Disabled 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
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 the
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 tags.
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 as discrimination.
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
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
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
Put simply, a large company will struggle to justify any failure
to make its website accessible, while a small business or a charity
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
Charities including RNIB, AbilityNet and Shaw Trust offer testing
services to suit a range of budgets (as do many commercial firms).
that the results of such tests are likely to require changes to your
website - so budget for testing and also further development work.
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
of what standard the courts would reasonably expect businesses
to follow to ensure that their websites are accessible in
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
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
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.
a website may satisfy Priority 3 (Level AAA), otherwise some users
will find it somewhat difficult to access the website.
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
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, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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
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.
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
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
easier for customers and employees with disabilities to perform