3 April 2008

Web accessibility: the UK legal and policy context

What legal obligations do you have to make your websites accessible in the UK? The legal and policy context for web accessibility in the UK can be confusing, mainly because the legislation in the area has not been clear and there is a lack of explicit guidance.

Section III of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) came into force in October 1999 and states that service providers have a duty to make “reasonable adjustments” to their services in relation to people with disabilities. The most recent Code of Practice for this section of the act was published by the Disability Rights Commission (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) in 2006. This guide makes explicit references to accessible websites as being within the scope of this duty for people with “visual impairments” and “hearing disabilities”.

Although it may be safe to state that websites are within the scope of the DDA legislation, there has been some confusion as to what “reasonable adjustments” actually means in practice. This kind of ambiguity in UK law is often interpretted and settled by the courts, but no organisations have been prosecuted under the DDA for a failure to make their sites sufficiently accessible to date.

In the absence of any explicity guidelines, the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is accepted by the web development community as the gold standard for coding accessible sites. However, this guidance is based on three increasingly exacting levels of compliance. Which level constitutes “reasonable adjustments”?

It’s worth pointing out that the current version of the WAI guidelines date back from 1999. Technology has moved on a long way in the last eight years and it’s easy to dismiss some of the detail of the guidelines as anachronisms. The new version of the guidelines are now in the “candidate recommendation” stage (i.e. ready to test-drive), but this is some way off formal completion.

Given that we have an obligation, but no explicit legal guidance or precedent, what standards should we adpot? Government policy can help here.

The UK Government published a framework for local government in 2003 as a part of its Local e-government programme which stated that websites should meet the first level of the standards set by the WAI (level A). The framework also recommended that local authorities make this compliance a contractual condition with third-party suppliers of web content.

More recently, guidelines released by the Cabinet Office in May 2007 stated that the minimum level of accessibility for all Government websites is the second level of the WAI guidelines (level AA). The guidelines also stated that all Government websites should meet this level of conformance by December 2008.

The public sector is driving a move towards greater web accessibility and it is up to the private sector to follow this lead. An inaccessible site is unlikely to be prosecuted under UK law, but it does constitute a clear breach of legal obligation.

Filed under Web accessibility.