Everyone should be able to freely and conveniently visit any website. If you own a website that is not universally accessible, you will lose potential customers — and, most likely, a large amount of money. This is one good reason why you must take the web accessibility issue very seriously.
Adhering to the principles of web accessibility is nothing new in the UK, but it will remain a hot topic for as long as there are still businesses that fail to provide fully accessible websites and applications. The country has introduced numerous web accessibility standards that define what organizations must do to make their websites truly accessible and convenient.
In fact, there are over 14 million people with disabilities in the UK. If you don’t follow the standards, you’re set to lose a large segment of your audience. Failure to comply can also leave you exposed to lawsuits and fines.
Legal problems, though, should not be your only motivation to provide an accessible service to everyone. For it is also a matter of human rights and ethics. An inclusive approach to web design will probably not take too much time and effort, but it will definitely be helpful to a sizable group of users and will be appreciated as an act of basic human decency.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at UK accessibility standards, and talk about who must abide by them, when, and how. Let’s begin.
What do we mean by web accessibility?
Before we dive into UK website laws and regulations, we first need to understand what web accessibility is and what kind of site can be considered accessible.
An accessible site is one that can be visited by all users without exception, including those with certain disabilities such as hearing loss, visual or cognitive impairments, or mobility difficulties.
To navigate the site, users can make use of various tools and technologies, such as special devices that make it easy to read from the screen and consume multimedia content. Web content accessibility standards aim to ensure that website designers do everything possible to allow people with disabilities to access the information they need. Even in matters like web browsing, the principles of equality must be respected, since everyone has equal rights regardless of whether or not they have any impairments.
Do not assume that UK laws on web accessibility are only about benefiting people with disabilities. Website designers who comply with the laws and regulations can make accessing or understanding information an easier process for anyone. After all, sometimes you don’t feel like watching a loud video at night: in this case, it will be much more comfortable reading the subtitles. Similar situations can arise for users with poor internet connections.
Each country has its own guidelines and standards for website accessibility, but in the case of the UK the international gold standard — the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) — is key. WCAG sets out for companies and website developers how they can make their Internet resources accessible to all visitors, but in particular people with disabilities. If any user has a complaint and the matter goes to court, the first thing checked is whether the site meets the criteria described in the WCAG.
UK accessibility laws and regulations in detail
The UK has a long history of laws that ensure accessibility and confront discrimination. Let’s review the current legislation that secures these rights today, as well as the previous acts that made it possible.
The Equality Act
The Equality Act (also known as EQA), passed in 2010, is an amalgamation of pre-existing major regulations and laws. One such law is the Disability Discrimination Act, which was passed back in 1995. The precursor to the 2010 legislation was the Equality Act of 2006: this combined several major anti-discrimination clauses, including discrimination on grounds of religious belief and sexual orientation.
The Equality Act 2006 also dissolved the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality, and the Disability Rights Commission, and established the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Among this Commission’s responsibilities is regulating web accessibility in the UK. The goals of the EHRC are quite similar to those of its predecessors, with its main task being to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against in any way. In addition, the task of the body is to advise the government on all legislative issues related in one way or another to disability.
The Equality Act 2010 is by no means the only piece of UK legislation that ensures that sites are accessible to all users. The Code of Practice (BSI 8878) contains some examples that illustrate how the Equality Act will apply directly to websites. Created by the British Standards Institute, this standard clearly describes all the recommendations and requirements that need to be met by website developers to create the most comfortable and enjoyable experience for all users of their online resources. If you follow these requirements, you will make your sites accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.
One example of a failure to comply was the case of a recruitment business that featured several violations of the guidelines, including hosting a discriminatory advert. After an appeal from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the advert was removed and the staff training on the Equality Act was conducted.
Accessibility regulations for the public sector
The EQA sets out the very basic rules and requirements that have been passed at a statutory level regarding UK web accessibility and the protection of digital information.
For the public sector, all these rules have been tightened since the introduction of the Accessibility Regulations for Public Sector Authorities in September 2018. The main objective of these rules is to maximize the accessibility of all services that public bodies provide to the population with disabilities. In the case of public authorities, on top of the usual guidelines is a clear set of rules as well as a threshold of accessibility that all public sector entities must meet. A public sector site must comply with WCAG 2.1 level AA requirements and standards. If any parts of the site do not meet these standards, government agencies must publish an accessibility statement and all of these inconsistencies must be listed there.
Back in September 2020, all organizations that carry out work within the public sector were required to ensure that their websites complied with this law. Some enterprises did not do this at first but later did so via a formal agreement once the risk of judicial involvement became apparent.
Who must comply with the public sector accessibility rules?
The public sector body accessibility rule must be followed by every one of the organizations operating within this sector if they are registered in the UK. However, there are some exceptions to the rules.
Firstly we will list which public sector bodies must comply with the Act:
- Central government organizations
- Local government organizations
- Some charitable organizations
- Some non-government organizations
The public sector organizations not covered by this law, and which therefore are not obliged to comply with it, are:
- Most non-governmental organizations
- Public broadcasters and their subsidiaries
Some organizations are partially exempt from having to comply with all the requirements of this law. Examples are:
- Elementary and secondary schools
However, organizations that are partially exempt from the law must still publish an accessibility statement on their website.
How European Accessibility Act works for the UK
While the UK has officially left the EU, some EU legislation still has a bearing on the nation. This includes the EU Web Accessibility Directive, which was locally implemented in the UK as Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations in 2018. However, complying with EU legislation is important in any case, as it is a requirement if you want to sell products or services there.
