access to websites under UK law
This guide is based on UK law. It was last updated in October 2011.
If your business has a website, it should be accessible to disabled
users. There are ethical and commercial justifications for this,
but there is also a legal reason: if your website does not meet
certain design standards, then you could be sued for discrimination.
To date, few companies have faced such legal action. In two cases,
actions were initiated by the Royal National Institute for the
Blind (RNIB), and both settled without being heard by a court.
The RNIB decided against naming the two companies. It has long
been anticipated that a higher-profile test case will be launched
against a non-compliant website. Clearly, this is a battle which
any business will want to avoid.
There has been one case on the accessibility of electronic services
that resulted in an employment tribunal finding of discrimination.
That case, decided in October 2006, involved the accessibility of a
What is accessibility?
The accessibility of websites covers much more than just disabled access.
It's about giving people unhindered access to a website from various
devices, such as web-enabled televisions and mobile phones. It's also
about giving access to users who have different screen sizes, browser
types and settings, or those who do not have plug-ins such as Flash.
This article is not about accessibility generally; instead, it concentrates
on one aspect, namely the legal obligation to provide access to
What is disabled access?
For those with disabilities such as sensory or mobility problems, the
internet can be a mixed blessing. Home shopping, for example, can be
invaluable to those for whom busy streets present a difficult challenge.
However, in much the same way as a building may be problematic to physically
disabled people, a website may also present barriers to access.
For example, a visually-impaired internet user can use a screen reader
to translate the contents of web pages using speech synthesisers
or Braille displays. The user will struggle to understand web pages
if, for example, images are displayed on the page without a text
alternative. In HTML, alt attributes should be added to all image
The example of adding alt attributes in HTML is commonly cited when
discussing disabled access. Bear in mind that visual impairment
describes a wide range of problems including those who are registered
blind, those who are colour blind or those who suffer from tunnel
vision or cataracts. There are also those with motor disabilities,
cognitive disabilities and other impairments. Barriers to access
by individuals suffering any such disabilities can be interpreted
What does the law say?
The Equality Act 2010 (EQA) which came into force in October 2010,
replacing the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) in England,
Scotland and Wales, was introduced with the intention of dealing with
the issue of disability discrimination.
The EQA was intended to bring further clarity to the previous discrimination
legislation contained in the DDA, which was passed when the internet
was still young and nobody knew the exponential speed at which
it would grow. While the DDA did not mention the internet specifically,
it did include "access to and use of information services" amongst
the examples of services which had to be accessible to people with
The intention of the EQA is to harmonise discrimination law, both amalgamating
and reiterating existing discrimination legislation. The EQA (at Section
21(1)) includes the adoption of a single concept of the "provision
of a service", which covers goods, services and facilities. Among
other things, the EQA prohibits discrimination by providers of services,
goods and facilities.
While the EQA does not expressly refer to websites, the consensus has
been that the reference to the "provision of a service" applies
to commercial web services as much as to traditional services.
While the intention of the EQA is to be as clear as possible, to ensure
that there is no ambiguity in interpretation, the Equality and Human
Rights Commission has published a Statutory Code of Practice for "Services,
public functions and associations" under the EQA (the Code).
The Code, which came into force on 6 April 2011, provides authoritative
advice on those provisions of the EQA relevant to service providers.
The Code explicitly states that websites are included under the
ambit of the EQA for the provision of services:
" Websites provide access to services and goods, and may in themselves constitute
a service, for example, where they are delivering information or entertainment
to the public."
The EQA imposes a duty on service providers to make “reasonable
adjustments” to enable disabled persons to access their services.
With regard to services relating to the provision of information, Section
20(6) EQA says:
" the steps which it is reasonable for [an information service provider]
to have to take include steps for ensuring that in the circumstances concerned
the information is provided in an accessible format."
The Code notes that the "the duty to make reasonable adjustments
requires service providers to take positive steps to ensure that disabled
people can access services. This goes beyond simply avoiding discrimination.
It requires service providers to anticipate the needs of potential
disabled customers for reasonable adjustments."
Furthermore, the Code gives a practical example of the implications of
failing to make reasonable adjustments:
" A provider of legal services establishes a website to enable the public
to access its services more easily. However, the website has all of its text
embedded within graphics. Although it did not intend to discriminate indirectly
against those with a visual impairment, this practice by the provider places
those with a visual impairment at a particular disadvantage because they cannot
change the font size or apply text-to-speech recognition software. They therefore
cannot access the website. As well as giving rise to an obligation to make a
reasonable adjustment to their website, their practice will be indirect disability
discrimination unless they can justify it."
Therefore, the duty on an organisation with a website that is not accessible
to the disabled is to take "reasonable" steps to make
that website accessible. In considering what constitutes a reasonable
adjustment, the Code suggests that factors which might be taken
into account include: the service provider’s financial and
other resources; the amount of resources already spent on making
adjustments; and the extent of any disruption which taking the
steps would cause the service provider.
Put simply, a large company will struggle to justify any failure to
make its website accessible, while a small business or a charity may
have a better defence, if it can show that it cannot afford, or does
not have the resources necessary for the development work.
What standard is required?
