Accessibility and the Law | June 19, 2005

Social responsibility is a lofty ideal. I would love to live in a world where each individual felt personally responsible for the world around them, and acted accordingly. Unfortunately the reality is much different. We live in an increasingly selfish society where the needs of the individual outweigh the needs the larger community. It’s sad, but that’s human nature.

So how does this relate to web accessibility. Well I would love to think that through education, social and commercial pressure, people would just get accessibility, and to a certain extent they are. Groups like the RNIB have done a wonderful job of publicising the need for more accessible sites, while the web standards movement has helped show web developers the importance of bringing accessibility into their workflow.

Unfortunately this isn’t enough. While it would be nice to believe we live in a self correcting and regulating society, the reality is very different. Some people suggest that in-accessible sites are commercial suicide and that companies will be forced to make their site accessible just to survive. Unfortunately that’s not the case. Discrimination targets a minority, and by their very nature minorities don’t usually have the social, political or economic power to stop the discrimination. Even if they could there will always be some individuals motivated by greed or ignorance that are willing to cut corners and ignore the social norms.

As such, legislation is a very important part of the process. We should be educating people about disability discrimination and encouraging companies to take a socially responsible attitude. However if that doesn’t work we need to have a legal framework to fall back on. If somebody feels that are being discriminated there needs to be a mechanism in place to help them redress the balance.

In the UK we have the disability discrimination act. This isn’t accessibility legislation, it’s discrimination legislation. As such the DDA doesn’t try to define what accessibility is and isn’t. What the disability discrimination act does is make it unlawful for any service provider to discriminate against a disabled person by refusing any service which it provides to a member of public. Further to this, from the 1st Oct 1999 the service provider has to take reasonable steps to change a practice that makes it unreasonably difficult for disabled people to use that service.

This legislation doesn’t demand conformance to certain accessibility guidelines through fear of prosecution. However it does give people a legal route if social pressure has failed. Rather than immediately being taken to court, the DDA encourages discussion and mediation. Only after all the parties have sat down and still cannot come to a reasonable solutions will civil action be started. Several companies have already gone through this process and all have made suitable concessions to avoid legal action.

I would love to live an a world where everybody acted in a socially responsible way. However the reality is we need to have legislation to help enforce equality in the cases where social, commercial or political pressure alone aren’t enough.

Posted at June 19, 2005 9:04 AM


Faruk Ateş said on June 19, 2005 9:58 AM

It’s not necessarily the case that making accessible websites comes from an idealist point of view. Social pressure is one thing, and sure it won’t be enough to make everyone care about accessibility. More important to me is the fact that taking accessibility into account, at least to some extent, makes the overall process easier and more pleasant. Going all the way on accessibility gives some headaches, sure, but the basics of it are just very nice and pleasant.

What I’m trying to say is, don’t think of it as some “negative side issue” that people won’t want to deal with. Think of it instead as a fun, easier and better way of doing things and people will just want to jump onboard out of their own will.

Web Accessibility shouldn’t get a negative tone, because that way you’ll really need legislation for it to get anything done. Make it a positive thing and people will just want to listen.

Matthew Pennell said on June 19, 2005 10:31 AM

Some people suggest that in-accessible sites are commercial suicide and that companies will be forced to make their site accessible just to survive. Unfortunately that’s not the case.

Exactly. The whole argument about “there are 8 million potential customers out there, you’re cutting off 11% of your audience” is a massive red herring; what company is going to choose spending money to reach that 11%, over doing nothing and still reaching 90% of the world?

patrick h. lauke said on June 19, 2005 10:37 AM

matthew pennell: “what company is going to choose spending money to reach that 11%, over doing nothing and still reaching 90% of the world?”

a red herring right back at you: if the developer has even a tiny amount of knowledge of the subject, and accessibility is built in from the start, rather than as a last step, i’d posit that - for baseline accessibility (i.e. we’re not talking about captioning gigabytes of streaming video, or tagging your entire PDF backlog) - the production/development cost is not significantly different.
the cost arises when retrofitting a completely inaccessible, table based, javascript driven, non-standard monstrosity…and yes, if it is done as the last step, the monetary implications will be significant. but there is a better way: do it right from the start.

