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A Brief Legal Overview of Web Accessibility

Let me start off by saying that I am NOT a qualified legal professional even though I have studied Business and Contract Law. This article simply expresses my own thoughts on the current legal situation regarding Web accessibility. You should ALWAYS seek professional legal advice if you are concerned about the potential consequences of Disability Legislation.

Disability legislation aims to ensure that the disabled are not discriminated against in employment and in the provision of goods and services. The Web accessibility argument seems to revolve around whether a Web site can be classed as a good or service.

In the UK the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), an independent body established by Act of Parliament to eliminate discrimination against disabled people and promote equality of opportunity, has clearly established that a web site should be classed as a service. On 26 February 2002, the DRC published a new, revised Code of Practice on the rights of access to goods, facilities, services and premises for disabled people. This statutory Code, agreed by Parliament, provides detailed advice on the way the law should work. It also provides practical examples and tips.

The May 2002 Guidelines for UK Government Web sites refers to the Code of Practice four times. With regard to providing services Paragraph 2.14 of the Code lists numerous services which are covered. In paragraph 2.17 a Web related example is given, clearly establishing that Web sites are classed as a service and therefore covered under the UK Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

‘An airline company provides a flight reservation and booking service to the public on its Web site. This is a provision of a service and is subject to the Act.’

In the UK there have been no Web accessibility cases so far although the Disability Rights Commission does list numerous other disability related cases.

Elsewhere there have been very few Web accessibility legal cases. A very recent case involving Southwest Airlines was successfully defended (presumably they would have lost in the UK), whilst AOL, Barnes & Noble, and Claire’s Stores have settled potential cases out of court without admitting liability. There has also been one inconclusive case, namely 'Hooks v OKBridge'.

The University of Kentucky has a list of University related disability legal cases, many of which have ended with the Universities agreeing to put things right – ‘voluntary resolution’.

There has however been one key legal case which was brought under the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992, namely Bruce Lindsay Maguire v Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG). This case is not legally binding on UK or American courts but it may be regarded as persuasive.

Bruce Maguire was born blind and uses a refreshable Braille display. He complained that the Sydney Olympic Games Web site was not accessible to him as a blind person. In particular, alternative text was not provided on all of the site images and imagemaps. Furthermore Maguire could not access the Index of Sports or the Results Tables.

The Human Rights & Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) delivered a landmark ruling on 24th August 2000 when they found that SOCOG were in breach of Australia's Disability Discrimination Act. SOCOG ignored the ruling and were fined A$20,000.

The HREOC dismissed defence arguments presented by SOCOG and IBM (who built the site). The defendants argued that it would be excessively expensive to retrofit the site to remove accessibility barriers and overestimated retrofit costs to be in the region of A$2.2 million. This defence was rejected by the HREOC.

SOCOG did not actively cooperate with the HREOC. The defendants withheld site information from Maguire arguing that it was 'commercially sensitive’ although this argument was rejected by the HREOC. Moreover, the defendants did not return telephone calls or reply to correspondence. They also refused to provide a list of witnesses as directed by the HREOC.

In my opinion the scarcity of Web accessibility legal cases is simply the 'calm before the storm'. We live in an increasingly litigious society and it is only a matter of time before all Web sites are covered by disability legislation. I believe that Web developers should take advantage of this period of grace and make their sites accessible. I think it is highly unlikely that a Web developer who has actively tried to create an accessible site would find himself / herself in court.

Remember, if two massive organisations like SOCOG and IBM can fall foul of the law then so can we all.

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