Deciphering Digital Accessibility in the UK: Laws & Compliance for Inclusivity

A Full Guide to the UK's Digital Accessibility Laws

In the UK and across the planet, digital accessibility laws aim to bring about equal access to the internet and all it has to offer, for everyone, no exceptions. These laws request that UK-based netizens take a good look at digital environments that don't accommodate all users, and that they secure access for users with disabilities who may have been closed out.


As a whole, website accessibility, or digital accessibility, is the practice of making websites and web applications usable by people with disabilities. This includes users who have impaired vision, deafness or impaired hearing, motor difficulties, cognitive impairments or learning disabilities, as well as people with any combination of these conditions and others.


Accessibility laws in the UK require organisations to make their websites and mobile apps accessible so that everyone can use them comfortably, including individuals with temporary or permanent disabilities.


At least 1 in 5 people in the UK have a long term illness, impairment or disability, as well as the 1 in 6 among the global population who have a severe disability. This makes accessibility a moral imperative, as well as an urgent business essential. By making their websites or apps accessible, businesses can reach a wider audience and exponentially improve their bottom line. And of course, doing the right thing tends to work out best for all concerned, including businesses and public organisations.


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The Purpose of the Laws

UK digital accessibility laws champion a comprehensive range of disabilities: visual, auditory, cognitive, and motor. In simple terms, they outline requirements for businesses and organisations to provide equitable access to online content for all, regardless of any physical or cognitive challenges.

Regardless of whether it’s based elsewhere in the world or in the UK digital accessibility compliance has one fundamental purpose: making sure that everyone has equal access to important information and services available online. This must include people with disabilities who may use assistive technologies, such as screen readers or screen magnifiers, to access the web and other digital content. After all, in our modern lives, there are some daily tasks and important business that can only be conducted online. Why should people with disabilities be unable to access them?


The Evolution of UK Digital Laws

UK digital accessibility laws today champion a comprehensive range of disabilities: visual, auditory, cognitive, and motor. In simple terms, they outline laws and specific compliance to require that businesses and organisations provide equitable access to online content and electronically-based media for all, regardless of any physical or cognitive challenges.


That’s a significant stride forward from where we used to be. How did we get here?


One of the first major pieces of legislation on general accessibility in the UK was the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. This act required local authorities to provide certain services to people with disabilities, including physical access to public buildings, such as wheelchair ramps. However, the act was not well enforced, and many people with disabilities continued to face barriers to access.


In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a growing awareness of the need for accessibility in the built environment. This led to a number of new laws and regulations, such as the Building Regulations Approved Document M, which sets out standards for accessibility in new buildings and alterations to existing buildings.


The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) was a major breakthrough for accessibility in the UK, moving beyond just the physical environment and expanding outward to include employment, education, and access to goods and services. The first UK law to mention website accessibility was the DDA 1995. This law also began requiring businesses and organisations to make reasonable adjustments so that people with disabilities could access their services.


In recent years, there has been a growing focus on digital accessibility. In 2010, the DDA was replaced by the Equality Act 2010, which went further. The Equality Act strengthened the law on disability discrimination and introduced a number of new provisions, such as the duty to make reasonable adjustments so that people with disabilities could access their websites and mobile apps without difficulty.


The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018, or PSBAR, were introduced as a replacement for the parallel EU web accessibility law, when the UK left the EU. They were put into place to strengthen the legal requirements for website accessibility in the public sector, continuing the trend in the direction of equity online and off. Rooted in the principles of the UK Equality Act 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, this regulation amplifies their earlier commitments. PSBAR requires any website in the public sector must be accessible, if it is providing a service to the public, and all such websites or mobile apps must meet current WCAG standards. Charting its origin, we can trace PSBAR’s development back to the series of enactments and resolutions we mentioned, all converging to advocate for a more inclusive digital domain. These laws encompass public sector websites and mobile apps, requiring them to be made universally accessible.


One more legal standard to follow: the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is an independent statutory body. It has in its purview such responsibilities as the elimination of unlawful discrimination, the encouragement of equality and diversity, and the protection and promotion of human rights for persons in England, Scotland, and Wales. This body requires any organisation providing services ranging from banking to online shopping to make reasonable adjustments to serve the needs of all its users, including anticipating their likely needs. Such organisations are considered Information Society Service Providers (ISSP), and they have a duty to include all their users in the services they offer.


The UK is now considered one of the leading countries in the world on accessibility. However, there is still a great deal more work to be done to equalise the web, and to establish a UK-wide standard for people with disabilities to have truly equal access all areas of life, digital, physical, and social.


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Who’s Obliged to Comply, Who’s Exempt?

While many public sector organisations fall under the purview of these regulations, some are either fully or partially exempt, like certain schools or nurseries. The majority of public sector bodies in the UK are obligated to comply with the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018. This includes central government departments, local authorities (e.g., local and parish councils), most NHS organisations, and other public sector organisations such as most universities and colleges. This also includes certain charities and other non-government organisations when they are financed mostly by public funds, when they provide essential public services, and when they have services that are directed at people with disabilities.


