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31 October 2022

The European Accessibility Act – 2 of 5 Insights

What is the UK’s approach to accessibility?

Eve Dunne looks at the UK framework of laws on accessibility.

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Eve Dunne

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Accessibility is a legal requirement for both private and public sector organisations in the UK. Given at least one in five people in the UK have a long-term illness, impairment or disability, it is important that organisations make their products and services accessible so that every person can use them equally. A disability is defined under UK legislation as a “physical or mental impairment that has a 'substantial' and 'long-term' negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.” This definition has recently been interpreted to include long COVID.

While the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital transformation by triggering an increased demand for online goods and services, it also highlighted digital barriers, putting accessibility under a spotlight. Some retailers also faced claims of failing to make reasonable adjustments for vulnerable customers who wanted to shop in-store, for example, by not having seats available while they were queuing to enter the store.

If service providers do not make their websites, apps and premises accessible to everyone, not only are they potentially losing out on revenue, but they are also exposing their brand to a potential unlawful discrimination claim as well as reputational risk.

For some years, businesses and charities in the UK have had some obligations in relation to accessibility, both in relation to the physical requirement (accessible building and facilities) and online. At present though, the digital accessibility requirements for government bodies are more stringent than they are for the private sector. The expectations for online accessibility of public sector bodies are set out in  the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018. The current applicable accessibility laws in the UK are the Equality Act 2010 and the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018.

In addition, if UK businesses sell products or services to customers located in the European Union, they must comply with the European Accessibility Act (EAA). Since few businesses will want to develop separate services, product lines, and distribution chains for the UK, it is likely that many will adopt the EAA standards for all of Europe, including the UK. Please see here for further information on the EEA. 

The Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act (EQA) is better known in relation to employee rights, but when it replaced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, it also covered the standards that service providers need to meet to avoid discriminating against consumers with disabilities.

Section 20 of the EQA requires service providers to make “reasonable adjustments” for people with disabilities both online and offline. This is an anticipatory duty, which means service providers must anticipate the needs of disabled people and make appropriate reasonable adjustments. A “service provider” under the EQA includes anyone who provides goods, facilities or services to the public or to a section of the public, whether for payment or not. The duty comprises three requirements:

  • Where a provision, criterion or practice puts disabled people at a substantial disadvantage compared to those who are non-disabled, to take reasonable steps to avoid the disadvantage. This involves changing the way things are done, such as changing a practice.
  • Where a physical feature puts disabled people at a substantial disadvantage compared with people who are non-disabled, to take reasonable steps to avoid that disadvantage. Avoiding the disadvantage means removing the physical feature, altering it or providing a reasonable means of avoiding it, such as providing access to a building by adding a ramp for wheelchairs.
  • Where not providing an auxiliary aid puts disabled people at a substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled people, to take reasonable steps to provide that auxiliary aid. An example of this would be to provide special computer software/assistive technology.
    • The service provider is not entitled to require the disabled person to pay the costs of compliance with these requirements.

      Service Providers only have to make adjustments if it’s reasonable to do so., taking into account certain factors including:

    • how practicable it is to make the changes
    • the size of the organisation
    • the cost of making the changes and the extent of the organisation’s resources.

    Equality and Human Rights Commission

    The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has issued a Code of Practice on Services, Public Functions and Associations which echoes service providers’ obligations to make reasonable adjustments to ensure accessibility and sets out the steps they should take to ensure that they do not discriminate.

    The EHRC also enforces the requirement to make public sector websites and mobile apps accessible. Organisations that do not meet the accessibility requirement or fail to provide a satisfactory response to a request to produce information in an accessible format, will be failing to make reasonable adjustments, and will therefore be in breach of the EQA.

    Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018

    For public sector entities, the EU Directive on the Accessibility of Websites and Mobile Applications was implemented in the UK as the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 (Accessibility Regulations). The Accessibility Regulations build on existing obligations to people who have a disability under the EQA and provide that a website or mobile app must be accessible to all users, especially those with disabilities.

    In order to be legally compliant, websites or mobile apps will need to meet the following criteria set out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and 2.1:

    • Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive - users must be able to perceive the information being presented, it can't be invisible to all of their senses so content must not exclude people with, for example, vision or hearing disabilities.
    • Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable. This means that users must be able to operate the interface - the interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform, for example, that they can only navigate using a mouse.
    • Understandable: Users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface - the content or operation cannot be beyond their understanding.
    • Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

    All public sector bodies have to meet these requirements unless they are exempt. Public sector bodies include central government and local government organisations.

    All new public sector websites must also publish an accessibility statement which makes clear the level of accessibility across the website or app. The accessibility statement should include a list of any inaccessible parts of the website or app and provide details on who to contact to report accessibility issues. The statement needs to be updated annually.