Neil Ford said on June 19, 2005 10:47 AM

Interesting article Andy.

While I adore the sentiment Faruk, I firmly believe that while accessible design practice is seen as an optional extra and not as a legal requirement, there are many designers who will simply not bother to learn about it, and even fewer clients who will demand it.

Waiting for clients, designers and the web tool manufacturers to catch a bit of altruism may be a lenghty process without a nudge from society in the form of some legislation.

Jens Meiert said on June 19, 2005 10:59 AM

The education part must not be underestimated! From my point of view, the biggest problem is that most people simply don’t know. They don’t know about Web standards, they don’t know about usability, they don’t know about accessibility - and so they don’t care.

If a solid educational fundament does not succeed one day, we need to sharpen our knives and sue the hell out of them. Are you with me?

nortypig said on June 19, 2005 11:03 AM

If governments themselves could be pressured (I can only speak for Australia on this one) into only hiring best practise dev firms it would be a start. I’m not totally convinced on the legal side of enforcable laws though as here I think Maguire was the last one to sue in 2000 so busineses don’t buy that anymore.

What do you do about having the fine details of what’s accessible or not solved in a court by lawyers who aren’t coders or designers? Isn’t best practise a moving target? So logically as laws pass slowly there could be a harder battle pushing that barrow than simply passing a set of laws and saying that’s that then.

The problem I see is the prospects look at government sites and say why should I pay for accessibility - they go to big named CMS deliverers that don’t give a shod. That’s the way it’s always been done.

What I’m suggesting is that starting at the top may be a good idea… plus what government is seriously going to write and enforce a law that may cost them zillions in immediate law suits?! It doesn’t seem sane on their part to do so.

I’d hope education and constant pressure could do more than the strong arm of the law. Maybe it’s been more successful in the UK though. In Australia there isn’t a real stick there at all, not really.

I’d really like to know the figures on how effective the laws in the UK are at working though, it’s interesting. I knew a little bit but assumed they were as stagnant as our local ones. Does anyone have a URI of relevant prosecutions etc?? Just for curiosity’s sake? Thanks in advance.

I’m an optimist by night but you might find several ranting calls for laws on my blog lol. They are mostly tongue in cheek. Now I need a whiskey.. ciao.

Tony B said on June 19, 2005 11:26 AM

The ones that really wind me up are the ones who assure their clients that they have made their web sites accessible, but who actually don’t seem to bother with it at all.

Egor Kloos said on June 19, 2005 11:42 AM

Personally I see accessibility as a money issue. It requires more design up front and more testing at the end. The lack of knowledge amongst designers and developers end up pushing the price up beyond the reasonable. No wonder companies are reluctant to deploy accessible web sites.

So the problem is two fold. There is a lack of awareness and a lack of motivation. Awareness comes with knowledge and you can’t expect people to seek this knowledge it they’re not motivated to learn.
Motivation usually comes through necessity, when clients ask for something and add it to the scope of requirements.

These two issues usually are to blame for second rate work due to having to scrounge for the bare minimum of knowledge and skill to realise the project. Just enough so that the client will have to fork over the cash. Cynical? Yes. True? I’m afraid so.

Dmitry Zlygin said on June 19, 2005 12:35 PM

I think that attempt to legislate only accessible sites and deny inaccessible is like attempt to force all sites to use proffessional services to develop them. It seems to be the worst nightmare for the web.

Just think, we’ll get some kind of organization, that decide, is your site is accessible enough to suite current (rather high) standards, could it be in Internet or no.

Usability and accessibility myths shouldn’t interfere with web standards. Ability to access to the web for people with physical disabilities should be requested from software developers, not web developers.

