The legal obligation
The Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 states that it is unlawful for "a provider of services" to discriminate against a disabled person in failing to comply with its provisions. At first, there was some ambiguity because the wording of the Act did not specifically mention on-line services - but the consensus has long been that it could be applied to web sites.
Any ambiguity was removed by the DRC's publication in 2002 of a Code of Practice which clarified that businesses should make their web sites accessible to those with disabilities such as hearing or visual impairments.
Ignorance among developers
The investigation also found high levels of ignorance among web developers on both the steps needed and the costs of making their websites accessible for the disabled.
Researchers canvassed the views of nearly 400 website developers. The investigation found that levels of accessibility expertise amongst web developers was low, with only nine per cent claiming any accessibility expertise. Only nine per cent of developers had used disabled people to test their sites.
Among those who commission websites, the DRC found that 97 per cent of large organisations (more than 250 employees) were aware of accessibility as an important issue, and 88 per cent were aware of their responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act. But among small and medium-sized businesses, awareness of accessibility as an important issue dropped to 69 per cent and only 48 per cent reported awareness of the legal duty.
Chris Rourke of usability and accessibility specialist User Vision said the findings reveal why inaccessible sites come about. "In addition to the expected conclusion that most sites fail to achieve even the basic (Level A) level of accessibility," commented Rourke, "it shows that the misconceptions from those who commission sites often cause the issue to not be considered."
He continued: "From their discussions with website commissioners and website development agencies, it appears as if the subject is discussed but then dropped, often in pursuit of creative or aesthetic goals. However, to a disabled user, an inaccessible web site is very ugly indeed. Businesses are willingly losing the business of these users as well as risking legal action and PR problems."
The DRC is appealing to developers to involve disabled users with a range of sensory, cognitive and mobility impairments from an early stage in the design process, and asking that they do not rely exclusively on automatic testing software. It recommended that website commissioners should formulate written policies for meeting the needs of disabled people.