Organisations: Exempt Due to Small Scale


Organisations also currently exempt from the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 include micro-organizations, with fewer than 10 employees and an annual turnover of less than £2 million, and non-profit organisations with an annual income of less than £25,000. Small-scale, in other words. UK government believes requiring full and complete accessibility compliance places an undue burden on these organisations. The fact is, accessibility doesn’t usually come free, and 100% compliance takes effort and time, as well as money.


The Disproportionate Burden Clause


Size aside, organisations can claim a “disproportionate burden” exemption if the cost of making their website or mobile app accessible would be too high. This exemption is only available if the organisation can demonstrate that the cost would be “unreasonable” in relation to the size and resources of the organisation. Once again, the law takes time, money, and possibly staffing into consideration.


While this might sound like an easy loophole, the term has specific implications and proof is required. Organisations can't casually wield the clause; they need a well-founded rationale. This clause is most likely to be applied to small business websites or personal blogs. Organisations that wish to claim this clause applies to them must, by law, conduct an assessment. They should start with a look at when the clause on disproportionate burden might apply.


Content Exceptions in Accessibility Regulations


Although the law's reach is broad, certain content types are exempt from accessibility requirements:

Perspectives on the Law

Drawing from UK news and social platforms, public sentiment varies widely around equality and diversity legislation in the UK. “It’s 2023, and our laws still have blinkers on. Digital inclusivity is non-negotiable; it needs to be expanded as well as enforced,” opined a journalist on the BBC to our staffer in a call. While many would agree, an anonymous but well-known figure in the nonprofit world let us know she believes that “While the intention behind the accessibility acts is commendable, it's unrealistic for all public sector bodies to adapt so swiftly.” To loosely paraphrase another business leader: “The accessibility laws in the UK are just too expensive to comply with. This puts businesses and organisations at risk of closure.”


We can see all sides of the issue, taken fairly. But can people with disabilities? Vision challenges aside, they’re likely to view things from the perspective of citizens who deserve equality and aren’t getting it.


Raising a Concern: User Voices

The UK has persistently championed inclusivity. Its laws, though some may disagree or push back, anchor a steadfast commitment to an accessible digital vista for all.


For site or app visitors who stumble upon non-compliant content, the UK system invites users to directly approach the public sector body in question, who should ideally have a feedback system. If the response isn’t satisfactory or is not properly resolved, the user can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS), which covers England, Scotland, and Wales. In Ireland, digital accessibility complaints should be addressed to the Ombudsman, after attempting to contact the relevant parties.


Why Does Accessibility Compliance Matter So Much?

Imagine you're exploring a new website or app, but serious barriers pop up at every turn. Frustrating, isn't it? We’re not talking about ads or requests to sign up for yet another newsletter. We’re discussing obstacles that are difficult or impossible to overcome. Why should it be that way for so many people?


By and large, most of us share a belief that accessibility compliance is essential for creating a more inclusive and equitable society. Everyone should have equal access to information and services, regardless of their disability.


Accessibility compliance is important for many reasons, but we’ll mention just a few.

Deciphering the UK's Digital Accessibility Landscape

Take a look into website accessibility standards in the UK, and you'll find several layers. There are two main types of UK digital accessibility compliance:


Public Sector

Public sector bodies must make their websites and mobile apps accessible to everyone. This is required by the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018.


Private Sector

Private sector businesses are not legally required to make their websites and mobile apps accessible to everyone. However, the Equality Act 2010 requires businesses to make reasonable adjustments so that people with disabilities can access their services. This may include making websites and mobile apps accessible.


Who Should Take Extra Steps Towards Accessibility Compliance?

Well, all of us, ideally. But specifically, public sector bodies and certain other types of businesses and nonprofits should be paying attention. Organisations that should be working towards compliance at a quicker pace include:


  • Public sector bodies have a legal obligation to make their websites and mobile apps accessible to everyone.
  • Large businesses have more resources to devote to accessibility compliance.
  • Businesses that target people with disabilities have a moral obligation to make their websites and mobile apps accessible.

UK digital accessibility compliance is relevant to all organisations, regardless of location or industry. However, it is particularly relevant to the following sectors:


A large number of people with disabilities rely on healthcare websites and mobile apps to access essential services.


Many students with disabilities use educational websites and mobile apps to learn.


Quite a few people with disabilities use employment websites and mobile apps to find jobs and manage their careers.


Government websites and mobile apps provide essential services to everyone, including people with disabilities.

Repercussions of Skipping or Skimping on Compliance

Some of the potential consequences of not being UK digital accessibility compliant include:


Legal action

People with disabilities may sue organisations for failing to comply with accessibility laws.


Some UK companies have had a court action brought against them and were required to make their sites accessible, such as the 2012 case with BMI-baby, where the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) sued after requesting that the airline make accessibility changes to its website, which it did not do at the time of complaint in 2010. An RNIB member had raised a concern that they were not able to make a booking on the site.