    If a public sector body fails to publish an accessibility statement or the accessibility statement is incorrect, the Central Digital and Data Office will publish the name of the body and a copy of the decision.

    The Government Digital Service (GDS) monitors public sector bodies’ compliance by examining a sample of public sector websites and mobile apps every year. The GDS can ask for information and request access to intranets, extranets, apps or any public sector website.

    Individual users can also raise an accessibility issue directly with the public sector organisation.

    Exceptions to the Accessibility Regulations

    A public sector organisation may not have to meet the requirements for their website or app if doing so would be a disproportionate burden, for example, if it’s very expensive to make changes and those changes would bring very limited benefits to the users.

    The following organisations are exempt:

    • Non-government organisations like charities - unless they are mostly financed by public funding or provide services that are essential to the public or aimed at people with a disability.
    • Schools or nurseries are partially exempt - except for the content people need in order to use their services, for example, a form that lets people choose school meal preferences.

    However, partially exempt organisations still need to publish an accessibility statement on their website or app.

    How can UK businesses make their services more accessible in order to comply with UK legislation?

    Website and mobile app accessibility

    Website accessibility is particularly important in view of the fact that the number of disabled adults who were recent internet users in 2020 reached almost 11 million (81% of disabled adults); up from just over 10 million (78% of disabled adults) in 2019 according to the Office of National Statistics. Service providers can add various features to their websites to make them more accessible by providing the following:

    • an alternative to an audio or video message, by making a transcripts of the message available
    • flexible screen magnification, for users who have low vision
    • alternative text for images, helping users with visual or certain cognitive disabilities perceive the content and function of the images
    • using high-contrast colours (especially important for users who have low vision or are colour blind)
    • volume adjustment for users with hearing disabilities
    • making sure users can move through content in a way that makes sense
    • enabling keyboard navigation (not just by using a mouse) as many users with motor disabilities rely on a keyboard
    • making it easy for users to disable and change shortcut keys.

     In relation to mobile apps, service providers can:

    • create consistent navigation across the app
    • use appropriate colour contrast
    • enable speech recognition
    • if the app contains audio material, ensure that users have other methods to interact with the app by adding, for example, a transcript
    • ensure the app has a clear layout.

    Accessibility to premises

    Making various physical changes to buildings such as:

    • ensuring corridors and doors in the building are wheelchair accessible by removing obstacles and installing ramps
    • installing lifts where possible
    • providing accessible toilets and parking spaces
    • adjusting tables, service counters and intercoms so they are not awkward to reach
    • ensuring that any signs have braille or raised lettering wherever possible and using writing that is large enough for customers to read.

    Customer Service

    Service providers can make their customer service is accessible to everyone by ensuring that:

    • people can contact a business in a variety of ways, for example, by phone, text, email or fax
    • staff are trained to assist disabled customers
    • having clear and easy-to-find customer service options.

    Discrimination claims against service providers in the UK

    While there haven’t been a large number of known claims (aside from those related to employment) initiated against service providers since the EQA came into force, the number of claims has increased in recent years, particularly during the pandemic. In 2020, a number of supermarkets faced mass legal action over discrimination for allegedly failing to make reasonable adjustments necessary for disabled people to shop safely during the pandemic. Many reportedly found it impossible to order home deliveries online, because they are not in the small proportion of disabled people seen by the government as being “extremely clinically vulnerable”.

    The Equality and Human Rights Commission wrote an open letter to the British Retail Consortium, highlighting concerns that a large number of disabled people in the UK, who fell outside the government’s high risk groups, were facing additional barriers to essential shopping.

    What does the future hold for accessibility in the UK?

    The pandemic has led to more people using the internet and an increased need for services to be primarily online (eg ordering groceries and booking medical appointments), so websites and apps will be under increased scrutiny.

    Disability has been one of the drivers of technical innovation, and there have been massive developments over the last few years in assistive software. There are now numerous accessibility tools available, for example, to assist with finding the right colour palettes and to create more readable content for websites and apps. There are also tools to help organisations test how accessible their websites are and what changes they can make if they do not meet accessibility standards.

    There are no substantive changes to UK accessibility legislation currently in the pipeline. There has also been a distinct lack of enforcement of the EQA to date. The need to meet the EAA’s requirements to trade in the UK will be a driving force towards greater accessibility in the UK. Investment in accessibility will help businesses to meet previously untapped customer needs as well as enable them to market themselves as accessible and socially responsible organisations. Accessibility is good business as well as morally preferable. Many businesses are becoming more aware of the importance and benefits of accessibility and investment in accessibility is likely to continue, whether or not it is required of UK businesses for their cross-border activities.

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