Website accessibility law
It’s usually fairly early on in a discussion about website accessibility that I’m asked about the law. In general, people are aware that there is ‘some kind of law’ but they’re not sure if it’s already in place, if it applies to them and what the chances are of them being sued.
People are, sadly, often more concerned about the law than they are about its underlying principles: that people with disabilities should have equal access to those things which able people take for granted. Once most people realise that there are no ‘accessibility police’ and that the Web is such a vast place that the chances of getting sued are remote, then their interest in website accessibility diminishes considerably.
It’s a shame that we need legislation to ensure that people with disabilities are fairly catered for – but we do. It took legislation to ensure that ramps and lifts were fitted to public-access buildings. Looking back, most people now see this as reasonable. Hopefully, in a decade’s time, people will look back on website accessibility in the same way.
In the meantime, as a website owner, it is useful to review the UK law which covers website accessibility, to fully understand your legal position.
Which UK law covers website accessibility?
It’s called the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). Contrary to many people’s beliefs (that this act is either recent or yet to come into force), the act was passed in 1995. However, different parts of it have been brought into force over time. For businesses and organisations which provide a service, the key points are:
- From December 1996: it was unlawful to treat disabled people less favourably than other people, for a reason related to their disability.
- From October 1999: organisations must have made reasonable adjustments for disabled people, such as providing extra help or making changes to the way in which they provide their services.
- From October 2004: organisations must have made reasonable adjustments to the physical features of their premises to overcome physical barriers to access.
Your title here…So the DDA doesn’t just cover websites?
No – it’s a wide-ranging piece of legislation, designed to protect disabled people in employment, in their access to goods, facilities and services, in the management, buying or renting of land or property, and in education.
Is it true that the DDA doesn’t even mention websites?
No. This is a misinterpretation. While the DDA itself only doesn’t specifically mention websites, this is because the act applies to every service provided. However, accessible websites are specifically mentioned by name, in examples given of ‘services’ which should be accessible. Here are the key elements of the DDA, from a website accessibility perspective:
- “The Act makes it unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against a disabled person: by refusing to provide (or deliberately not providing) any service which it provides (or is prepared to provide) to members of the public.”
- “From 1 October 1999, a service provider has had to take reasonable steps to: change a practice, policy or procedure which makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people to make use of its services.”
- “Among the services which are covered are those provided to the public by local councils, government departments and agencies, the emergency services, charities, voluntary organisations, hotels, restaurants, pubs, post offices, banks, building societies, solicitors, accountants, telecommunications and broadcasting organisations, public utilities (such as gas, electricity and water suppliers), national parks, sports stadia, leisure centres, advice agencies, theatres, cinemas, hairdressers, shops, market stalls, petrol stations, telesales businesses, places of worship, courts, hospitals and clinics. This list is for illustration only and does not cover all the services falling under the Act.” One of the examples given for guidance of non-compliance is that of where: “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.”
- “The Act affects everyone concerned with the provision in the United Kingdom of services to the public, or to a section of the public, whether in the private, public or voluntary sectors. It does not matter if services are provided free (such as access to a public park) or in return for payment (for example, a meal in a restaurant).”
- “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.”
- “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.”
What action can be taken against me if my website isn’t accessible?
You can be sued by those disabled people who feel disadvantaged, by your website, on the basis of their disabilities. It’s early days for accessibility law and not many legal actions have been taken, but that doesn’t increase the possibility of ‘getting away with it’ should someone decide to sue. So far, the disabled community has chosen the (sensible) route of approaching those organisations which have inaccessible websites and discussing the issue logically. After all, the required outcome is to make the website accessible, not draw blood, so if an organisation responds reasonably, this is a good approach which avoids time-consulting and costly legal battles. If your website isn’t properly accessible, and you’re taken to court, make no mistake – it’s highly unlikely that you’ll win. Compliance with accessibility guidelines will be enforced and also it’s likely that you’ll have to pick up the bill for the legal action.
Please note that this article is written to reflect UK law and is therefore intended for UK-based organisations. Please note that laws regarding website accessibility may vary in your own country.