Disability Act turns 25 and a call for swift Government action

This week sees the 25th anniversary of the UK Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and yet, even after all this time, inaccessible websites that lock out disabled people are the norm. We need change, and I’m throwing down a challenge to the UK government to finally begin to take punitive action against organisations that overlook the needs of disabled users when designing digital products and services.

The Disability Discrimination Act introduced the requirement for organisations to make their websites accessible for disabled users, and now the principal – along with much of the other key elements of non-discrimination included in the DDA - is incorporated into the subsequent Equality Act 2010.

Disabled man in wheelchair sitting next to able bodied person by a laptop

Under the Act, organisations are obligated to make “reasonable adjustments” to the way their websites and online services work to accommodate the needs of people with visual or hearing impairments, manual dexterity issues or learning difficulties.

It’s not expensive to build-in accessibility, so every website and app should be broadly compliant – and yet the vast majority are not. Thus, millions of people with disabilities across the UK are experiencing additional challenges during Covid, when many essential services are going digital.

It’s been a legal requirement (and simply the right thing to do from a moral standpoint) all these years and yet the situation is still dire for so many relying on the internet to do their banking, order food and work from home. Whilst it seems that the Government sees it as their job to enforce every other element of civil and criminal law, this long-standing legal requirement for website and software accessibility has never been proactively enforced by that same government that created it.

Person using RNIB orbit device

Charitable organisations – such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind – have led numerous group actions against organisations (including high-profile companies) for falling short of their legal obligation. 

The settlement is kept quiet, often requiring non-disclosure as part of the pay-out. It should not be left up to individuals or charities to pursue non-compliant organisations. Considering that accessible websites and apps are actually easier to use by all, it should be of the highest priority during this unprecedented period when everything is being driven online.

There is a precedent for proactive enforcement. One of the last pieces of EU legislation that made its way into UK law related to accessibility – but only covering the public sector. The UK law crucially comes with an explicit warning that all public sector organisations would be monitored, warned and fined for non-compliance. That’s the important aspect that’s unique to this legislation. It also gave specific deadlines.

As a result, in the last two years the needle has finally and significantly shifted towards inclusion across a vast number of public sector websites. This impact will be felt by millions who need to interface with government departments, local authorities, universities and many other key digital services on a daily basis.

That’s all it took. The threat of proactive action with specifics on how it will happen. A similar approach should now be adopted across other sectors as a matter of urgency.

Man using assistive technology for visual impairment, and using walking cane

I'm calling for swift and decisive government action to encourage similar compliance across all companies’ digital services, to help everyone participate equally online.

The HMRC ensures that we pay our taxes and the police help keep us safe on our streets. Why is there no will to enforce the eminently enforceable and make the internet an equal place for disabled users? I challenge the government to finally take action and would welcome an initial statement of intent outlining their plans to start enforcement. It is so long overdue.

I look forward to the time when the accessibility of a website is as inevitable as a parking ticket.

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