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The Equality Act of 2010 and British Standards for Web Accessibility

Feb 24, 2022

In Britain, public- and private-sector organizations must provide accessible digital resources. The Equality Act of 2010 prevents businesses from discriminating on the basis of disability, and unlike some other international accessibility laws, the Equality Act explicitly applies to websites. However, it does not contain a technical standard. 

Fortunately, organizations have a resource for creating accessible websites and mobile apps. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the most widely cited international standards for digital accessibility, and content that conforms with the latest version of WCAG can demonstrate compliance with non-discrimination laws — including the Equality Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the European Accessibility Act (EAA)

Below, we’ll address important factors that determine whether a website or app complies with the Equality Act of 2010. To find out whether your website offers a reliable experience for people with disabilities, download the Bureau of Internet Accessibility’s free website accessibility checklist.

Related: Is There a Legal Requirement to Implement WCAG?

How Digital Accessibility Affects UK Web Users

To understand the Equality Act, it’s helpful to consider how web design decisions affect real-life users. Many developers create products for a specific audience: people who use a keyboard and mouse to browse the internet. The “ideal" user can perceive every onscreen element and understand how forms and navigational elements function. 

This ignores how real people use the internet. Some visitors may not have perfect vision, or they may use assistive technologies like screen readers to browse a website. Many people use a keyboard alone — no mouse — to navigate from page to page. 

When websites are not designed for accessibility, these users may encounter barriers that prevent them from using the content. For instance:

  • If a website doesn’t contain alternative text (also called alt text) for images, people who use screen readers won’t be able to understand the purpose of the images. 
  • If a website uses poor color contrast, some text may be unreadable, particularly for people who have color vision deficiencies or other vision impairments. 
  • When videos do not have text alternatives (such as transcripts), Deaf users and people with hearing disabilities may be unable to understand the content.

Accessibility laws are intended to prevent these situations from occurring. Like many similar laws, the Equality Act strongly recommends conformance with WCAG Level AA.

While the Equality Act of 2010 was important legislation, it wasn’t a massive change in British law: the Act did not change existing requirements to accommodate employees and customers with disabilities. However, it provided clarification by including websites in “provisions of services.”

The full text of the Equality Act allows for the consideration of financial resources and other factors in defining a “reasonable adjustment" for a particular organization (or reasonable accommodation). Even so, the legislation establishes a clear requirement for providing accessible content online, and the government provides some guidance for defining reasonable adjustments in individual circumstances.

Related: The Most Common Web Accessibility Issues to Avoid

British Standard BS8878 and the Equality Act

British Standard (BS) 8878 outlined additional requirements for digital accessibility. Published on November 30, 2010, it applies to all “web products,” including websites, email clients, virtual learning environments, software as a service, and Rich Internet Applications (RIA). While BS 8878 does not specifically mention mobile applications, it has been interpreted as applicable for those applications.

BS 8878 does not contain technical specifications — it’s not intended to replace WCAG — but it provides useful guidance for incorporating the best practices of accessibility. In 2019, BS 8878 was replaced with the international standard ISO 30071-1, which contains much of the same language and nearly identical recommendations. 

Both BS 8878 and ISO 3007-1 recommend the following: 

  • Organizations should consider accessibility when making decisions throughout the development process. 
  • Organizations should have an established policy for digital accessibility, and decisions related to digital accessibility should be documented.
  • Organizations should communicate accessibility decisions to users when launching products by publishing an accessibility statement.

Both documents recommend conformance with WCAG Level AA (learn about the differences between WCAG levels here). 

Demonstrating Compliance with British Accessibility Laws

Every organization has powerful reasons to create accessible content, and WCAG provides the best roadmap for achieving digital accessibility. With technical standards based on four principles of accessibility (perceivability, operability, understandability, and robustness), WCAG offers straightforward guidance for avoiding — or remediating — barriers that affect real-life users. 

And while many organizations pursue WCAG conformance to comply with non-discrimination laws, there are other key considerations to keep in mind: In a 2019/2019 Family Resources Survey, 14.1 million people in the United Kingdom reported having a disability. Of the pension-age population, about 46% report having a disability. 

When brands ignore these users, they miss an opportunity to reach a wide, diverse audience. Many accessibility improvements can enhance the online experiences of every web user, regardless of their abilities, and organizations that conform with WCAG Level AA enjoy better user retention, lower product development costs, and enhanced brand sentiment.  

Related: The Business Case for an Accessible Website

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