Many website owners appear to be unaware of their legal obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
Although no one has yet taken a claim against a website owner in the UK to court, reasonable steps need to be made to ensure websites can be used by people with visual impairments or physical disabilities.
The government estimates that about nine million people in the UK have some form of disability. Given the importance of the internet in its ability to communicate information, it is surprising that so many businesses have yet to grasp this opportunity, let alone comply with the law.
The Disability Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for companies to provide an inferior service to, or discriminate against, a disabled person.
The Act states that people should have "access to, and use of, means of communication", and "access to, and use of, information services".
Can the internet be defined as a service?
Although there is no explicit reference to the internet as a service, it is a reasonable assumption that the internet would fall within this definition.
The government has already taken this view. Its policy is to encourage central government departments and agencies to make their services as accessible to disabled people as is reasonably possible. The Department of Trade & Industry now ensures that all its websites are designed with accessibility in mind.
Given this legal duty, service providers must consider making reasonable adjustments to the way they deliver their services where disabled people find these impossible or unreasonably difficult to access.
There is no definitive list of adjustments a website owner should make to avoid liability. The UK courts will decide whether it would be reasonable for a service provider to make a particular adjustment to enable a disabled person to gain access.
However, there are some basic steps a website developer should consider taking to improve accessibility for people with disabilities.
The Department of Trade & Industry recommends that website design take into account the following issues:
Text and graphic links. Not all users choose to view websites using graphics and many are unable to access images at all. For example, some users may have small-screen browsers that only display text.
Therefore it is advisable to use alternative text to describe the content of a picture. This can be useful for text-based browsers and/or for users with visual impairments.
Use of cascading style sheets. This is a method of producing web pages which makes it easy for a user to override the author's website page settings and make it easier for them to view the page, for example, by changing the colour of the text or the background.
Developers can test web pages for accessibility using one of the accepted validation software tools, such as Bobby.
Would a potential claimant succeed?
In an Australian case, a claimant who was blind could not access the website of the Sydney organising committee for the Olympic Games. The claimant alleged that as the website was only accessible in full by a fully sighted person, this was discrimination on the grounds of disability.
The organising committee argued that to comply with the requirements of the claimant was not justified. This was based on factors including the nature of the benefit or detriment likely to be accrued or suffered by any persons concerned and the effect of the disability of the person concerned. The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission ruled in favour of the applicant.
Although the case took place in Australia, the provisions of Australian law are similar to those of the UK. As such, this case would be persuasive in a UK court.
Makbool Javaid is an employment partner at UK law firm DLA
Bobby website testing tool
This was first published in October 2003