News Analysis: Disability Climbs Online Agenda
UK businesses face legal action should their websites remain inaccessible to disabled users. Mark Sweney reports.
What do Nike, Halifax, McDonald's and Sony have in common? All are alleged to be in breach of UK laws that state their websites must be accessible to blind, disabled and dyslexic users.
The charges have been made by AbilityNet and Bunnyfoot Universality, two organisations specialising in the accessibility requirements of disabled internet users, which are not afraid to name and shame companies that fail to meet these minimum legal requirements.
Nike, Halifax et al are not alone. In the first formal investigation into the compliance of UK websites, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), an independent statutory body responsible for advising the government on the effectiveness of disability discrimination legislation, found that 81% of UK companies fail to provide adequate accessibility for disabled people.
Impending legal action
In the report, which sampled 1000 websites and has taken a year to compile, the DRC issued a stern warning that it was 'only a matter of time' before companies faced legal action from disabled users.
So why have companies been so slow to conform with the Disabilities Discrimination Act? The Act was introduced in 1995 and updated in 1999 to include websites.
Since it was unclear what companies needed to do to ensure their sites complied, a Code of Practice was drawn up in 2002 stating that sites should be accessible to those with disabilities such as hearing or visual impairments.
Companies have failed to take action either due to ignorance of the guidelines or because, until now, there has been little in the way of penalties for non-compliance.
Last July the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) pursued legal action on behalf of two disabled people against two companies that failed to make their websites accessible. In both cases out-of-court settlements were reached, thus cloaking in secrecy the details of the firms involved and the payments they made.
Now the DRC has dragged the issue into the spotlight and is threatening to bare its teeth. It has said companies could face unlimited compensation payments and hefty legal costs if they fail to comply. DRC chairman Bert Massie says: 'Where the response is inadequate, the industry should be prepared for disabled people to use the law to make the web a less hostile place.'
According to some experts, it is not legal action and court fines, but damage to a brand's image that will spur companies into action. 'Negative PR from discriminating against the disabled is a far greater concern than a court ruling,' says Struan Robertson, a solicitor at IT law specialists Masons.
Despite its threats, the DRC is taking a softly-softly approach in pushing companies toward compliance, with legal action a last resort. Its accessibility report, for example, did not name the websites that failed to meet guidelines.
But others such as AbilityNet and Bunnyfoot Universality are altogether less cautious. They use the same global guidelines for measuring accessibility as the DRC and regularly name companies that fail to comply.
In a recent assessment of compliance in the online banking sector, AbilityNet found that out of ten sites only one, NatWest, met the minimum standard. …