Disabled access to websites

27 August 2004

Liz Brownsdon

The results of a recent investigation commissioned by the Disability Rights Commission[1] (“DRC”) claim that most UK websites are inaccessible to many disabled people and fail to satisfy even the most basic standards for accessibility recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium.

The Worldwide Web Consortium is an Internet industry co-operative which has put in place a set of voluntary Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (the “Guidelines”)[2] which explain how to make web content accessible to people with disabilities. However, this is not the only body which has looked at such issues and the investigation refers to other initiatives being carried out at a European level and in the US. It also refers to the obligations in Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 which require providers of goods, services and facilities to make reasonable adjustments to the way they provide their goods and services to make them accessible to disabled people. Insofar as a website in itself constitutes a service or is a primary medium for the delivery of a service, it is likely to be covered by this Act.

In line with its powers under the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999, the DRC launched a formal investigation into website accessibility in March 2003. The investigation was confined to publicly accessible sites to which Part 3 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 applies and was carried out by the City University in London. City University tested 1000 websites in five different sectors[3] for technical compliance with the Guidelines. 100 of these sites were then subjected to further in-depth analysis by disabled users and experts.

City University found that 81% of the websites failed to satisfy the most basis Web Accessibility Initiative category and that although many websites stated that they were alert to the needs of disabled people, there was very little evidence that such awareness had been transformed into effective usability for disabled users. Out of the five sectors investigated, the Government and information sector came out best. However problems commonly cited by disabled people included cluttered and complex page structures, unclear and confusing layout of pages, confusing and disorientating navigation mechanisms and inappropriate use of colours and poor contrast between content and background.

City University made 15 key recommendations for change which included suggestions that website commissioners should formulate written policies for meeting the needs of disabled people, that the Government should raise awareness in the public and private sector of the web accessibility needs of disabled people and that disabled people should be involved in the design and testing of websites rather than relying of automatic testing software.

The DRC warned that if these recommendations do not work, then it will be “vigorous in the use of enforcement powers which may include “named party” Formal Investigations” which can lead to sanctions against the owners of inaccessible websites or even the provision of support to test cases being brought by individual disabled people.

First published in e-business Law on 23 June 2004.

[3] [3](i) government and official information (ii) business (iii) e-commerce (iv) entertainment and leisure and (v) web services such as search engines, ISPs