Website Accessibility: Is Your Website Legal

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was introduced in 1995.  Since then, it has become the duty of anyone providing a public service to ensure that the do not '......discriminate against a disabled person by refusing to provide any service which it provides to members of the public'.

Unfortunatley, not many web site owners realise that their web site is also a service.  The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) have been instrumental in the pressure for this law to apply to all internet sites.

Many companies have made sufficient changes to their premises so that individuals with disabilities can use their facilities. However, many of these companies have failed to make necessary changes to their web sites, even though there are 8.6 million registered disabled people in the UK.

If you add these users to the two million with various sight problems, and the 12 million over 60's, this gives us a total of 48% of the UK population that could be facing problems with your website's accessibility.

We can't ignore such a high number!


Why is it important?
Web accessibility is all about making sure that your website reaches the largest possible audience.  It is after all the reason you are online!  There are other benefits to accessability, but your target audience must be the core reason.

If you simply don't care, then take note... The UK law has the power to prosecute owners of websites that are inaccessible. The DRC published a code of practice in 2002 relating to the DDA.  This document clearly references the need for accessible websites.

For example:-

  • 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.'


What happens if our website doesn't comply?
Any disabled person can rightfully make a claim against you if your website makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult to access the information or services.  If you haven't made any reasonable changes, or can justify why the changes aren't made, then you will be liable under the Act.  You will have to pay compensation, and a court may order you to make changes to your website.

In 2000, a case was brought against the Sydney Olympics Committe in Australia, by a blind man who successfully sued the organisation for their failure to provide an accessible website.


Making Your Website Accessible
For your website to be accessible, it has to function for anyone using it, regardless of their technology.  This clearly doesn't just mean anyone that is disabled - it means everyone that visits your web site.

There is no magic fix here - creating an accessible web site requires very strict coding standards, full knowledge of the W3C Accessibility guidelines, and first hand experience in building accessible web sites.


Benefits of Accessible Web Sites
Apart from the legal aspect of the DDA, an accessible website has other benefits to your business:

  1. Future-Proofing - a website coded to accessibility guidelines will function correctly in all internet technology, both now and in the future. This will save you re-developing your site every couple of years each time some new technology appears (e.g. PDAs, web TV etc)
  2. Better Search Engine Rankings - the more accessible your web site is for your visitors, the more accessible it will be for search engines. Accessible web sites contain more search engine readable content as they rely less heavily on images and Flash animation to get their message over. 
  3. Faster Page Loading Times - Accessible web sites use less code; have fewer images and generally less ‘bloat’, so your site loads faster for all visitors. A happy visitor soon becomes a happy customer. 
  4. Enhanced Public Image - advertising the fact that you have considered all aspects of accessibility will serve you well in all aspects of public relations.


When Does The Law Come Into Force?
It is widely believed that the laws were implemented in October 2004, which was when the final part of the Act came into force.  Hoever, this part of the act refers to service providers having to make permanent physical changes to their premesis, and isn't 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.


Can You Be Sued?
Most likely.  The RNIB have considered taking up a number of legal cases against organisations regarding their web sites.  However, when the RNIB approaches the companies, they make the changes necessary rather than facing legal action.

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


How Can You Comply?
It is believed that if (or most likely - when) a case is taken to court, that the W3C accessibility guidelines will be used to assess a websites accessibility. The W3C is the Internet governing body and its web accessibility guidelines can be found on its website.

To complicate matters, the W3C has three levels of compliance.
Priority 1 guidelines, (which must be satisfied according to the W3C) will almost certainly have to be adhered to. Priority 2 guidelines (which should be satisfied), or some part of, will probably also need to be adhered to too.

An accessible website is not a luxury - it is a vital core feature of any business web site.