Digital accessibility is (or should be!) a priority for most businesses these days. For many, this is driven by a genuine desire to offer an inclusive service.
For some, however, while the moral intent may be there, the real driving force is a legal one.
In the UK, more stringent regulations have meant public sector organisations, in particular, have had to step up their game. While in the US, a rise in litigation has got more people focused on the importance of accessibility compliance.
So what is the law on accessible and how can we ensure our digital services are as inclusive as possible?
UK Private sector
The accessibility of a UK web sites is covered by the Equality Act 2010. This protects all individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society. Site owners are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to make their sites accessible to people with disabilities. The act requires service providers to anticipate the needs of potential disabled customers for reasonable adjustments.
As far as we are aware the act has not been tested in law with regard to website accessibility. A few companies have faced legal action brought by The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) but these cases were settled before being heard by a court. So there is no legal precedent about what would constitute a ‘reasonable adjustment’. However, given that the Government has adopted the WCAG 2.1 level AA as a suitable standard for public sector sites (see below) and it is more broadly recognised as a ‘good’ approach, any site which met these guidelines would have a very strong defence against any legal action.
UK Public sector
In 2018, accessibility regulations relating specifically to digital services came into force for public sector organisations. These days, public sector websites, apps and digital documents will need to meet certain accessibility standards and publish a statement saying they have been met. Existing websites should have complied from 23rd September 2020 while the deadline for apps was 23rd June 2021.
It is not 100% who these regulations cover but according to Gov.uk public sector bodies include:
- central government and local government organisations
- some charities and other non-government organisations
But the following organisations are exempt:
- non-government organisations like charities – unless they are mostly financed by public funding, provide services that are essential to the public or aimed at people with a disability
- schools or nurseries – except for the content people need in order to use their services, for example a form that lets you outline school meal preferences
- public sector broadcasters and their subsidiaries
The standard they need to comply with is WCAG 2.1 at level AA. However there are some exemptions. e.g. if it would cause a ‘disproportionate burden’. What this appears to mean is that if you are a small, poor organisation (e.g. Parish Council) where the impact of not creating an accessible service will be negligable on your users, you could claim ‘disproportionate burden’. But you have to undertake a formal assessment to make this case.
US Private sector
In the US there is no specific laws that relate to the accessibility of websites but they are covered under the Americans Disability Act (ADA) Title III. Like the UK’s Equality Act, this covers all types of disability discrimination in businesses open to the public (e.g. restaurants, schools, recreation facilities) as well as commercial facilities (e.g. factories, warehouses, or office buildings).
Following a successful case in 2017 (Gil v. Winn-Dixie) a cottage industry has sprung up in the US bringing ADA Title III lawsuits against companies. It’s an easy gig really, simply run an accessibility tool over a website and most will fail on something! Since then, the industry has been booming with the number of ADA Title III lawsuits relating to website accessibility increasing by 255% from 814 in 2017 to 2,895 in 2021, according to law firm Seyfarth. The total number of ADA Title III lawsuits (not just accessibility ones) also continues to climb up, 320% in just 8 years.
Although compliance with the WCAG guidelines is not written into US law, as in the UK, it will provide a good defence against ADA Title III lawsuits for web accessibility.
US Government bodies
US Government websites (federal, state and local) must meet Revised Section 508 regulations. This states that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities.
These regulations were revised in 2017 to include the WCAG 2.0 guidelines at level AA. So meeting the WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines will meet the Section 508 requirements for website accessibility.
The European Union (EU) Directive on the Accessibility of Websites and Mobile Applications requires EU member states to make sure their websites and mobile apps meet common accessibility standards. The Directive uses the four principles of the WCAG 2.1, requiring that public sector organisations across the EU take steps to make sure their websites are “Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust”. So again, by meeting the WCAG 2.1 AA you will also comply with the EU Directive.
The bottom line is that, wherever you are in the world, WCAG is the gold standard for accessibility and ensuring your digital service complies (by conducting an accessibility audit) will ensure you can tick that legal box.
But don’t stop there. The only way to know if your website or app offers a truly accessible experience is to undertake testing with users who have lived experience of disability. As we well know, accessibility compliance does not necessarily equal genuine usability.
N.B. Web Usability is not a law firm. The information in this article is our understanding of the current state of play of website accessibility. 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.