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The Disability Act and Your Web Site

By Shaun Pearce
Posted Monday, October 4, 2004

If you have a web page or website, the UK Disability Discrimination Act 1995 probably isn't at the top of your bedside reading pile; however, it is something you should be aware of as it may have a big effect on your on-line business.

Put simply, the Act was designed to ensure disabled people had access to all the things able-bodied people take for granted. It became law in 1995, and its measures have been phased in over time. Part III comes into effect later this year.

The Code of Practice to the Act was published in May 2002. It states: "It is important to remember that it is the provision of the service which is affected by Part III of the Act and not the nature of the service or business or the type of establishment from which it is provided." The Code of Practice goes on to give the following example: "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."

The legislation applies to everyone who operates a website: company, sole trader, individual, club or association.

There are many ways in which disabled people can use the Internet. Blind or visually impaired users often have specialist software such as screen readers and voice synthesisers. Some use magnifiers that enlarge portions of the screen - some browsers can perform the same function - others use low resolution monitors. Less common are "dynamic Braille displays", as they are generally too expensive for the average user to purchase; however, they are used by some institutions.

Screen reading software that converts the screen contents into synthesised speech (JAWS by Freedom Scientific or Window-Eyes by GW Micro, for example) is probably the most common method for visually impaired users to access the web. This software interprets the HTML code, and a synthesised voice reads aloud the screen contents to the user. If a website has not been designed to meet accessibility standards, the screen reading software will not interpret the page correctly.

Physically disabled people often use specially adapted keyboards to surf the 'net. Many are unable to use a mouse and have to rely on keystrokes; for them, using a Graphic User Interface (GUI) is out of the question.

So what constitutes "accessibly", and what can you do to protect your business online? These are tricky questions to answer as there is very little about websites specifically mentioned in the Act and Code of Practice. It will probably have to be tested at length in the courts (some action groups for the disabled are already gearing up to bring about prosecutions); however, adherence to Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) W3C guidelines will ensure that all users will be able to access your site regardless of their technical limitations or disabilities. These guidelines are respected both within and outside the computer industry, yet widespread knowledge of them is limited.

If your website does not comply with the guidelines, it will probably just need a bit of "tweaking" to bring it up to scratch. This may include making minor adjustments like ensuring there is an "alt" text description for images on your site, using blends of colours that will not confuse colour-blind users, creating a logical tab order for people who cannot use a mouse, and making full use of the new HTML commands - the <b> article has been replaced by <strong>, for example.

One in seven people in the UK - about 8.5 million - suffer from some type of disability (Source: Disabled Rights Commission), so making your website accessible to all users doesn't just make sense from a legal point of view, but from a business point of view as well.

About the Author
Shaun Pearce is an author with several eBooks to his credit. His most recent, Web Accessibility Now, is available from (www.netbookmart.co.uk/wan/)