With recent news that the US retailer Target has settled for $6 million in a lawsuit about the alleged inaccessibility of their website, we've decided to republish our accessibility overview for UK website owners.
- Website Accessibility
- Accessibility Guidelines
- Legal Requirements
- Benefits of Accessibility
- Levels of Compliance
While not currently forced to do so, website owners have had a legal obligation to consider accessibility since 1999. Providing an accessible website also offers a number of other key benefits, and all websites should aim to comply with the published guidelines for accessibility.
Put simply, an accessible website is one that anyone can access and use, regardless of disability or other needs. This includes visual, auditory, physical, cognitive disabilities, and could even apply to the visitor's technical requirements.
A common myth is that sites designed to be accessible are in some way inferior to those that aren't or that being accessible means compromising the look and feel of a site. This myth often arises from technical inexperience and an inability to understand accessibility, rather than any basis in fact.
The first guidelines for building accessible websites were published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 1999. These were named the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and made available by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). They are the de facto standard for producing accessible websites.
Among the first websites to be required to be accessible were those of the US (covered by the Section 508 guidelines) and UK governments (see the Web Handbook). The RNIB have provided online guidance on website accessibility for some time.
Website accessibility is covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Requirements for UK websites to be accessible came into force in 1999. There were previously exceptions to the law for small businesses, the police and fire services, but these were removed in 2004. There is a specific example in the "Code of Practice" related to websites:
What services are affected by the Act? An airline company provides a flight reservation and booking service to the public on its website. This is a provision of a service and is subject to the act."
(The Disability Discrimination Code of Practice:http://www.drc-gb.org/PDF/4008_223_DRC%20COP%20Rights%20of%20Access%20part1.pdf)
The Disability Discrimination Act is by its nature reasonably broad, but the general rule is that a site should not be "impossible or unreasonably difficult" for a disabled person to use, and that "reasonable adjustments" should be made to ensure access for all.
Neither 'reasonable' nor 'unreasonable' are specifically defined, and so they are clearly open to interpretation. There have not been any court cases brought in the UK against businesses for having inaccessible websites, and so there is unfortunately no guidance from prior legal judgments. Note that successful cases have been brought overseas (see http://www.tomw.net.au/2001/bat2001f.html, probably the most cited example).
Many site owners are now interested in the potential benefits of ensuring their websites are accessible. In one sense, the question itself is flawed, since an alternative would be to ask what benefit there is in excluding sections of a potential audience due to lack of consideration in the site-planning stage.
That said, many sites were not built with accessibility in mind and now wish to comply with relevant guidelines. There are a number of potential benefits for such sites:
- Legal compliance
- Increased visitors and visitor satisfaction
- Better efficiency
- Improved image
The legal requirement for website to consider accessibility has already been discussed, but is becoming more prominent.
By definition, improving accessibility means more visitors will be able to access your site. Furthermore, accessible websites tend to perform better on the major search engines since they are easier to interpret. Ensuring that everyone can access and use your site means that fewer visitors will have a poor experience of your site.
Sites built using standards-based, accessible techniques (e.g. using CSS for style and layout) are generally easier to maintain and more future-proof. Giving visitors a better experience of your site ensures that they are able to get the information they need without resorting to other methods such as telephone or email.
Unhappy visitors tend to shout louder than happy ones - ensuring your site is accessible means that more visitors have a positive experience of your site. In addition, your site may be seen to stand out from the majority of websites that are inaccessible, and display social responsibility.
How accessible should your website be? The simple answer is as accessible as possible; however in some cases (especially for existing websites that now seek to conform to accessibility guidelines) this may be onerous.
At the time of writing, few websites conform to accessibility guidelines, and no prior court judgements are available. Notwithstanding legal requirements, any measures taken to improve the accessibility of a website are likely to make a site amongst those that provide higher than average levels of accessibility.
The WCAG are split into three levels of priority, and at a minimum websites should aim to conform to the first level of priority. This is the minimum recommended by the RNIB and other disability bodies.
Note that version 2 of the WCAG is currently in draft form and is likely to be publicly released in the near future.
For advice or guidance on how to make your website more accessible, contact us online or call 01525 715520 today.
Chief Technical Officer