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Digital inclusion charity demands government enforcement of web accessibility laws

AbilityNet claims government is "falling down on the job" by failing to act against firms that do not make their websites and services accessible to disabled users

A digital inclusion charity has challenged the UK government to take punitive action against organisations that overlook the needs of disabled users when designing websites and applications.

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at disability assistance charity AbilityNet, said the government is “falling down on the job” by neglecting to take enforcement action against organisations for web accessibility failings.

The Disability Discrimination Act introduced the requirement for organisations to make their websites accessible for disabled users more than a decade ago. The principle now falls under the remit of the Equality Act 2010.

Organisations are obligated, under the terms of the act, to make “reasonable adjustments” to the way their websites and online services work to accommodate the needs of people with visual or hearing impairments, manual dexterity issues or learning difficulties.

“It’s been a legal requirement all this time and, whilst it seems that every other element of civil and criminal law is enforced by the government, this longstanding legal requirement for website accessibility for everyone has never been proactively enforced by that same government that made that law,” Christopherson said.

“The accessibility of public sector and central government websites has improved over that time, but it may be their reluctance to enforce their own legislation is due to the fact they know it has never reached a point where it is good enough for them to start fining other organisations for non-compliance.”

Read more about web accessibility

Taking the lead

Charitable organisations – such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) – have previously embarked on class actions against organisations whose websites have neglected to address the needs of disabled web users.

But it should not be left up to charities or individuals to pursue non-compliant organisations, said Christopherson.

“The government is undoubtedly missing out on both a massive opportunity to make companies really sit up and take notice of the law, and a much-needed potential revenue stream by doing so,” he said.

“It would be incredibly easy to enforce, as it literally takes seconds to tell if a website is inaccessible using an automated tool, which can quickly and easily detect errors.

“Someone could do it from their desk and get through a large number of sites each day, and if this someone were a government official they could issues on the spot fines or send out warnings, giving firms some time to get compliant.” 

“They have had more than a decade, though, so I would favour fines first and then bigger fines if the site is still non-compliant three months later – and so on.”

Enforcing responsibility

In terms of who should be responsible for leading the enforcement efforts in this area, Christopherson said it could fall under the remit of a new or existing department, or even be devolved to a third party.

“HMRC ensures we pay our taxes and the police keep us safe on our streets,” he said.

"Why is there no will to enforce the eminently enforceable and make the internet an equal place for disabled users?

“We challenge the government to finally take action and would welcome an initial statement of intent outlining their plans to start enforcement because it is so long overdue.”

Christopherson’s comments mark the second time this week Whitehall’s stance on web accessibility has been called into question, following the revelation that participants in the G-Cloud procurement framework are no longer being asked to self-declare how accessible their services are to disabled users.

GDS hosts accessibility event

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is holding a week-long event on the topic of accessibility and has published a series of blog posts on the topic, as part of a renewed push to make its gov.uk websites easy for users of assistive technologies to access.

GDS also brought Alistair Duggin on board at the end of 2015 as its head of accessibility, who told Computer Weekly in April 2015 of his plans to create a cross-government community to help raise departmental awareness of this issue.

Computer Weekly contacted the Cabinet Office for clarification about any plans the government might have on the enforcement front, but was still awaiting a response at the time of publication.

John Glover, sales and marketing director at G-Cloud-listed online collaboration supplier Kahootz, has been calling on the government to step up its efforts to embrace accessibility for several years.

Speaking to Computer Weekly, he said the government should introduce mandates for public sector IT suppliers, to ensure their offerings make the grade from a web accessibility point of view.

“In this way, the market dictates compliance as the Cabinet Office MysteryShopper service could be used for whistleblowing, if suppliers are found to be offering non-compliant services," Glover added.

Read more on IT legislation and regulation

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