In 2021, Holly Scott-Gardner, a blind student from York, won a £5,000 settlement against the Student Loans Company (SLC) because she was not able to fill out an inaccessible form for a Disabled Students’ Allowance. The SLC improved the form and now say it is accessible and compliant with regulations, and that they are working to make all their online content accessible.


In 2023, BBC news reported that a settlement of £3,000 was awarded to Stephen Campbell, a blind man who could not use his screen reader to access the Health and Social Care Northern Ireland (HSCNI) website to apply for a promotion. There have since been improvements in recruitment process policies for people who are blind.


Most such organisations chose to settle out of court and deal with their accessibility problems, rather than face further legal problems, or continuing negative publicity in the media.


Reputational damage

Negative publicity can result from failing to meet accessibility standards.


Lost customers

People with disabilities are likely to choose to do business with organisations that are more accessible. And so are the people in their circles of influence.


Reduced employee productivity

Employees with disabilities may not be able to perform their jobs effectively if digital assets at their workplace are not accessible. And, not all disabilities are immediately visible, so it is wisest to make intranet and in-office applications and websites as accessible as possible. That’s aside from customer-facing website or app requirements.


Checking Your Digital Accessibility Pulse

To boost your website accessibility so it meets standards in the UK or, really, anywhere, the best place to start is learning the basics of the WCAG guidelines. They're your roadmap to compliance, detailing your how-tos from text contrasts to navigation aids.


But is your website or mobile app accessibility compliant? You don’t know until you review them thoroughly. There are a variety of tools and resources that can help you examine whether your website or web application meets standards for UK digital accessibility laws.

Accessibility overlays and widgets are an additional, rapid route some website owners prefer. They can provide automatic accessibility testing, monitoring, accessibility enhancements for users with disabilities, and other software-based options. Overlays or widgets are in essence simply small pieces of code that can add features such as screen readers, text magnification, and colour contrast adjustment to your website without needing to redesign it from scratch.


As always, we remind you that your best bet is to check online reviews and other relevant information to find which solution or platform is best for your particular needs. Companies like AccessiBe, UserWay, Siteimprove, AudioEye, EqualWeb and others offer top-tier solutions in the digital accessibility space.


Best Accessibility Practices to Prioritise


We suggest you begin improving the accessibility of your website or web application, following WCAG guidelines and referring to them at all times. Start with the steps below:

These are just a few examples of things you can do to improve accessibility for your website or web application. For more information, please regularly refer to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 (soon to be updated to 2.2).


The UK’s Quest for Digital Inclusivity: Laws Lead the Way

Accessibility is not just a moral obligation, it is a smart business decision. By designing for accessibility, businesses can improve their products and services for everyone, boost their bottom line, and stay ahead of the competition.


At the end of the day, though, no matter how cynical we’ve gotten, we all do want a better world. We all want to offer equal opportunities to our fellow human beings, or, we should want to. The UK has done much to make itself once again a global leader at least in this sense, fostering inclusion and setting laws for digital accessibility that intend to guarantee every user full and equal access to the the internet and the digital universe. But there is still a long way to go.


At the heart of the digital accessibility revolution is a dream: a digital space where no one is met with immovable obstacles, where access is offered to all users as a right and not a special benefit. From the child with a learning difficulty to the elderly grandparent who can’t see as well as they used to, to the hotshot entrepreneur who is deaf, we all deserve to be welcomed online. And when we do our best to put into practice the laws that outline the architecture of this dream, we make it a reality.


Accessibility compliance means meeting the technical requirements of accessibility laws and standards. Inclusion means creating a more inclusive world where everyone feels welcome and valued.

The primary goal is to make sure digital platforms are accessible to all individuals, including those with disabilities. This aligns with broader equality legislation in the UK.

There are many different types of disabilities, including physical disabilities, sensory disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and mental health disabilities.

The WCAG guidelines form the basis of many digital accessibility standards in the UK, guiding the creation of websites that are perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust for all users. They align with the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018.

While the primary focus has been on public sector bodies, private businesses are also encouraged to comply to build inclusivity and to avoid potential legal challenges under the Equality Act 2010.

The UK Equality Act 2010 plays a crucial role in promoting accessibility in digital spaces by requiring that people are not discriminated against based on their abilities.

This type of legislation underscores the importance of inclusivity and equal opportunity in digital platforms, pushing for necessary modifications to remove barriers that hinder accessibility.

Primarily, public sectors are impacted, but the ripple effect extends to websites in education, healthcare, and private sectors too, promoting an inclusive digital experience for everyone.

Yes, several tools and services like aXe, Recite Me, AccessiBe, UserWay, and Wave can assist website owners in evaluating and improving their website or web application accessibility in line with UK laws.

The core goal and guidelines remain similar, but the specifics and enforcement may vary. For instance, the ADA in the USA has different enforcement mechanisms compared to UK laws.

Businesses can start by conducting accessibility audits, implementing the WCAG guidelines, training their team on accessibility practices, and continually monitoring and improving their digital platforms.

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