ADA Compliance Tips for Web Developers

After working on projects involving ADA / WCAG compliance I can assure you, the internet sucks for people who are visually impaired.

Unless you are on a government website (required by law to be compliant) or a website that is specifically designed for visually impaired users, odds are it is difficult if not impossible to navigate with a screen reader or other aid.

I’m not an expert in ADA / WCAG compliance. I’m a software developer who sometimes works on the front end. My first suggestion is to go read the actual specs a few times. They are pretty easy to grok in an afternoon: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Overview

Here are my observations and tips about making a website ADA / WCAG compliant from a software development perspective:


  1. History of web standards for accessibility and current situation
  2. Run a scanning tool
  3. Make sure the site can be navigated using the keyboard
  4. How to enable keyboard navigation in your local browser
  5. Do not disable outlines!
  6. Code your HTML with WCAG in mind using ARIA and linting
  7. Stop taking good vision for granted

History of web standards for accessibility and current situation:

There are a number of laws and standards impacting web accessibility (partial list below):

Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act of 1990 – “prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public”. Websites and some apps can also be considered “public places” but the exact definition has turned into a highly debated legal term.

ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) – makes changes to the definition of the term “disability,” clarifying and broadening that definition

Section 508 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act – requires government websites (and IT programs) to be accessible to people with disabilities. Includes public schools, federally funded non-profits, and federal websites.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) – a set of guidelines focusing on websites and HTML. There are three tiers of compliance (A, AA, and AAA). The standard has a version history, 1.0 (1998), 2.0 (2008) and 2.1 (2018). As a developer WCAG will make the most sense to you!

Recently there has been a flood of lawsuits in this area, claims of frivolous lawsuits, and bills in congress to limit said lawsuits.

Business wise, the fear of being sued into the ground is driving executives to invest in ADA / WCAG compliance.

Legal motivation aside, from a software development perspective I think making sites accessible is the right thing to do.


Run a scanning tool:

There are countless scanning tools out there that look for common problems like color contrast issues, missing alt tags, empty headings etc. Some are free, some are paid, and some are so expensive they make you contact their sales team to get a quote.

Getting the scanning tools to pass should be pretty easy for any web developer. The fixes are usually about an hour per line item (alt tags, title tags, labels, etc). However, some code bases may be setup to resist even these simple fixes.

Here are some of the testing tools I found useful, no affiliate links here.

Accessibility Insights – a Chrome extension that runs on the current page. This tool looks at what is currently on the screen. If you have elements that appear at different responsive breakpoint widths, you’ll need to test at each of them. It struggles with popovers, dialogs. It annoyingly opens a new Chrome window after each run.

Arc Toolkit – Art Toolkit is a Chrome extension that runs on the current page inside the dev tools area.

WAVE Web Accessibility – A web based tool that visually shows you where the problems are on your page. The UI for showing what the problems are takes a little getting used to. The nice thing is you can browse around the site inside their wrapped window and check other pages without having to paste in the URL.

Power Mapper A web based scanning tool that catches a lot of ADA issues the chrome extensions above do not catch. It is nice in that it also checks a wide spectrum of problems including broken links, usability issues, privacy issues, etc. Not free, but has a free trial, with cloud and desktop versions.

Accessible Colors – Useful for fixing color contrast issues. The tools above flag color contrast issues, but they don’t tell you how to fix it. Accessible colors shows you the nearest compliant color pair with a visual preview and hex codes.

Countless other WCAG tools can be found at W3’s database of Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools.

A fun thing to try is to run the compliance scanner against major websites like Apple, Google, or even run the scanner against itself!


Make sure the site can be navigated with the keyboard:

Keyboard navigation is probably one of the most overlooked UI/UX features of modern websites. With the emphasis being on mobile, responsive design, and touch interfaces it is easy to forget about the clunky old keyboard. It is part of the WCAG 2.0 spec.


