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The 2010 Equality Act, WCAG 2.1 and the law

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The statue of Justice on the roof of the Old Bailey. (C) Charles D P Miller 2007, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license When it comes to making sure that your website is inclusive and works for all users, it should not be about carrots and sticks. It should be about doing the right thing, period.

However, it is important to realise that if your website is in any way not giving the same service and information to differently-abled users, you are breaking the law. You may have heard the term "DDA testing" being used. This term is now technically obsolete, as it refers to the Disability Discrimination Act of 2005, but the term "DDA testing" and "DDA compliance" has stuck for a lot of people, which is why you still hear it being used.

In actual fact, the DDA Act was replaced in England, Scotland and Wales in 2010 by the Equality Act. The DDA Act is still in force in Northern Ireland, but the implications relating to ensuring your website is accessible to at least "AA" standard are more or less identical in nature.

"AA" refers to a series of guidelines called WCAG 2.1, that were published by the World Wide Web Consortium (aka W3C), which is the organisation that sets guidelines for the Internet as a whole. Version 2.1 are brand new, published in 2018. Version 2.0 were published in 2008, becoming an ISO standard, and were entranched into British law in 2010 by becoming incorporated into British Standard 8878. There are three levels of accessibility. "A" is the lowest, "AA" is the industry standard, and then "AAA" is the highest possible. To comply with UK law, your website should attain "AA" as a minimum, though if part or all of your website also reaches "AAA" standard this is an added bonus.

There are many different types of disability. You have visual impairments, ranging from blind to those with poor visability or who suffer from ailments such as colourblindness. The blind users often use text-to-speech software that will read a website out to them in a computerised voice. A badly-designed website will often not read out everything, or will require a user to actually see the website to start the reading process. Important information may be displayed graphically and the alternative text that would normally be read out to help the blind user may be non-existant or inadequate. For example, imagine an important pie-chart that has information that may be vital to the user making an important financial decision. If there is no alternative text, the blind user will not even be aware there is a chart there. More often than not, the ALT text is inadequate and will just say something like "chart", which tells the user nothing and will simply disempower them. Having ALT text describing what is going on in the chart, or in the case of a very complex chart there being a separate link which will deliver the user with a longer, textual description, and they can make that decision more confidently. And not feel the need to sue you further down the line!

People with poor eyesight, or who are colourblind, often cannot read websites if the foreground and background colours are not different enough. Deaf people cannot follow your video if there are no subtitles or transcripts available. People who have dyslexia can find complicated language or long lines of text particularly difficult. Those who suffer from epilepsy can find that very busy websites set off an attack. Those who use a keyboard to navigate a website (non-mouse users) often have no idea where they are on the website. If you try using the TAB and the cursor keys on this website, you will know exactly where you are on it, but this is not the case on many websites out there, including quite possibly your own.

The WCAG 2.1 guidelines are a long document that you should read. There are examples of how each guideline can be met. It is worth testing your website against some of these, though you really need a specialist to do this for you. Somebody like me with 22 years working in website accessibility. I will test everything and audit it for you, so that you can then check easily where you website needs to be fixed. It will take you days to do what it will take me hours, and I will be very, very thorough.

A screen-capture of the BMI baby website, which was not accessible to blind usersBut let's return to the Law again. It is true that in the UK there have not been that many well-publicised test-cases, yet. This is largely because when a complaint by a disabled user has been made, it has largely been settled out of court so as to avoid embarrassment to the reputation of the company in question. One famous case in the UK involved the RNIB suing budget airline bmiBaby for having promotions on their website that only sighted people could see. There was an "offer of the week" (in this case, a £50 per person deposit scheme that needed to be taken by the end of February to guarantee a cheaper flight later in the year) as well as a competition in which the user could win the cost of their holiday back. These promotions were not read out by blind users' text-to-speech software and the RNIB spotted this. This was tremendously embarrassing for the airline, which was already facing tremendous financial problems of their own. They had to take the website down while fixing the problem, and actually ended up going bankrupt before they could properly fix it. What is important here is that no blind individual sued bmiBaby, but an organisation representing them took preemptive action.

Winning a case such as this, on behalf of blind people, could prove to be a great income generator for a charity such as the RNIB, and they have repeatedly said that they are working on future cases. You do not want to be that company, I am sure. And there are charities representing all the other disabilities who could equally take action if they spot a website that is failing basic accessibility compliance.

Of course, it's not only UK law you need to worry about. In October 2016 the EU brought out the Directive (EU) 2016/2102 of the European Parliament and of the Council, which currently applies to public sector companies only but will be applied to financial and other important private sector companies shortly. This applies to all websites of Member States, of which the UK is still one until at least March 2019. It will also apply to any office documents (eg Word, PDF) created after September 2018. Assuming the UK leaves the EU as per scheduled, they have already announced that all EU law will become UK law after that date, and the UK will eventually keep, scrap or change eventual inherited legislation. It is unlikely that this accessibility law will be high on their priority list to change, as most will see it as a force for good. However, if you trade in the EU, irrespective of whether the UK repeals this particular law, you will still need to comply with EU laws.

However, the law already is strong enough here in the UK for you to ensure your website complies. But as I said, it shoudn't just be about the law. Ensuring your website is compliant means more customers, not just disabled ones. Furthermore, it is likely that you will be ranked more kindly by Google, and you will find that the website as a whole will work much better for all your customers, not just for those with disabilities. Links will be easier to navigate, text will be clearer to read, it will work better on mobile devices... it's a win-win situation. And it's the right thing to do.

So don't hesitate any more. To get an audit of your website, to see where you can make improvements or even save yourself from a potentially embarrassing and expensive court-case, get in touch with me for a quote.

Further reading on the new EU (and now UK) law:

Please remember that all new public sectors need to be fully AA accessible by 23 September 2019. Older sites have an extra year (until 23 September 2020) to get their house in order. However, your site may already be contravening the Equality Act 2010 so don't wait until the last minute!

NB. The photo of the scales of Justice on top of the Old Bailey in London was originally posted to Flickr by and has been used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence. (c) Charles D P Miller 2017 at https://flickr.com/photos/38737399@N03/3643291515.

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