What is our legal exposure because of web accessibility laws?

I spent just over an hour and a half writing an email after one of the directors where I work asked this question. It occurs to me that most of what I said in the email had some general applicability and there may be other people out there getting asked similar questions. It may be useful for all of us to compare notes, so I've edited all the company specific information out and you'll find the bulk of my response below. I'm interested in opinions on what I've said, what I could have said differently (or what I've got wrong!), other things I could have said and answers you may have given to the same question. Context: I work for a software company which provides a web interface as a secondary interface to a desktop application.

This entire response should be prefaced with the fact that I am not a lawyer and am therefore not qualified to determine legal risk. For definitive answers of our legal exposure we should consult a lawyer.

In my opinion we are unlikely to get sued directly unless we've explicitly promised in a contract or tender that we meet accessibility requirements. That's not to say that, should one of our clients get sued, we wouldn't find the costs passed on to us, but we are somewhat shielded as we are not offering a public service directly.

A number of our clients would be in a position to get sued, basically anything which:

  • provides a service to an employee through a website; or
  • provides a service to the public on a website; or
  • has anything to do with the government

is a viable target for legislation that currently exists in the UK. Note that ignorance of the law is not usually considered an excuse in this area.

In practical terms, it seems legal action is unlikely. Even since the government introduced the new guidelines in 2004, new websites commissioned by the government have not met those requirements - there was something of a fuss about at least one major project (see Blether: The DTI Responds for some info, and the resulting petition). For ultimate irony, consider that many of the legal accessibility documents provided by governments that I linked to in the email below are themselves in contravention of the web accessibility guidelines because they're only available in PDF or Word format... It seems that, even though the government has decided to make accessibility a legal requirement of any government web project they don't have anyone with the technical skills to asses whether or not the requirement has been met. In addition, comments I've read from representatives of major disability organisations in the UK indicate that, currently, those organisations would rather work with web site producers to improve accessibility rather than initiate confrontational legal action. However, it may be a case of waiting for the floodgates to open, the clients themselves are relatively unlikely to complain unless they face outside pressure. Any major UK government related projects or probably any project involving web in Australia, where we would either have agreed to supply a web application meeting accessibility requirements or it would have been an implied requirement, we may have some exposure.

From a technical standpoint, I only really started paying serious attention to this in the last six months. It is something of a technical minefield because, unlike other web standards, there aren't so many hard and fast rules and a lot of it comes down to the practicalities of popular screen reading software. Although there are standards, screen readers have to deal with the web as it is rather than as it ought to be. There are also a lot of folk on the web who are just parroting what they've heard before without actually having any practical understanding of the issues facing disabled users, these people often fall into the trap of assuming "standards compliance = accessibility" (myself included). It's also important to remember that disability does not equal blindness, there is a tendency to focus on blind users but there are also other vision related issues (eg colour blindness, partially sighted) as well as the wider world of disability (people with motor control issues clicking on small buttons).

One of the main problems from the point of view of our development process is that we are often trying to achieve a level of interactivity and presentation similar to desktop software under severe time pressure, and none of the people involved have much understanding of accessibility issues, so we usually take the easy way out. The lack of knowledge hurts us across the board, because at no point is there anyone who can assess the issues: client facing staff are in no position to evaluate the accessibility of client proposals and can land us with requirements which are always going to be problematic; sales staff focus on stuff which 'looks impressive' and that stuff often ends up in the product; developers are unable to meet accessibility requirements either because they're not aware of them or because there is time pressure to have an item produced; testers cannot test accessibility because they have no knowledge or experience in this area. Anyway, the result is that we have some issues with checkpoint 6.3 and checkpoint 6.4 of the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which are the basis of most current legislation).

Here is a potted tour of our current web offerings and their level of accessibility: [Summary of our web products and how much effort it would take to get them up to full compliance went here]

So what can we do?

This was from an earlier email I sent which led to the question, I refer to it above so I include it for context:

Some further references in relation to the Accessibility stuff:

  1. Australia was the first country in the world where a legal case was brought and won against an inaccessible website (the Sydney Olympics site)
  2. Here are some guidelines to the Australian law, the key thing to note here is that, unlike some other countries, the focus is on all web sites rather than just government information
  3. Guidelines from an Australian government website
  4. This article discusses UK legislation which came into effect in 2004
  5. Here are the UK Government guidelines (ie. for government websites)
  6. The US Americans with Disability Act
  7. Some discussion of the US ADA
  8. US Section 508 summary
  9. Irish Disability Act
  10. Discussion of the recent Dutch Web Accessibility Laws, likely to be taken as a model for future European legislation