  • Ensure every button, field, and link is accessible by tab key.
  • When a field is focused it is should be obvious with a visual outline effect.
  • Make sure there are no tab sinks where the focus gets stuck trapping the user.
  • Include a ‘skip navigation’ button at the top of the page.

As a developer, you need to know the difference between:

  • tabindex=”0″ – allows a <div> or other page element to get the focus when tabbing through the page.
  • tabindex=”-1″ – allows a <div> or other page element to get the focus via script $('#thing').focus(), but it is not in the keyboard tab order. Useful for resetting the focus to a helpful spot without showing an outline on anything.
  • tabindex=”{1 or higher}” – sets an explicit tab order for fields, but generally a no-no. On my own blog I set tabindex=”1” on the hamburger menu since it needs to be focused first, but it gets injected at the bottom of the DOM.

For more:


How to enable keyboard navigation in your local browser:

Not all browsers have full keyboard navigation turned on by default.

Chrome 74 automatically allows you to tab between links, input fields and buttons. It defaults to a dotted outline.

Firefox 67 on Mac by default only lets you tab into inputs. To allow it to tab between links, you have to enable a special setting. See this Stack Overflow answer. Note the MacOS setting mentioned in the SO answer had no effect for me.

Safari requires you to turn on keyboard navigation under Preferences, Advanced, ‘Press Tab to highlight each item on a webpage’.


Do not disable outlines!

Online tutorials point out how to disable the annoying focus outline by doing:

*:focus { outline: none; }

This kind of ‘free advice’ fails to point out the implications, in that it makes your site impossible to navigate by keyboard, and thus not compliant with WCAG!


Code your HTML with WCAG in mind using ARIA and linting:

Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) attributes give hints to the browser and screen readers. They are fairly easy to add to divs, labels, inputs, etc.

For example, a custom radio button should have ARIA attributes like so:

<span role="radio" 
	aria-label="Option A"

ARIA resources:

With front end frameworks like Angular and React linting tools can be configured to require ARIA tags, labels, titles, etc. The A11Y project is a good resource to look into.

Open source projects for accessibility scanning during development:


Actually test to make sure the site is usable by people with disabilities:

WCAG has a long list of requirements. Some of the requirements are subjective. Just because your site passes a scanner and supports keyboard navigation doesn’t mean the job is done.

Making a site ADA / WCAG compliant adds several new dimensions to QA testing. Not only should you be testing cross platform + screen size, now you need to test cross platform + screen size + keyboard input + screen reader mode + zoom level.

A partial list of items to watch for:

  • Provide alt tags for all images.
  • Audio and video should have text captions.
  • Provide text alternatives for audio and video (sign language, text description, etc).
  • Do not force horizontal or vertical device layout.
  • Clearly label form fields.
  • Being able to turn off animations and sounds.
  • Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures.
  • Support alternative input devices and screen readers.
  • Allow the user to zoom the page without breaking anything.
  • Giving links a title if their inner html is something like an image or SVG.
  • Having a Sitemap page, or search functionality.
  • Ensure color contrast on all text, buttons, inputs, etc is 4 or higher between foreground and background.
  • Text spacing must be adequate.
  • Allow lots of time to complete tasks, and if user must re-authenticate it puts them back where they were.
  • Allow user to turn off interruptions, like those annoying ‘signup for my free crap’ popup dialogs.

I get the feeling that making a site fully compliant for everybody is a never ending project. It requires a team effort among designers, UX’ers and software developers.


Stop taking good vision for granted:

My 20/20 20/15 vision is something I take for granted. My grandmother (former Cobol programmer) is nearly blind due to macular degeneration. It follows that my vision will likely someday fail me as well. One thing I am looking forward to in my golden years is having lots of time to surf the internet. But if I’m partially blind it probably won’t be worth it. I usually have half a dozen tabs open. I would not be happy listening to a computer voice stutter its way through the source of some website reading all the links and titles as I feebly tab my way around… Maybe I’d have to switch to listening to podcasts, but I doubt I have the patience for that.

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