We have recently seen has been a flurry of requests for accessibility audits. In the UK this seems to be driven by new regulations for public sector websites and in the US due to a rise in accessibility litigation. So what are the legal requirements to make your website accessible?
UK Commercial websites
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 websites
On the 23rd September 2019 new accessibility regulations have came into force. These days, public sector web sites 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) with few or no disabled users you could claim meeting the regulations was a ‘disproportionate burden’. But you have to undertake a formal assessment to make this case.
US Commercial websites
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! The number of Title III lawsuits relating to website accessibility grew by 177% from 814 in 2017 to 2258 in 2018, according to Seyfarth. The total number ADA Title III lawsuits (not just accessibility ones) continued to climb in the first 6 months of 2019 up a further 12%.
However, compliance with the WCAG guidelines, while not written into US law, as in the UK will provide a very good defence against ADA Title III lawsuits for web accessibility.
US Government websites
US Government websites (federal, state and local) must meet 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 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, 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 2.0 AA you will also comply with the EU Directive.
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.