Websites have a legal duty to be accessible to disabled people. With new laws on accessibility likely and a strong commercial case for making websites accessible, businesses need to take this issue seriously.
It is ten years since the Disability Discrimination Act (“DDA”) became law. The legal duties imposed by the DDA come into force gradually. Most businesses that we have spoken to seem to think that the obligations only began applying to websites in 2004. In fact, websites have had a legal duty to be accessible to the disabled since 1999.
Incentives for businesses
The disabled are a large potential market for businesses. Statistics from the Office of National Statistics suggest that about 10 percent of people in the UK have some form of disability. The Employers Forum on Disability estimates that disabled people in the UK have a combined spending power of £40 - £50 billion. In addition to ethical reasons why websites should be accessible by all, businesses therefore have a strong commercial incentive.
Duty to make websites accessible
In essence, it shouldn’t be “unreasonably difficult” for disabled people to access your website. If your website falls in this category, you’re under a statutory duty to take reasonable steps to remove that difficulty.
How far does this duty go?
The DDA sets out 2 limitations on the accessibility duty. You are not required to take steps that would fundamentally alter the nature of your service or the nature of your business. The DDA also states that you are not required to take steps that would mean that you are spending more than a “prescribed maximum” amount. As at the time of writing, the UK government has still not specified what this “prescribed maximum” is, making this restriction effectively redundant for the time being.
The fact that you have to take “reasonable steps” also limits the duty. What is “reasonable” is not fixed and depends on:
- The services you are providing;
- The size of your business and your resources;
- What effect the disability has on the individual disabled person.
The DDA, not surprisingly, also states that it’s unlawful to discriminate against a disabled person, for example, by refusing to provide, or deliberately not providing, a particular service, for example via the internet.
Consequences of not complying with the DDA
- Bad publicity and damage to your reputation
For example, in 2005 an airline which encourages customers to book online was criticised by the Royal National Institute for the Blind for failing to offer the same prices to disabled persons, who are required by the airline to confirm their booking over the telephone.
- Being sued by someone affected by “discrimination”
Under the DDA, the affected person can issue legal proceedings and claim damages for injury to their feelings caused by the discrimination.
So far, there have been no court actions for website related disability discrimination in the UK. In Australia, a man brought an action against the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (“SOCOG”). The man was blind and uses a Braille display to browse websites. The man claimed that he could not access the SOCOG website to obtain up to date information about the Olympics. SOCOG was ruled to have discriminated against the man and was made to pay $20,000 damages. This illustrates how costly an inaccessible website could be and we certainly hope that the UK Olympics organisers will be learning from this!
How to make your website comply with the DDA
Our advice is to follow current best practice on website accessibility. Of course, this can be easier said than done because there are numerous competing accessibility standards. However, one prominent standard which is viewed as robust within the industry is the Website Accessibility Initiative (WAI) standard developed by W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium.
By complying with current industry best practice, you are maximising your chances of complying with the duties under the DDA because these standards try to go beyond the minimum statutory requirements.
Does my website have to be plain text to be DDA compliant?
One of our friends in the industry specialises in website accessibility. He says “any web designer worth their salt will have the skills to produce a website that conforms to the DDA guidelines while continuing to achieve a high level of design and conformance to any corporate design standards. There is no need for ‘text-only’ websites.”