The RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) has decided to sue BMI Baby over its failure to deal with the poor accessibility of its website.  

This is not the first time that accusations of poor web accessibility have been levelled at an airline, and it is no surprise that travel websites are an area of focus.

The 2002 Code of Practice for the UK Disability Discrimination Act (now the Equalities Act 2010) sets the scope of the act to include websites by citing an example of an airline which provides online flight reservations as a service covered by the act.

Ironically, this was around that same time the American carrier Southwest Airlines came under scrutiny for its accessibility.

In an apparent setback for the web accessibility movement, in that case the US court decided that a website is not a “place of public accommodation” as defined in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, under that law at least, there was no legal imperative for providing accessible websites for ecommerce.

Since then Southwest has greatly improved its web accessibility, as have most e-commerce sites.

Carrots and sticks: The case for web accessibility

The legal argument has always been an important one to remember when someone asks “this web accessibility is interesting but why should I invest the effort?”.

The main responses being:

  1. It’s the right thing to do. Why should a person with a disability be unable to use the web given that it’s enhancing all of our lives?
  2. Good / Bad PR. Getting it very wrong for web accessibility can come back to bite you at the PR stage, but if you do it right, there’s no harm in shouting about it and enjoying some benefits.For instance, Tesco has benefitted from an earned reputation as a more accessible place for online grocery shopping.
  3. It gives you a larger audience and therefore more potential revenue. What business wouldn’t want that?
  4. It makes it more likely that your site will behave well across other platforms.
  5. It’s a legal requirement under the DDA (as clarified by the Code of Practice).
  6. Anyway, it was Tim Berners-Lee’s intention that the web is accessible to everyone.

Whilst all of these arguments are still true, it seems in recent years that the momentum behind the legal case has slowed down, and most consider the threat of legal action against them to be minor.

In the UK, no website has been successfully sued for poor accessibility, although RNIB has previously taken aim at two high unnamed high profile brands and the case was settled out of court and maintaining the anonymity of the organisations.

As a result there is a degree of ambiguity of exactly what needs to be done to be “DDA compliant” (a phrase which is still inappropriately included in the specifications for some website builds).

UK laws refer to “reasonable adjustments” rather than any prescriptive legislation that spells out the exact technical measures, although most assume that meeting the basic level of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) will satisfy the UK courts.

A rising tide of web accessibility, improving but not perfect

Since the DDA was enacted, the landscape has changed. First, the standard of web accessibility has generally improved, especially among high profile organisations such as government websites and large banks.

There are still many examples of specific infringements of the WCAG guidelines, however it is less likely that these sites will be complete showstoppers for disabled users and accessibility is a recognised responsibility among web managers of these large sites.

The level of accessibility still needs to be improved especially in many medium size and smaller firms, and the continued awareness campaigns will hopefully help in that.

Some of this improvement is due to market rules of supply and demand where the currency is web accessibility skills.  More companies commissioning sites include accessibility in their design briefs.

As a result, more web designers have raised their game and built it in. Indeed, it could be argued that web accessibility is a “hygiene factor” to be addressed by competent web design firms.

This trend has been helped by guidance beyond the WCAG 2.0 technical guidance, especially the BS 8878  Web Accessibility – Code of Practice to help in the management of web accessibility.

Meanwhile, Twitter and social networks have provided ways that inaccessible websites can be “outed”. More helpfully to organisations, they can also be notified of their accessibility shortcomings by the end users themselves and those that care about accessibility.

Probably the best means of doing this is the Fix the Web site which crowdsources notifications of accessibility problems.

Importantly, it does this in a manner that helps the manager of that site to see the problem and also give appropriate advice on what they can do to improve it. A mind-set of “constructive criticism” is encouraged and they recognise the sites that make the improvements.

This last point is important and the RNIB itself actively encourages companies to improve their web accessibility.

When the RNIB is made aware of a site with poor accessibility, its initial efforts are to inform and help the organisation rather than rattle the sabre of a lawsuit.

It seems that it has have done so in this case with BMI Baby but it appears that the RNIB has finally lost patience and believes that more robust action is required.

Many in the web accessibility community will welcome this legal action by RNIB. I have heard and read many comments along the lines of “what’s needed is a strong legal prosecution to really shake things up and put it up the agenda”.

This may be such a case, although most accessibility issues can be resolved with the appropriate web accessibility support, and I predict that BMI Baby will prioritise its accessibility improvements, remove any barriers (which is the desired outcome) and the case will not progress to any type of prosecution.

In any event it will be one to watch with interest and good to see a renewed interest in web accessibility.

What is your opinion? Will a legal prosecution be good for the web accessibility movement? What else can be done to improve the state of web accessibility?