Legal Sector Web Sites and the Disability Discrimination Act

June 21, 2008

There are many areas of law relating to websites, from data protection to intellectual property to advertising standards and a host of others. And most sites remain within the law most of the time. However, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) is a notable exception: the overwhelming majority of websites fail to comply with the requirements of the DDA. Our recent study found that the legal sector, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, fared no better than websites in general.
Part 3 of the Disability Discrimination Act covers the provision of goods and services, including websites. It states that it is unlawful to discriminate against disabled people in the provision of goods and services to the general public. Under the DDA discrimination includes failing to provide a service, or providing a service that is of a lower standard on account of an individual’s disability.
Disabled people access online content using a variety of devices, such as screen readers (software that reads pages out loud), refreshable Braille displays or screen magnifiers. If websites are not built and maintained to recognised standards, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), these devices either do not work, or if they do, the user’s ability to make sense of the content will be compromised.
In the worst cases, sites are failing to provide any service. In most cases they are providing lower quality services, to varying degrees.

The Survey

Our recent survey looked at the websites of just over 1,500 law firms, barristers’ chambers and accountants. It found that 84.3% failed to meet any level of accessibility as defined by WCAG.
Of those sites that did comply, most did so only to the most basic levels. Only 2.6% were maintained to a standard which would, according to WCAG, “remove significant barriers to accessing web documents.”
By far the most common fault was the absence of text equivalents for images (‘alt text’). This was the result of both poor site design and/or poor content maintenance.
The second most common fault was bad JavaScript coding. In the worst cases poor coding caused entire navigation systems to vanish when JavaScript was disabled. Estimates vary as to how many site visitors will have JavaScript disabled or otherwise unavailable, but the lowest is usually around 5%. We uncovered many other JavaScript problems which caused accessibility problems to varying degrees.
Given that a high proportion of professional services firms make extensive use of PDFs on their websites, PWS also assessed each firm for the accessibility of any PDF content it may have published. It found that 29.6% of the sites surveyed contained inaccessible PDFs. These days it is relatively straightforward to make most PDF content fully accessible. Nevertheless, fewer than 1% of the sites surveyed had added any accessibility features to their PDFs.
We found that 4.2% of the surveyed sites were built using frameset technology (which was well past its sell by date by the turn of the century). In addition to poor accessibility, frameset-based sites rank poorly in search engines and cannot be viewed at all in devices such as a Blackberry.
Other common problems included inaccessible forms and data tables, poor typography – tiny fonts and ‘justified’ (actually, pseudo-justified) text, poor colour contrast, lack of properly formatted headings, and tables used for layout purposes.
We came across three sites that were 100 per cent accessibility lock-outs. Two of these were built entirely with Flash technology. In recent years Adobe (manufacturer of Flash) has made great advances in making Flash potentially accessible. However, if done badly, as it was in these two cases, it can be terminal. The third site was a barristers’ chambers’ website which was constructed entirely from pictures of text, thereby locking out all non-sighted visitors (including Google).

The Future

Given that the legislation has been in place for over eight years it is sometimes hard to see where the impetus for change might come from. However, the newly created Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), charged with enforcing the DDA, seems well equipped to exert pressure. But will it be “the stick” of enforcement or “the carrot” of the business benefits of accessible websites that finally makes the difference?
Amongst the most important business benefits are faster document load times; lower hosting costs; lower maintenance costs; better search engine rankings; and, of course, more customers. For example, there are over 2 million vision impaired people in the UK and 365,000 registered blind or partially sighted – a significant market. There are also increasing numbers accessing the web via mobile devices which are not designed to cope with the poor coding typical of inaccessible websites.
Much depends on the effectiveness of the EHRC as well as the ability of the web development community to communicate the wider potential benefits to the corporate decision makers. But one thing is certain – change is long overdue.

Ted Page is the principal of PWS Ltd: