Website Accessibility: Guidance and the Law

October 30, 2018

Website accessibility introduction

Website accessibility is an essential part of website development. It is also a complex beast to get your head around. There is a mass of guidance and legislation – some of it seemingly contradictory.

This post is an attempt to summarise the key accessibility guidance and law that anyone working on a website should be aware of. What we will cover:

  1. W3C Web Standard
  2. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
  3. BS 8878
  4. Equality Act 2010

Guidance – W3C Web Standards

Who publishes it?

The Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C)

Who does it apply to?

Everyone.

In a nutshell?
The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) is the de facto international standards body for the worldwide web. Almost all best practice for website development is based on W3C recommendations.

Where can I find out more?

W3C Standards website

Guidance – Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

Who publishes it?

The Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C)

Who does it apply to?

Everyone.

In a nutshell?

WCAG explains how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities (split into A, AA and AAA compliance levels, with AAA being the highest). WCAG 1.0, was originally published in 1999. This was superseded by WCAG 2.0 in 2008 and, more recently, added to with WCAG 2.1 in 2018. WCAG 2.0 & 2.1 sets out 12-13 guidelines that aim to ensure a website is perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. Reaching level A compliance theoretically means that the site does not actively exclude any users, although it does not mean that the site is necessarily easy to use for many user groups. Care must be taken when applying the guidelines to ensure that the spirit of the guideline is followed, rather than simply the letter.

WCAG 2.1 is a bolt on for WCAG 2.0. All success criteria listed in 2.1 are also included in 2.0, however, 2.1 provides 17 additional success criteria to address, including:

  • mobile accessibility
  • people with low vision
  • people with cognitive and learning disabilities

As explained on the W3 website: “If you want to meet both WCAG 2.0 and WCAG 2.1, you can use the 2.1 resources and you don’t need to bother looking at 2.0.”

Where can I find out more?

Full WCAG Guidelines

Guidance – BS 8878

Who publishes it?

BS 8878 Web Accessibility Code of Practice is published by the British Standards Institution (BSI)

Who does it apply to?

Everyone.

In a nutshell?

BS 8878 defines a process for creating and embedding a web accessibility strategy within an organisation. It is designed as an introduction to web development and is written in non technical language to make it easier to understand. It is aimed at people within an organisation who have responsibilities for web strategy or development.

BS 8878 is not a competitor or alternative to WCAG 2.0/2.1, rather it is a code of practice that gives guidance on how to consider accessibility at all stages of the development process. This includes how best to use existing guidelines such as WCAG 2.0/2.1. Indeed, developers should follow the lead of the W3C and the current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines: WCAG are the most important accessibility guidelines for web commissioners to be aware of, as they are considered to be the de facto standard for accessible web design.

BS 8878 includes guidance on:

  • how organisations should ensure accessibility is considered in their web strategy by creating an organisational web accessibility policy
  • how to embed the consideration of accessibility decisions through the entire process of producing web products
  • how to consider the impact of the purpose of the product, its target audience and their needs
  • how to ensure that web products procured rather than created are accessible
  • how to assure web accessibility throughout a web product’s lifecycle
  • how to communicate about accessibility by creating an accessibility statement

Where can I find out more?

BSI Website

The Law – Equality Act 2010

Who publishes it?

The government. The Equality Act 2010 replaces a number of separate discrimination laws to simply the process. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was one of those to be incorporated.

Who does it apply to?

All service providers e.g. businesses, educational institutions, transport vehicle providers, public authorities, private clubs

In a nutshell?

The Equality Act 2010 protects all individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society. This extends to how individuals use websites and if your website does not meet certain design standards, then you could be sued for discrimination. Key milestones:

  • Since December 1996 it has been unlawful to treat disabled people less favourably than other people for a reason related to their disability;
  • Since October 1999 service providers have had to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people, such as providing extra help or making changes to the way they provide their services;
  • Since 2004 service providers may have to make reasonable adjustments to the physical features of their premises to overcome physical barriers to access.

With the introduction of the Equality Act in 2010, the law now “prohibits discrimination by providers of services, goods and facilities”. While this does not expressly reference 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.

Where can I find out more?

N.B. Web Usability is not a law firm. The information in this article is our understanding of the current state of play. However, we accept no liability for the accuracy of this information and recommend you seek legal advice if you want to be confident about the legal validity of any issue to do with website accessibility.