The best way to satisfy the legal requirement is to have your website
tested by disabled users. This should ideally be done through allowing
your website to be tested by a group of users with different disabilities,
such as motor and cognitive disabilities, blindness and other forms
of visual impairment. Evidence of successful tests by disabled users
could be invaluable in the event of any legal challenge over your website's
Charities including RNIB, AbilityNet and Shaw Trust offer testing services
to suit a range of budgets (as do many commercial firms). Remember
that the results of such tests are likely to require changes to
your website - so budget for testing and also further development
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international organisation
concerned with providing standards for the web, publishes the Web
Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) which are a good
indicator of what standard the courts would reasonably expect businesses
to follow to ensure that their websites are accessible in accordance
with the EQA.
WCAG 2.0 covers an extensive range of recommendations aimed at making
websites more accessible to both users with disabilities as well
as users in general. WCAG 2.0 is the successor to the Web Content
Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG 1.0) and was published as a
W3C recommendation in December 2008.
While it is at your discretion whether you choose to conform to WCAG
1.0, WCAG 2.0, or to both; it is the W3C's recommendation that any
new and updated content on websites comply with WCAG 2.0.
While conformance to WCAG should not be your primary goal and it certainly
should not be your only goal - it is likely to be the first thing you
WCAG provides three 'conformance levels'. These are known as Levels
A, AA and AAA. Each level has a series of checkpoints for accessibility
- known as Priority 1, 2 and 3 checkpoints.
According to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), a website must
satisfy Priority 1 (Level A), otherwise some users will find it
impossible to access the website. If a website cannot satisfy the
Priority 2 (Level AA) some users will find it difficult to access
the website. Finally, a website may satisfy Priority 3 (Level AAA),
otherwise some users will find it somewhat difficult to access
If your website falls below Level A it is almost certain that disabled
users will struggle to use the website. Different pages are likely
to exhibit different levels of accessibility but all main pages
(e.g. homepage, website registration page, shopping pages and 'standard'
content pages) should, as a minimum, conform to Level A. Always
remember, though, that it is more important from a legal perspective
that disabled users can access and use the website - which is why
user testing is so important.
Guidance on commissioning an accessible website is available in a document
known as BS 8878:2010, a publication of BSI. BS 8878:2010 outlines
the basic structure for website accessibility when designing or
commissioning web-based products. Moreover, BS 8878:2010 provides
guidance on meeting the requirements under the EQA.
Although there is no case law in the UK related to this matter, the
W3C guidelines have been adopted as the benchmark test in Australia,
following the case of Maguire v SOCOG (2000). The case was brought
by Bruce Maguire, who is blind, against the Sydney Organising Committee
for the Olympic Games, known as SOCOG. Maguire argued that the
SOCOG website breached Australia's Disability Discrimination Act
because it was inaccessible to him when using a refreshable Braille
display and web browser. In ruling against SOCOG, the Commission
of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission supported
the W3C guidelines and, during the hearing, reference was made
to the ease with which the SOCOG website could be brought up to
Level A compliance.
As mentioned previously, the RNIB has previously taken action over
non-compliant websites without naming the companies. And it is believed
that we will eventually see a similar case against a named company.
Accordingly, you should make sure your website complies at least with
Level A of the WCAG guidelines though Level AA is a better minimum
target. User testing is also highly recommended.
We believe OUT-LAW.COM conforms to Level AA of WCAG Guidelines 2.0;
but if you discover otherwise, please email our editor, email@example.com.
Commercially, many organisations offer website accessibility audits,
which can assess the accessibility of a website and give detailed
feedback on what changes could be incorporated to achieve greater
accessibility. For example, a quick and basic check of your own
website can be made by entering your website's internet address
in the search box of the TAW accessibility tool. Use this or any
other automated testing service with caution: these tools can identify
obvious errors in your website's accessibility, which is useful
to indicate the need for accessibility improvements. But do not
interpret a clean bill of health from any automated test as meaning
that your website is therefore 'EQA compliant'. Beware any vendor
that suggests otherwise. There are problems with automated accessibility
testing tools and some results have been found to be unreliable.
Accessibility should be addressed at the website design stage as many
fundamental design decisions have an impact on accessibility. If you
are a web developer, accessibility is something you should discuss
with your clients, who may want designs which would fail to meet the
minimum W3C standard. If clients insist on such designs, you should
address this in the development contract. Seek an indemnity to protect
you in the event of litigation over the website's failure to comply
with the accessibility legislation.
Although it is had not formed the grounds for judicial action, website
accessibility is an important issue, this is not only in the context
of legal compliance, but also because an easily accessible website
will ultimately lead to a larger and more diverse user-base.
Finally, as mentioned at the start of this article, it should not be
forgotten that there are good reasons for increasing accessibility
beyond the legal minimum. Jakob Nielsen, based in the US, is widely
regarded as the guru of website usability. He writes:
" As long as companies and government agencies view accessibility
as solely a matter of complying with regulations and technical specifications,
rather than a way to support the work practices and customer needs
of people with disabilities, equal opportunity will remain a travesty.
Websites and intranets must follow usability principles and make
it easier for customers and employees with disabilities to perform