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Web Accessibility and the Law

By Lasa Information Systems Team

If your Web site is not accessible to disabled people you could be breaking the law - this article explains the main issues, and provides sources of help to enable you to make your site more inclusive.

It's fair to say that the Internet has made a difference to the lives of many people. For disabled people in particular, the Internet has the potential to make a very significant difference. For example people with mobility problems can access information, goods and services from their homes by visiting relevant Web sites; blind people can get independent access to up to date news and sports results available online by using special software to read out information on Web sites.

However, the potential of the Internet to enrich the lives of disabled people will only be reached if Web sites are designed with the needs of disabled people in mind. Inflexible text and colour schemes on Web sites, or reliance on newer technologies can make it difficult or impossible for users to adjust their view of a Web site to suit their needs.

Why you should be concerned about making your Web site accessible

Because you could be breaking the law…

… and you could potentially be sued!

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) makes it unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against a disabled person (more on this later).

The European Union (EU) is also drafting legislation that will obligate public and private organisations to deliver their online services in an accessible format. If passed, it is planned that these rules will be brought in by the end of 2003, along with enforcement procedures that will allow disabled people to take cases to court in any EU member state. More information on EU policy in this area can be found on the website of the European Disability Forum (EDF).

In August 2000, in Australia, Mr Bruce Maguire, who is blind, successfully made a complaint against the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games. Mr Maguire took action under the provisions of Australia's disability discrimination legislation, claiming that he was unlawfully discriminated against on several grounds, including that the Organising Committee had failed to provide a Web site that he could access. He was eventually awarded compensation of A$20,000. Although there has not yet been any similar action against website owners in the UK in relation to poor website design, the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) has considered action under the Disability Discrimination Act. So far when RNIB has raised website accessibility issues with the companies concerned, the companies have tended to alter their websites rather than face potentially costly legal action. This illustrates how easy it can be to make changes needed to make a website accessible.

The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) is an independent body with the aim of eliminating discrimination against disabled people and promoting equality of opportunity. The DRC has a number of functions, including helping disabled people secure their rights under the DDA. This includes enforcing the obligations that website owners have to make their sites accessible under the terms of the DDA. Although initially the Commission has no plans to sue the owners of inaccessible Web sites, it does not rule out taking such action in the future.

However compelling, the existence of anti discrimination legislation is not the only reason for making your site accessible.

It is good practice

An accessible Web site is one that can be visited by anybody. Designing sites with accessibility in mind benefits everyone - not only people with disabilities.

It makes good business sense

Disabled people may well be users or potential users of your services, or potential customers for products you make available on your site.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995

In the UK, under the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), any organisation that offers goods or services via their Web site is under a legal obligation to make their sites accessible. Section 19 of the DDA states that it is unlawful for a service provider discriminate against a disabled person by:

  • Refusing to provide, or deliberately not providing, to the disabled person, any service which he provides, or is prepared to provide to members of the public; or
  • Providing services of a lower standard or in a worse manner; or
  • Providing services on worse terms.

Since 1999, providers offering services to the public have been legally required to take such steps as are reasonable them to take, (considering all the circumstances of a case), to enable a disabled person to use the service. Many people are unaware that this obligation can apply Web sites in the same way as it applies to the quality of service provided in a physical environment such as a building. A disabled person can take legal action against a service provider that fails to comply with a duty to make these "reasonable adjustments", unless the service provider can show that such a failure is justified. In relation to Web sites, a provider may be required to:

  • Make changes to apractice( what the service provider does) policy (what the service provider intends to do) or procedure (how the service provider goes about its activities)which makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for a disabled person to use its service, and
  • Provide an auxiliary aid or service if it would enable (or make it easier for) disabled people to make use of the service provided by the service provider.

Accompanying the DDA is a code of practice (Access to Goods and Facilities and Premises) (Word doc). The code includes a list of factors that might be taken into account when considering what is reasonable. For example:

  • whether taking any particular steps would be effective in overcoming the difficulty that disabled people face in accessing the services in question;
  • the extent to which it is practicable for the service provider to take the steps;
  • the financial and other costs of making the adjustment;
  • the availability of financial or other assistance.

More information on the DDA and code of practice.

Web site design and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (Word Doc), an article written by Stephen Mason and Catherine Casserley Legal Officer, Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), with additional material provided by Julie Howell, Campaigns Officer (Accessible Internet) RNIB.  It provides a more detailed analysis of Web site design and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (see under "getting help" below).

Getting help

Organisations can get information and advice on their duties under the DDA via the Disability Rights Commission helpline. The Disability Rights Commission's website also has useful information to help site owners and developers make their sites more inclusive. For further information and resources on making your Web site accessible see the following:

You can get free basic advice on Web accessibility issues via the ICT Hub's help desk provided on 0800 652 4737.

For more on commissioning accessible websites see the ICT Hub Publication How To Commission and Design Accessible Websites (1.69 Mb PDF document. Requires Adobe Reader if you don't already have already have this, download it from Adobe).

Lasa's Information Systems Team, and other organisations including AbilityNet and RNIB also provide fee-based consultancy services on making your Web site accessible. Various tools are available to help you check your site for accessibility problems including the Cynthia Says accessibility test. You can check your pages online one at a time for free or buy software that allows you to check whole sites easily. 

Conclusion

It is important to make sure whoever is creating your website is aware of accessibility issues and knows how to avoid potential problems and/or fix them. With all the help and guidance available on making websites accessible, organisations will be hard pressed to claim that they are justified in neglecting to provide disabled visitors access to their sites. This will be particularly true for organisations getting their existing sites redeveloped, or those getting a new site built from scratch.


About the author

Lasa Information Systems Team
Lasa's Information Systems Team provides a range of services to third sector organisations including ICT Health Checks and consulting on the best application of technology in your organisation. Lasa IST maintains the knowledgebase. Follow us on Twitter @LasaICT

Glossary

Adobe Reader, Forum, Hub, ICT, Internet, PDF, Software, W3C, WAI, Web Site, Website

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Published: 25th June 2003 Reviewed: 5th April 2006

Copyright © 2003 Lasa Information Systems Team

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