Justin Michael said on June 19, 2005 1:45 PM

Thought you might like to know that, on the front page of your site, this post begins with this:

commercial suicide and that companies will be…

Might want to fix that. ;)

Dan said on June 19, 2005 1:52 PM

It’s still very early in the game. Web accessibility is in the forefront of many people’s minds in the UK due to the DDA and the publicity it’s received, but we’re only just at the stage of acknowledgement. For example, I see a lot of local authorities claiming to take web accessibility seriously, but falling well short once you look behind their nice AA and AAA badges.

The next step after acknowledgement is genuine commitment, and from that will eventually come fulfilment, but it’s a long way away.

We’re a very immature industry - our standards and guidelines are young and in development, and our interpretation of them is changing constantly.

As a young industry there will be unscrupulous players who are willing to make a fast buck by exploiting those commissioning work by selling non-existent accessibility. What chance does a non-technical client have of knowing what an accessible site looks like when we still can’t agree on the fine detail ourselves? Those damned automated tools help us not a jot, they just assist in hoodwinking the unwary.

P.J. Onori said on June 19, 2005 4:53 PM

My personal opinion is that designing a site without at least some standards in mind nowadays is a sign of incompetence. Anyone with an inkling of knowledge knows that standard-compliant design is quite possibly today’s biggest movement in web development.

Sites that ignore standards risk being black-marked as outdated, primitive websites - something that many times means certain death to one’s web presence.

Kev said on June 19, 2005 5:24 PM

Great post Andy, I entirely agree.

Paul Watson said on June 19, 2005 7:31 PM

Some thoughts from the various discussions in the pub on Friuday night I presume, Andy?

I think that we need to consider 2 different things.

Firstly, web designers and developers need to pay attention to accessibility so that they don’t discriminate unfairly against various sections of the population.

Secondly (and sometimes I think we as web designers/developers forget this), the people who make the software that people use to access the web also need to pay attention to accessibility so that they don’t discriminate unfairly against various sections of the population by faults in their web browsers.

If a user with low vision cannot resize the text on a website then who is discriminating against that user - the web designer who set the font-size in pixels, or Microsoft whose browser fails to resize such text, unlike other browsers?

Egor Kloos said on June 19, 2005 8:04 PM

“Sites that ignore standards risk being black-marked as outdated”. Well that maybe true but who is doing the marking? Not the users, nor are the clients kicking up a fuss over poor complaince. Andy actually indicates the only a number of site owners have been wrangled in to adhering to the bare legal minimum requirement for accessible web sites. The law maybe in place but it’s not changing the attitude and behaviour all that much.
The rise of Firefox will not improve the the situation, only that sites will be hacked to work with both in IE and FF. WAI en SEO will always remain add-ons to the overall budget and will mostly not be a main priority. The real world standard is not whether or not something is good enough but whether is it perceived to be good enough. You have to be able to sell it, to pitch it, because money talks.
Building web sites to adhere to the web standards is still more of a ideological exercise than a business requirement. Hence the law standing up for consumer rights. It’s not making much of a dent but I suppose every little bit helps.

Andy Saxton said on June 19, 2005 11:16 PM

I read all the post and also all the comments and I believe that all have made a fair point.

I have written an article about this subject on my blog and would welcome any comments on what other people think.

Basically I put forward, what I see, as a reason why large companies do not adopt web standards as a matter of course and why it is important to have groups such as the WaSP.

Lawrence Meckan said on June 20, 2005 12:02 AM

Two additions into the fray:

1) I’ve also ended up in a similar situation as Tony B where the vendor promises accessibility yet fails to deliver.
2) To engineer social change towards responsibility not only requires a stick (legislation and possibility of being sued), but also a carrot for the marketroids and suits stuck in the adminisphere. What carrot can we, as web designers, offer ?

patrick h. lauke said on June 20, 2005 12:35 AM

lawrence meckan: “1) I’ve also ended up in a similar situation as Tony B where the vendor promises accessibility yet fails to deliver.”

if there was a formal project initiation document that clearly stated what the expectations were (e.h. “site must strive to comply with WCAG 1.0 AA or better, as evaluated by our in-house web development team”), then you could potentially have a chance to get back at the vendor.