There are 135 million people in the European Union today who have varying degrees of disability. An ageing population means that the number of people with disabilities is set to increase. To fully implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and respect the rights of this category of people, the European Union has adopted a directive on accessibility sites, as well as the European Accessibility Act.
What is the European Accessibility Act?
The European Accessibility Act, also called Directive 2019/882, aims to improve the functioning of the internal market for services and products by leveling out the main obstacles created by the fact that the rules of the European Union’s member states very often differed between countries.
Before adopting this law, each EU country had its own rules and standards. The problems this caused included a poorer choice of products for consumers and also higher prices. In addition, the difficulty of entering international markets forced companies to use production capacity to create products only for domestic consumers.
The European Accessibility Act states that all European Union member states will have common accessibility rules; this makes it easier for companies to offer their products in international markets, resulting in a greater choice of these products and lower prices, all to the benefit of the end consumer.
Hence all the rules of accessibility will be more obvious to producers of any country, as they will share a common framework. At the same time, the UN Convention assumes that the design of products will be as clear as possible for all categories of consumers, including customers with disabilities, doing away with any additional need to adapt designs for a particular category of consumers.
What’s more, the law emphasizes the importance of company website compliance with the four main principles we discussed above, namely reliability, comprehensibility, perception, and operability.
Potential risks of non-compliance
The Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) is responsible for ensuring that all public sector websites are in full compliance with accessibility rules in the UK.
If there are any suspicions, perhaps resulting from routine inspections, this body has the right to request access to any content, whether on company websites or elsewhere in the public domain. Any company that fails to publish an accessibility statement on its website will subsequently have its name published on the CDDO list; it may be subject to sanctions.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is responsible for enforcing all the requirements of the law. Not only does the Commission have the power to investigate a company that has violated the law, but it also has the authority to take the company to court.
It is worth noting that, to date, virtually no company has been prosecuted for failing to comply with the Equality Act 2010. However, there have been a few court cases involving discrimination against websites that do not meet all the requirements of the law. These cases were brought by the Royal National Institute for the Blind.
An example is the case of bmibaby — an airline company that failed to make its website accessible to blind and partially-sighted people. Despite an appeal by RNIB, no changes were made, which forced the charity to launch the legal proceedings. RNIB won the case, but shortly afterward bmibaby closed.
All the cases brought against websites were settled out of court. Once the organizations had fulfilled the requirements of the law, no further action was taken.
CDDO and the enforcement of accessibility regulations
The CDDO has taken over the process of compliance with web accessibility regulations from those companies, all in the public sector, that must comply with them. Each year, the agency creates a sample of public sector sites for detailed compliance checks.
An accessibility statement must appear on the websites of all public sector bodies. Moreover, this statement must be updated and revised if necessary.
If the CDDO decides that a public sector body has ignored the requirement to publish a statement, or that it is incorrect, irrelevant, or contains errors, it will mandatorily publish:
- The name of the authority
- A copy of the decision
How to meet the compliance requirements
Accessibility rules for organizations that are in the public sector were officially adopted on September 23, 2018, and must be followed by all companies. By following these rules, every organization is required to make their website understandable, perceivable, reliable, and workable for all users without exception. In addition, these companies are obliged to publish an accessibility statement on their website and to update it regularly.
It is important to understand that the rights of people with disabilities should never be ignored if your company is registered in the UK and provides services to this category of people. For example, any visitor to the site has every right to ask for important data in an alternative format that is convenient and accessible for them. Visually impaired people, for instance, can ask the company to provide this information in audio or large print.
All the rules and recommendations are described in WCAG. Here are several basic ones that can help you make your website more accessible to most people:
- Add descriptive alt text to images, so that it can be read by a screen reader
- Add keyboard navigation
- Make sure each instruction does not rely on visuals or sound only
- Make sure that multimedia content comes with a text alternative
- Ensure readability with the help of accessible fonts and detailed semantic markup
- Avoid using flashing images
In addition to websites, web accessibility rules also apply to mobile applications created by public sector companies. The only exceptions are mobile apps designed for students and certain categories of employees.
Each website developer must clearly understand that for a mobile app or website itself to be fully compliant with UK law, it must first comply with the international standard WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility statement and include an accessibility statement describing how accessible and understandable the site or app is to all categories of users.
It’s also important to acknowledge that in the case of international accessibility standards, there can be very serious legal ramifications if you violate these requirements. Therefore, the key way to protect yourself in advance from trouble is to be in full compliance with all laws and standards.
Ideally, your organization will have experienced consultants who can check how far the application or site meets the standards. This means that if there are any problems, they can immediately fix them. It can be helpful to hire specialists before or during the development process so that you won’t have to change many details after the site is complete.
If it is found that your site does not meet one or more of the requirements, you can delay fixing them for a short while, but this is definitely not recommended. It is much more sensible to understand what problems exist, identify incompatibilities with the accessibility law, and tackle those problems as quickly as possible.
The Equality Act 2010, as well as other rules, requirements, and regulations in the UK, protect the rights of people with disabilities. All public and private sector companies, save for certain exceptions such as non-governmental organizations and public broadcasters, are required to comply with this law.
Businesses must make their website and mobile app information as accessible as possible, conduct web accessibility testing and a web accessibility audit, and provide the information in a convenient format.
If you want to protect your business from sanctions, but at the same time you want to focus your attention on your prime goal of taking care of your customers, then we recommend that you hire a professional team. Experts will not only help ensure that your website and mobile application comply with all regulations, but also fix problems and keep your Internet resource accessible for everyone at all times.