About 4.4 million Australian adults live with some form of disability — roughly 18% of the country’s population. Discrimination against people with disabilities is illegal in Australia, but many organizations operate websites and mobile apps with severe barriers that affect real users.
Of course, Australian businesses have numerous reasons to embrace accessibility. Accessible design provides an excellent return on investment through enhanced brand reputation, higher customer retention rates, and improved search engine positioning.
But brands also have a legal obligation to create content that works for everyone. In this article, we’ll examine how the Disability Discrimination Act of 1992 applies to web content and review several key cases that establish the importance of digital accessibility.
Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act of 1992
Australia’s primary disability rights law is the Disability Discrimination Act of 1992. Like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Disability Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of discrimination in employment. It also requires public and private organizations to make reasonable accommodations for employees and customers who have disabilities.
While the law was written before the internet was commonly used, it has been interpreted as applicable to websites and mobile apps. The Australian Human Rights Commission enforces digital accessibility in Australia, and in 2014, the commission issued guidance recommending conformance with Level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
WCAG and Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act
WCAG is the international standard for accessibility. Digital content that meets WCAG Level AA checkpoints is generally considered reasonably accessible for most users. Because the guidelines are based on four principles of accessibility (perceivability, operability, understandability, and robustness), WCAG is applicable to a wide range of digital products.
Here’s what the Australian Human Rights Commission says about WCAG:
“The Commission believes that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 that were released by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in December 2008 provide the most comprehensive set of testable benchmarks for assessing key aspects of the accessibility of websites and other web content [...] Familiarity with techniques for implementing these guidelines is therefore essential for anyone involved with the design or evaluation of accessible web content.”
The Commission recommends consulting with digital accessibility experts to ensure compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act.
Penalties for Violating Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act
The Australian Human Rights Commission receives complaints regarding alleged Disability Discrimination Act violations and attempts to resolve complaints through conciliation. This is an informal process handled outside of the court system. If conciliation fails to resolve the problem, plaintiffs may be able to pursue monetary damages in the Federal Court of Australia or the Federal Circuit Court.
In other words, organizations that offer services through non-accessible websites or mobile apps may face litigation. Two recent cases demonstrate the potential penalties of non-compliance:
Mesnage v. Coles
In 2014, Gisele Mesnage, who is blind, filed a lawsuit against supermarket chain Coles for alleged accessibility barriers that prevented her from shopping on the company’s website while using a screen reader. The case, which was ultimately settled out of court, was the first web accessibility lawsuit to reach the Federal Circuit Court.
In her complaint, Mesnage noted that changes to the website prevented her from selecting delivery times.
"I'm asking them to fix the website, I'm asking them to not repeat this cycle of upgrades and accessibility barriers that has been going on for the last six years," Mesnage told ABC. “I don't want special consideration, just the same consideration of other customers.”
Maguire v. Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games
In 2020, Bruce Maguire, who is visually impaired, filed a case against the Sydney 2000 Olympics Organizing Committee (SOCOG) citing accessibility issues on the official Olympics Games website. Maguire noted that SOCOG’s website did not include alternative text (or alt text) for many images, and the site failed to provide accessible tables with information about Olympic athletes.
SOCOG unsuccessfully argued that making the improvements would constitute an “unjustifiable hardship,” estimating the costs of improvements at $2.2 million AUD. However, the Australian Human Rights Commission ordered the committee to resolve the accessibility issues and ruled that Maguire could pursue compensation if the barriers were not addressed.
Maguire was ultimately rewarded $20,000 AUD by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission.
To comply with Australia’s digital accessibility laws, follow WCAG
WCAG is the consensus for digital accessibility for a reason: It provides clear guidance for building better content, along with checkpoints that help creators determine whether the websites and apps are truly accessible.
The guidelines help to ensure compliance with all digital accessibility laws, not just Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act. WCAG has been cited by the United States Justice Department as a reasonable standard for ADA compliance, and many international disability discrimination laws reference WCAG directly.
To conform with WCAG, you’ll need to audit your content regularly and work with experienced accessibility experts. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help. For over two decades, we’ve assisted both public- and private-sector organizations, and our goal is to enable our clients to achieve, maintain, and prove compliance.
Learn more by scheduling a confidential WCAG 2.1 AA compliance summary for your website or contact us for a consultation.