UK Law and digital accessibility: What it means for your organisation
The UK’s digital accessibility laws are relatively new and unclear compared to other parts of UK law. And there are several regulations that relate to website and mobile app accessibility.
If your organisation has a website, it should be accessible to disabled users. When a website or online service is not accessible, it’s considered discrimination.
UK laws that cover web accessibility
Various laws combine to set a wide range of legal requirements. Both for owners of websites, mobile apps, and other digital communications.
This is partly because the internet and digital technologies like apps are still new. And the law is yet to catch up.
Anyone who owns a website should try to understand this information.
The Equality Act 2010
There is a simple idea at the core of The Equality Act 2010. Organisations must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to make sure their services are accessible. This is so that disabled people are not excluded because of their impairment.
The Equality Act considers both physical and digital access to services. Including websites, apps and documents like PDFs, too.
The law covers both private and public sector organisations. (Though there are some exemptions for public sector bodies.)
Disabled people may experience barriers because of their condition or impairment. A ‘reasonable adjustment’ is a step to remove or reduce these barriers.
Organisations have a duty to make these changes. This is because disabled people are at a disadvantage because of their impairment.
Disabled people should never have to pay for the cost of reasonable adjustments.
European Union (EU) laws
Before the UK left The EU in January 2020, the UK government had to follow EU web accessibility laws.
This included The European Union (EU) Directive on the Accessibility of Websites and Mobile Applications. The law came into effect in December 2016.
The UK gov created regulations for public sector websites to help us follow this EU law:
The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 . This is sometimes shortened to PSBAR.
Public sector UK laws
PSBAR states that any public sector website providing a service to the public must be accessible.
These regulations say that public sector websites and mobile apps must meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1).
WCAG are a set of guidelines produced by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Public sector websites and apps must meet WCAG level AA accessibility standards.
These laws specifically apply to public sector bodies. But if you meet these requirements (and follow WCAG 2.1) you will also be meeting The Equality Act.
Which organisations are public sector?
Public sector websites include:
- local and parish councils
- central government departments
- most NHS organisations
- most universities and colleges
- some charities and other non-government organisations
But there are some exceptions.
For example, they do not apply to non-government organisations. Like public sector broadcasters and charities. These organisations are exempt from these regulations.
Charities and non-government organisations that do need to meet the regulations include those that:
- are mostly financed by public funding
- provide services that are essential to the public
- provide services directed at disabled people.
Find out more about how UK web accessibility laws affect public sector websites.
Some organisations may not fully meet these accessibility requirements. But they can only avoid legal action if they can prove it will be a ‘disproportionate burden’ to do so.
For instance, if you own a small business or run a personal blog. It could be likely that you don’t have the resources to make your website fully accessible.
But you must still make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010. In practise, this means that you should still get the basics right. Like making sure you add alt-text to all images on your website.
If your organisation wants to claim a disproportionate burden then you must conduct an assessment, by law.
Other legal standards
The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is an independent statutory body. They are responsible for:
- encouraging equality and diversity
- eliminating unlawful discrimination
- protecting and promoting the human rights of people in England, Scotland and Wales
EHRC states that any organisation that provides a service is an Information Society Service Provider (ISSP). This could be anything from online shopping to banking.
Service providers must think ahead about the needs of its users. And that includes what people with a range of impairments may need from a website.
It’s not good enough to wait until a disabled person cannot use your website to fix it. This is called the ‘anticipatory’ duty of reasonable adjustments.
If a service provider has not done this, they must make reasonable adjustments as soon as possible.
Consequences for not having an accessible website
Private sector organisations
Anyone who believes they have been discriminated against by a UK ISSP can bring a claim in the UK courts.
Despite this, there have been no UK web accessibility court cases to date. Even though the Equality Act 2010 covers websites and other types of digital media.
Instead, a few companies have chosen to settle out of court. Normally the defending organisation takes action to make its website accessible.
For example, the RNIB previously started court action against the company BMIbaby. But BMIbaby took the proper action to make its website accessible. To settle the claim out of court and avoid legal action.
The EHRC can also take legal action against UK organisations with inaccessible websites.
Public sector organisations
EHRC enforces the legal need to make public sector websites and apps accessible. (For public sector websites and other digital communications in England, Scotland and Wales.)
If a public sector organisation does not meet The Public Sector Bodies regulations, it counts as a failure to make a reasonable adjustment.
This is also a breach of the Equality Act 2010. EHRC can investigate offending organisations and take court action.
Accessibility laws in the future
There may be a time in the future when the UK government introduces new accessibility laws. Specifically to cover private sector websites and other digital communications.
Until then, you have a duty to make reasonable adjustments as outlined in the Equality Act 2010. Doing so will not only help you avoid legal issues. But will mean disabled people have equal access to your services.
Discrimination in the provision of goods and services and the duty to make reasonable adjustments (Citizens Advice)
What are reasonable adjustments? (Equality Human Rights Commission)
Global web accessibility laws and policies (W3C)
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Gavin B Harris is a Freelance PR Consultant and Copywriter. He specialises in technology, digital accessibility and inclusion. Gavin has hearing loss and tinnitus. One of his passions is promoting accessible digital products and services.