World Wide Web Access: Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes

World Wide Web Access: Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes

Version 3.3.1 - March 31 2009

Note: A Belorussian translation by Mr Paul Bukhovko is also now available

Work continues on the development of comprehensive recommendations for the implementation of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0). Over the past three months we have been considering all the issues, some of them quite complex, relating to an orderly transition to WCAG 2.0, and receiving a range of views from government, industry, and the web development community (including web developers, web accessibility consultants, and disability advocates with an interest in web accessibility) on the most effective strategies.

We are continuing to engage in a process of broad-based consultation, and at this stage we have not finalised a view on any specific aspect of WCAG 2.0. Our plan at this stage is to develop a draft revision of our Web Advisory Note that can be circulated initially to governments throughout Australia, and then to the community for a period of public comment that will inform the production of a final revision.

Until we are in a position to make comprehensive recommendations for the implementation of WCAG 2.0, our referenced benchmark for website accessibility continues to be WCAG 1.0, with Level AA of WCAG 1.0 being the minimum conformance level that we recommend.

For specific inquiries about WCAG 2.0 implementation, please contact Bruce Maguire, phone 02 92849613.

Version history

This version updates version 3.3 which contained the following addition to these advisory notes:

Interim update: WCAG 2.0 released

The Australian Human Rights Commission welcomes the release of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0).

Developed by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG 2.0 replaces WCAG 1.0 which has been used for over nine years as the main international benchmark for website accessibility for people with disability. WCAG 2.0 provides "future proofing" for website accessibility by focussing on generic, technology-neutral outcomes rather than on specific requirements that are limited to a particular technology. In this way, WCAG 2.0 applies to a broad range of web-based technologies, and compliance with the guidelines will offer greater flexibility for web developers without sacrificing accessibility for people with disability.

The Commission will be working closely with government and other sections of the web development community in Australia over the coming months to formulate specific recommendations and strategies for implementing WCAG 2.0 in a way that provides guarantees of access for people with disability and greater certainty for developers about what is required to meet their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Australian Disability Discrimination Act.

For specific inquiries, please contact Bruce Maguire

Contents

Foreword
Revision History

1. Introduction
1.1. Purposes and Status of These Notes
1.2. What is Accessible Web Design

2. Equal Access and the Web: Some Issues
2.1. Introduction
2.2. Equal Access is Required by Law
2.3. Content Versus Navigation
2.4. Access to New and Emerging Technologies

3. Access advice
3.1. Introduction
3.2. The Importance of Expert Advice
3.3. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
3.4. The AusInfo Guidelines
3.5. Other resources

4. What Limits Are There on Obligations to Comply with Access Requirements?
4.1. Introduction
4.2. How is Unjustifiable Hardship Interpreted
4.3. Nature of Benefit Or Detriment
4.4. Effect of A Person's Disability
4.5. Financial Circumstances and Expenditure Required
4.6. Action Plan

Foreword

Individuals and organisations who provide goods and services over the Internet need to think about how they make their websites accessible to people with disabilities. Almost one in five Australians has a disability, and the proportion is growing. The full and independent participation by people with disabilities in web-based communication and information delivery makes good business and marketing sense, as well as being consistent with our society's obligations to remove discrimination and promote human rights.

There is a need for much more effort to encourage the implementation of accessible web design; access to the Worldwide Web for people with disabilities can be readily achieved if good design practices are followed. A complaint of disability discrimination is unlikely to succeed if accessibility has been considered at the design stage and reasonable steps have been taken to provide access.

Through these Advisory Notes, the Australian Human Rights Commission (the Commission) is drawing attention to resources that will help authors and designers make their Worldwide Web documents accessible to the broadest possible audience. In these Notes the Commission provides advice about how web designers and website owners can avoid disability discrimination without sacrificing the richness and variety of communication offered by the Worldwide Web.

These Advisory Notes provide background information on accessibility and legal issues.

Suggestions for further revision or updates are welcome. Comments may be sent by e-mail to disabdis@humanrights.gov.au.

Revision History

Changes from Version 3.1 of these Advisory Notes:

  • content restructured
  • New content added (sections 2.3, 2.4, 3.2)
  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines more clearly endorsed as accessibility standard

Change from version 3 of these Advisory Notes:

  • the main reference point endorsed by these Notes is now the Worldwide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0

Change from version 2.2 of these Advisory Notes:

  • AusInfo has issued its Guidelines for Commonwealth Information Published in Electronic Formats.

1. Introduction

1.1 Purpose and Status of These Notes

These advisory notes are issued by the Australian Human Rights Commission ("the Commission") under section 67(1)(k) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 ("the DDA"), which authorises the Commission to issue guidelines for the purpose of avoiding discrimination.

These advisory notes are intended to assist people and organisations involved in developing or modifying Worldwide Web pages, by making clearer what the requirements of the DDA are in this area, and how compliance with them can be achieved. These notes do not have direct legal force, nor do they substitute for the provisions of the DDA itself. However, the Commission and other anti-discrimination agencies can consider these notes in dealing with complaints under the DDA. Following the advice provided here should also make it far less likely that an individual or organisation would be subject to complaints about the accessibility of their web page.

