UK: Accessibility on the World Wide Web

Last Updated: 2 November 2004
Article by Katie Landeryou

Originally published 20th October 2004

Businesses are under a legal obligation to make their websites accessible to disabled users. Despite this, many disabled people continue to encounter difficulties accessing websites, and are unable to make full use of the Internet. This article sets out the current position under English law with regard to web accessibility, and what steps can be taken to ensure that your website complies.

What is an Accessible Website?

An accessible website is one with web pages that are accessible to all who use the site. Visual impairments, hearing and motor problems can all cause a person difficulties when using the Internet. Some problems can be overcome via the use of assistive technologies. For instance, a visually impaired person may use a text-based browser, such as Lynx, and a screen reader to ‘speak’ the text that appears on the screen or a Braille display. Someone who suffers from motor problems may be able to use a keyboard or special input device to navigate his way around the screen without having to use a mouse. Unless the underlying code of the website is compatible with the assistive technology used though such technology may not be able to function correctly rendering the web pages inaccessible.

The use of icons on a website can also impact its accessibility. Requiring the use of a mouse to "point and click" at an icon will clearly be inaccessible to someone who cannot use a mouse unless an alternative, such as using the keyboard commands is provided. A website that does not contain a description in text format of graphics featured will be similarly inaccessible.

The Legal Position in the UK

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 ("DDA") makes it unlawful for a provider of services to discriminate against a disabled person by deliberately not providing to the disabled person any service that he provides to members of the public.

Section 21(1) of the DDA, implemented on 1 October 1999, places a duty on those providing goods, facilities and services to the public to take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled people can access the services. Goods, facilities and services are given a broad definition, and the DDA provides examples of those to which section 21 will apply. These include:

  • Access to and use of means of communication;
  • Access to and use of information services; and
  • Facilities for entertainment and recreation

Initially, there was some ambiguity as to whether or not the DDA applied to websites because the Act itself does not refer to them specifically. This ambiguity was removed following the issue of a code of practice under the DDA in February 2002. Although the Code neither imposes legal obligations, nor is an authoritative statement of law, it can be referred to in legal proceedings under the DDA, and cites "accessible websites" as an example of a service that a business should make accessible.

Whilst the DDA does not specify what "reasonable step" might be, the Code states that it will depend on a number of factors, which might include:

  • The financial resources of the service provider;
  • The practicability of taking steps;
  • The cost of making adjustments;
  • The extent of the service provider’s resources; and
  • The amount already spent on making adjustments

This suggests that a website owner with substantial resources may have to make more adjustments (at greater cost) than a website owner with fewer resources, and so may be at greater risk of having an action brought against them by a disabled person for a failure to take such steps. If an action were brought, damages could include compensation for the claimant’s injured feelings, regardless of the amount of compensation under other heads of loss.

There is no decided case law in the UK concerning the application of the DDA to websites, despite the fact that reports in mid-2003 suggested that a number of individuals were about to take such action with the backing of the RNIB. This absence of case law was noted in an April 2004 report of the Disability Rights Commission, being the Commission’s first formal study into the accessibility of websites to the disabled. (Incidentally the report was critical of the continued difficulties encountered by the visually impaired in obtaining access to the internet.) In Australia, the case of Maguire ‑v- The Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games found that the Committee had been in breach of the Australian Disability Discrimination Act 1992, by failing to provide a website which was inaccessible to the visually impaired.

Practicable Steps

Several websites provide information on web accessibility and advice on how to improve accessibility. Arguably, the most comprehensive advice is that provided by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a body concerned with the development of standards in good design on the World Wide Web. Part of W3C, the Web Accessibility Initiative has published Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), dealing with how to make web content accessible to people with disabilities, accompanied by checkpoints explaining how the guidelines apply in a typical content scenario. Each checkpoint has a priority level based on its impact on accessibility. If the minimum standard of Priority 1 is not met then, according to WCAG some groups of disabled persons will not be able to access the information. Priority 2 and 3 ratings are given to higher-level checkpoints that either remove obstacles to access or potentially improve access to web pages.

The WCAG has been reviewed by W3C members and endorsed as a W3C Recommendation. Although the WCAG does not have any legal effect in the UK, a minimum standard of web accessibility might be interpreted to mean compliance with all Priority 1 checkpoints of the WCAG. Those wishing to comply should consult the guidelines in full but, in outline, to comply to meet the minimum Priority 1 standard, a website owner should:

  1. Provide content that, when presented to the user, conveys essentially the same function or purpose as auditory or visual content. For example, where images are used a text equivalent describing the appearance of the visual content should be included in the HTML code.
  2. Ensure that text and graphics are understandable when viewed without colour
  3. Use HTML mark-up that facilitates pronunciation or interpretation of abbreviated or foreign text and clearly identify changes in the natural language of a document’s text and text equivalents such as captions.
  4. Ensure that tables have the necessary HTML mark-up to be transformed by accessible browsers and other user agents.
  5. Ensure that pages are accessible even when newer technologies are not supported or are turned off.
  6. Ensure that moving, blinking, scrolling, or auto-updating objects or pages may be paused or stopped.
  7. Use features that enable activation of page elements via a variety of input devices.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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