A List Apart


Web Accessibility and UK Law: Telling It Like It Is

There’s been widespread speculation about new legislation being introduced in the UK to ensure that websites are accessible to disabled users. In fact, many countries have already introduced some kind of law about this. (If you’re not UK-based, please see this excellent list of links to country-specific information at UI Access.)

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I’ll now debunk four myths about web accessibility and the law for those involved in the design and development of UK-based websites.

1. The Disability Discrimination Act doesn’t mention websites

Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act refers to the provision of goods, facilities and services, and yes, doesn’t mention websites — in fact, it doesn’t mention any specific services for that matter. However, the Code of Practice for the act explicitly mentions websites and can be downloaded in its entirety from the DRC (Disability Rights Commission) website.

The relevant quotes from this 175-page document are:

  • 2.2 (p7): “The Act makes it unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against a disabled person by refusing to provide any service which it provides to members of the public.”
  • 4.7 (p39): “From 1st October 1999 a service provider has to take reasonable steps to change a practice which makes it unreasonably difficult for disabled people to make use of its services.”
  • 2.13 - 2.17 (p11-13): “What services are affected by the Act? An airline company provides a flight reservation and booking service to the public on its website. This is a provision of a service and is subject to the act.”
  • 5.23 (p71): “For people with visual impairments, the range of auxiliary aids or services which it might be reasonable to provide to ensure that services are accessible might include … accessible websites.”
  • 5.26 (p68): “For people with hearing disabilities, the range of auxiliary aids or services which it might be reasonable to provide to ensure that services are accessible might include … accessible websites.”

2. My website needs to be accessible by October 2004

It’s widely thought that the new laws will be implemented in October of this year, when the final part of the Act comes into force. This final piece of legislation actually refers to service providers having to consider making permanent physical adjustments to their premises and is not related to the Internet in any way.

The law about accessible websites came into force on 1st October 1999 and the Code of Practice for this section of the Act was published on 27th May 2002. This means that the majority of websites are already in breach of the law.

3. I’ll be sued if my website isn’t accessible

Not so much a myth, actually. The RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) claims that they’ve considered taking up a number of legal cases against organizations with regard to their websites. When they have raised the issue of website accessibility, companies have typically made the necessary changes rather than face the prospect of legal action.

The DRC has launched a formal investigation into 1000 websites and expects to publish their findings some time this year. If your website’s on this list then you’ll have to start thinking about making it accessible to all web users in the very near future.

Most of us probably won’t be affected by this new law though. The only time it will affect you is if a disabled user can’t access your website and decides to complain about it — it’s up to you to decide whether you think this is likely or not.

4. I should follow the RNIB’s advice to be compliant

The RNIB have a large web accessibility resources area on their website, offering advice and tips. This isn’t a comprehensive resource, though, as it’s very much aimed at providing access to blind Internet users and largely excludes users facing other access problems.

If, or perhaps more appropriately when, a case makes it to court I should imagine that the much more extensive W3C accessibility guidelines will be used to assess a website’s accessibility and ultimately decide the outcome of the case.

Priority 1 guidelines (which must be satisfied according to the W3C) will almost definitely have to be adhered to. Priority 2 guidelines (which should be satisfied and are the EU recommended level of compliance), or some part of them, will probably need to be adhered to as well.

The courts will no doubt take guidance from the outcome of an Australian case in 2000, when a blind man successfully sued the Sydney Olympics organizing committee over their inaccessible website. The outcome of the case was influenced heavily by the W3C guidelines.

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