to everyone is obviously the right thing to do as a site owner. But, it will also protect you from potential legal ramifications.

And by making sure that your site is ADA-compliant, you’ll automatically grow your potential base of customers.

To recap the steps to take for creating a WordPress ADA-compliant site:

At that point, you’ll be well on your way to owning a WordPress ADA-compliant website that your users will love.

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Dan Knauss is StellarWP’s Technical Content Generalist. He’s been a writer, teacher, and freelancer working in open source since the late 1990s and with WordPress since 2004.

This content was originally published here.