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Corporate Websites legal briefs

Web Accessibility: a legal brief by OUT-LAW.COM, part of Pinsent Masons

If your organisation has a website, UK law requires it to be accessible to disabled users.

Date Milestone
April 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) passed in the UK.
May 1999 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), setting best-practice guidelines for building accessible websites. The Guidelines comprise 65 checkpoints, and accessible sites are graded Level A (Single-A), Level AA (Double-A) or Level AAA (Triple-A) according to the checkpoints they meet.
Oct 1999 Relevant part of the DDA comes into force (see below).
Feb 2002 Disability Rights Commission (DRC) publishes Code of Practice making clear its view that the DDA applies to websites.
Apr 2004 DRC publishes report showing that, based on tests of 1,000 UK-based sites, 81% failed to reach Level A on automated testing.
Apr 2006 Publicly Available Specification (PAS 78) published by the British Standards Institution (BSI).

The DDA states: "It is unlawful for a provider of services to discriminate against a disabled person [ ... ] in 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". It includes "access to and use of information services" among its examples of services to which the rules apply. Consequently, both accessibility and usability are legal requirements.

The DDA continues: "Where a provider of services has a practice, policy or procedure which makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled persons to make use of a service which he provides, or is prepared to provide, to other members of the public, it is his duty to take such steps as it is reasonable, in all the circumstances of the case, for him to have to take in order to change that practice, policy or procedure so that it no longer has that effect."

This means that new websites should be developed to be accessible and usable for disabled users; and reasonable adjustments should be made to existing sites to ensure that they are accessible and usable for disabled users. In determining what adjustments are reasonable, the cost is likely to be taken into account by a court.

The Act makes no reference to WCAG guidelines; so conforming to Level A or Level AA does not guarantee that a site is compliant with the Act. Instead, conformance to the guidelines is a helpful indication that a site is accessible – and the higher the Level of conformance, the better. A site should also be usable to comply with the Act, a criterion that is best tested by disabled users themselves.

Useful guidance on commissioning a site is found in PAS 78 (a PAS is less formal than a British Standard, but it can become one over time). PAS 78 refers to the WCAG guidelines (it does not mandate a particular level, although it hints at Level AA as best practice) and encourages testing by disabled users.

Note that the Act can apply to more than just websites. For example, intranets should be accessible to staff with disabilities.

Information content on websites often includes documents in PDF format. However, many disabled users cannot access PDF. So wherever possible, a PDF document should be offered in addition to, rather than instead of, an accessible HTML version of the document. This is true even if the PDF has been prepared with accessibility in mind.

The risks of non-compliance include a disabled person suing for injury to feelings. Case law suggests that such an award might be modest – perhaps as little as 1,000; but the surrounding publicity could be damaging, and the first court finding that a website discriminates will receive considerable press attention. Additionally, a court is likely to order that an organisation stop discriminating – i.e. the organisation will in effect have to make its online services accessible.

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