“2) To engineer social change towards responsibility not only requires a stick (legislation and possibility of being sued), but also a carrot for the marketroids and suits stuck in the adminisphere. What carrot can we, as web designers, offer ?”

the carrot of not getting sued. and the usual suspects: google is the world’s largest blind/deaf user, so accessible site may help better indexing and search results; accessible site more likely to work on a broader range of web enabled devices, platforms and browsers; etc.

Dan said on June 20, 2005 8:39 AM

Patrick: “if there was a formal project initiation document that clearly stated what the expectations were then you could potentially have a chance to get back at the vendor.”

But how would I as a client prove or even know that the vendor didn’t deliver? By using an automated tool? Nope, tells me nowt. By employing an expert to audit? Possibly, but that’s expensive and still proves nothing in law.

For the time being we have to be content with taking the moral high ground, knowing we’re doing the right thing and deriving satisfaction from that. We can also name and shame - anyone for an awards site which exposes the least accessible sites out there, or those who falsely claim to meet certain standards? Bad publicity is a very powerful motivator…

LSW said on June 20, 2005 9:14 AM

Unfortunatly, commeon sence and respect as Andy say always fall short . I recently finished a web site that took over a year to get up using every accessibility trick I knew for a Local Government Office, it is covered by the German accessibility law fo Gov. sites.

Now that it is finished, I am suppoed to go back and pste it is a CMS, likely Mambo, and give them back the ability to do what they wish, using CSS on all designn areas is to infexible, they wish to be able to underline all text they wish to underline, fix the font size as the author wishes it and to change text color regardless of my pre-defined and approved color scheme.

Comon sence esplanations about colorblindness, problems with znderlines and no-adjustable font sizes resaulted in a “ou work for us” attitude. I tried to explain that in fact I work for them bt I built the site for the person on the street, not their emlyees who simply wish to keep their bad habits form using word documents.

They pay and get what they want. But it hurts to take a accessible web site and castrate it to make it more flexible for the employees by making it less flexible for the user. Common sence does not do it, logic does not do it. legal threat is the only thing people pay atention to. Sad but true.

Adam Fellowes said on June 20, 2005 9:19 AM

The view I take on this is that we from a design and technical standpoint now build accessibility into all new projects from the start, therefore avoiding all the problems of having to retro fit the ideas and practices near the end of the project at great cost, resulting in delays. We do this without making a big deal about it as its mostly, at this point in a project easy to implement.

Disappointingly as soon as a site goes live it almost always instantly fails the most basic of accessibility guidelines. This is, not always, but usually a result of the low standards and poor implementation of 3rd party content. The worst of this regularly coming from advertising agencies who rely upon poorly implemented JS, iframes and make images animate (yes banners ads) combining the use of great alt texts such as “click here”. Apart from advising and guiding these 3rd parties upon how to improve, what can we do about this - nothing really.

As long as we have made the effort and have justification for what we have done, we can successfully have discussion’s as and when we need and of course if needed try to incorporate fixes as and when problems are brought to our attention which we may miss or not fully appreciate initially.

Franck said on June 20, 2005 4:25 PM

What if ?:

There were an iniciative where recognized Worldwide accessibility experts would help best of class Open Source CMS to be more accessible. How ? Providing specific advices from time to time, but above all defining rules/guidelines for implementing accessible features the clever way. The information needs to be very practical and business oriented (not the WAI guidelines focus), and the goal is to help training the dev teams about accessibility concerns.

Do you think such a thing could have an interest in making some buzz around the subject, provide a clearer information about a dark subject (sorry to say so) and ensure a wider + quicker roll-out of accessible standards (WAI A as minimum, WAI AA targetted) among the community ???

I know that Mambo CMS is willing to go into that direction for the next release (4.5.3), and I am pretty sure that the official dev team would love to receive some inputs and intellectual capital at the respect.

Something needs to be done to create the market. Such an iniciative would at least create an immediate niche market, for the 5 or 6 experts working on that group….

Just a suggestion, there could be millions of other way arounds.

Interesting subject again