Main Menu

Is your website legal?

No business owner likes to think that their company is breaking the law, but in a recent survey only 6% of FTSE 100 listed companies had accessible websites (Aspect Group, Disability Rights Commission). In the UK alone that accounts for 8.5 million people (National Statistics Online) that are unable to access services that most of us take for granted.

Part 2 of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995, which came into force in 1999, states that all companies must ensure that the services they provide are accessible to people with disabilities. Most companies are unaware that this directive also covers websites. This was highlighted recently by the Royal National Institute for the Blind's court action against unnamed companies for having inaccessible websites ("Website Owners Face Prosecution", Andrew Sinclair, BBC News, Wednesday 17 September 2003). The RNIB have issued a statement saying that that they are planning to step up prosecutions until all websites are accessible. (Royal National Institute for the Blind).

Companies can also be prosecuted under The Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Act 2002 (Commencement) Order 2003 (SI 2003/2499). This order came into force on the 31st of October 2003 and states that website owners and operators must ensure that visually impaired people can access the site. Failure to do so could mean that the website operator is in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act. (Clarks Solicitors, Reading)

Making your website accessible does not have to cost thousands of pounds or involve time consuming re-designs. The following is a list of some simple things you can do to make your site more accessible:

  • Layout - Separate your content from your layout. The content should be specified in the HTML or XHTML page whereas the layout should go into a stylesheet. This allows the content to be viewed on a text-only browser without the burden of the layout and other formatting.
  • Style - Make sure that your page can be viewed or read properly even without the associated stylesheet(s). Most accessible users have stylesheets disabled on their browsers. A good way of doing this is to imagine the page being read to somebody over a telephone. You can also use a text-only browser such as lynx, available in Linux and for MS Windows under Cygwin.
    By providing multiple stylesheets and an option for the user to select their preferred view you can enhance the user's experience of the site.
  • Language - Make sure you use clear and simple language. Not everybody accessing your site may have advanced language skills.
  • Hypertext links - Read your hypertext links out of context of the rest of the page. Does the text still make sense? For example avoid links that say, "click here".
  • Colour - Not everybody can perceive different colours. Ensure that any meaning you wanted to convey with colours is also represented in some other way, for example changing the font or style.
  • Scripts, applets and plug ins - Provide alternative content in case active features are inaccessible or unsupported.
  • Frames - Provide alternatives (noframes tag) for frames. Also provide a meaningful title for the frame to put it into context when 'read' aloud.
  • Tables - Try not to use tables for the layout of your site. That can confuse somebody using a reader. Rather use stylesheets. If you are using tables (for their normal purpose that is) then make sure that line-by-line reading of the table is sensible. Also provide a caption and summary of the table.
  • Validate - Make sure your code is valid HTML or XHTML. This will ensure that most browsers can view it correctly. Use tools, checklists and guidelines whenever possible.

The W3C has created a set of guidelines for making a website accessible called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG 1.0). These guidelines define three levels or priorities for an Accessible website. The higher the priority number, the more people who will be able to access the site. The three levels are identified as WCAG-A, WCAG-AA and WCAG-AAA. The complete specification can be found at

There are some tools on the Internet that automate the checking of some aspects of accessible websites. These tools cannot however check every aspect as some rely on the interpretation of the content of a site. They do provide a checklist though of issues which need to be verified manually.

The Cynthia Says portal is a joint Education and Outreach project of ICDRI, The Internet Society Disability and Special Needs Chapter and HiSoftware. The website provides a free online tool for assessing the accessibility of a website against either the WCAG guidelines or the American Section 508 standard.

The Bobby portal is provided by the Watchfire Corporation and sponsored by IBM to provide a free online tool for assessing the accessibility of a website against either the WCAG guidelines or the American Section 508 standard.

Both of these tools can also be purchased for download.

Rhona Aylward, 19 February 2004

W 3 A provides a comprehensive audit of websites for compliance to the WCAG. More information can be found on our Website Accessibility Audit page

For a list of all the articles available from this site please visit our articles page.