The Disability Discrimination Act and impact on web accessibility

By Trenton Moss

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), which ensures that websites are accessible to blind and disabled users, is often misunderstood. 

The RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) and the DRC (Disability Rights Commission), two of the most renowned advocates for the DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) and accessible websites, have no specific information about the laws and what websites specifically need to do in order to meet the legal requirements.

So here we break down the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and its implications for web accessibility.

What does the Disability Discrimination Act say?

Part III of the DDA refers to the provision of goods, facilities, and services. The Code of Practice, which specifically mentions websites, can be downloaded in its entirety from the Equality and Human Rights Commission website.

The relevant quotes from the 175-page Code of Practice are:

  • 2.2 (p7): 'The Disability Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against a disabled person by refusing to provide any service which it provides to members of the public'.
  • 4.7 (p39): 'From October 1, 1999 a service provider has to take reasonable steps to change a practice which makes it unreasonably difficult for disabled people to make use of its services'.
  • 2.13 - 2.17 (p11-13): 'What services are affected by the Disability Discrimination Act? An airline company provides a flight reservation and booking service to the public on its website. This is a provision of a service and is subject to the act'.
  • 5.23 (p71): 'For people with visual impairments, the range of auxiliary aids or services which it might be reasonable to provide to ensure that services are accessible might include ... accessible websites'.
  • 5.26 (p68): 'For people with hearing disabilities, the range of auxiliary aids or services which it might be reasonable to provide to ensure that services are accessible might include ... accessible websites'.

When did the DDA come into force?

It's widely believed that the new laws were implemented in October 2004, when the final part of the DDA came into force. This final piece of legislation actually referred to service providers having to consider making permanent physical adjustments to their premises and is not related to the Internet in any way.

Section III of the DDA, which refers to accessible websites, came into force on October 1, 1999, and the Code of Practice for this section of the DDA was published on May 27, 2002. This means that the majority of websites have been in breach of the law for more than five years.

Can you be sued for non-compliance?

Basically, yes. The RNIB has approached two large companies regarding their websites. When they raised the accessibility issues of the websites under the DDA, both companies made the necessary changes, rather than facing the prospect of legal action (in exchange for anonymity).

The DRC launched a formal investigation into 1,000 websites, of which over 80% were next to impossible for disabled people to use. They issued a stern warning that organisations will face legal action under the DDA and the threat of unlimited compensation payments if they fail to make websites accessible for people with disabilities.

How do you comply with the DDA?

It's widely believed that if, or perhaps more appropriately when, a case makes it to court, the W3C accessibility guidelines will be used to assess a website's accessibility and ultimately decide the outcome of the case. The W3C is the Internet governing body and its web accessibility guidelines can be found on its website.

To further complicate matters, the W3C offers three different levels of compliance. Priority 1 guidelines, (which must be satisfied according to the W3C) will almost certainly have to be adhered to. Priority 2 guidelines (which should be satisfied and are the EU recommended level of compliance), or some part of, will probably need to be adhered to too.

The courts will also no doubt take guidance from the outcome of an Australian case in 2000, when a blind man successfully sued the Sydney Olympics organising committee over their inaccessible website. (The Australian Disability Discrimination Act quite closely resembles that of the UK's.) UK courts may also take into account the New York case against and, who were also successfully sued over the accessibility of their websites.

Please note that legislation has changed since the publication of this post. The DDA still applies in Northern Ireland but, in the remainder of the UK, has been repealed and replaced by the Equality Act 2010.