Developments in standards, protocols and technologies used on the Internet take place at a very rapid rate. These notes are therefore not designed to be exhaustive, or to provide technical advice about current practices. In considering any complaints about access, the Commission would take into account the extent to which a service provider has attempted to utilise the best current information and advice wherever it can be found.

1.2 What is Accessible Web Design

In its most general sense, accessible web design refers to the philosophy and practice of designing web pages so that they can be navigated and read by everyone, regardless of location, experience, or the type of computer technology used. Accessible web design is most commonly discussed in relation to people with disabilities, because this group are most likely to be disadvantaged if the principles of accessible web design are not implemented. Failure to follow these principles can make it difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to access web pages. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Worldwide Web and Director of the W3C Consortium, has commented that "The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect."

There are important similarities between designing for accessibility of the physical environment and designing for accessibility of the Worldwide Web. Accessibility of buildings and other aspects of the physical environment is best achieved through careful planning and attention to detail, rather than by adding accessibility features at the end of the design process. In a similar way, creating accessible web pages should be an integral part of the web design philosophy, and accessibility features should be incorporated into all aspects of the design process. Testing for accessibility should also be incorporated into any and all user testing regimes, and should never be seen as an isolated event that can occur after other user testing has taken place. Designing for accessibility is thus as much a strategic issue as a purely technical one.

Accessibility does not require that all pages be limited to plain text. More sophisticated and innovative pages can and should also be made accessible. In general, this involves provision of alternatives to an otherwise inaccessible feature, rather than any requirement to avoid innovative design.

2. Equal Access and the Web:Some Issues

2.1 Introduction

Government, business, educational and other organisations in Australia are increasingly using the Worldwide Web as a means of providing large numbers of people with access to information and other services in a timely and cost effective way.
Availability of information and services in electronic form via the Worldwide Web has the potential to provide equal access for people with a disability; and to provide access more broadly, more cheaply and more quickly than is possible using other formats. For example:

  • People who are blind or have vision impairments can use appropriate equipment and software to gain access to banking services, online grocery shopping, and electronic documents in Braille, audio or large print form;
  • People who are deaf or have hearing impairments could have more immediate access to captioning or transcription of audio material;
  • Many people whose disability makes it difficult for them to handle or read paper pages can use a computer, for example with a modified keyboard or with voice control;
  • Worldwide Web publications may provide an effective means of access for people whose disability makes it difficult for them to travel to or enter premises where the paper form of a document is available.

By itself, however, the presence of a document or service on the Worldwide Web does not guarantee accessibility. For example:

  • current text readers and screen-reading software are not able to interpret information or links presented only in graphics or photographic format;
  • material provided only in audio format will not be accessible to Deaf people or some people with hearing impairments unless an alternative is provided;
  • although users can determine many aspects of colour, size and print font of output for themselves, some approaches to text form or colour will render access difficult or impossible for users with impaired vision (and in some cases many other users also).

Further, people with a disability have, on average, lower incomes than other members of the community and, as a result, may not have access to "state of the art" equipment and software. So, even if access is technically possible, a web page may not provide reasonable access in practice.

On the basis of available expert information, it appears that it is technically feasible to remove most barriers to equal access of Worldwide Web pages for people with a disability; and that this may be done in a way that does not detract from the usefulness or attractiveness to other users of Web pages. In many cases, incorporating accessibility features will actually benefit all users.

The DDA does not require, and these notes do not suggest, that Web pages be restricted only to plain black and white text. Forms and formats that give increased functionality for some users, or increased scope for creativity by developers, are not prohibited or discouraged. It is essential, however, that where a feature does not itself provide equal accessibility, an effective accessible alternative should be provided, unless this is not reasonably possible.

2.2 Equal Access is Required by Law

The provision of information and online services through the Worldwide Web is a service covered by the DDA. Equal access for people with a disability in this area is required by the DDA where it can reasonably be provided. This requirement applies to any individual or organisation developing a Worldwide Web page in Australia, or placing or maintaining a Web page on an Australian server. This includes pages developed or maintained for purposes relating to employment; education; provision of services including professional services, banking, insurance or financial services, entertainment or recreation, telecommunications services, public transport services, or government services; sale or rental of real estate; sport; activities of voluntary associations; or administration of Commonwealth laws or programs. All these are areas specifically covered by the DDA.

In addition to these specific areas, provision of any other information or other goods, services or facilities through the Internet is in itself a service, and as such, discrimination in the provision of this service is covered by the DDA. The DDA applies to services whether provided for payment or not.

2.3 Content Versus Navigation

These Notes are not concerned with the question of what is appropriate subject matter for publication on the Internet. However, web designers should be aware that providing access to the navigational features of a web page is not sufficient to make the page fully accessible. The way in which information is presented will affect its accessibility. Documents that are presented in an image-based format such as GIF or TIF will not be accessible to people who are blind or vision-impaired and who rely on braille or synthetic-speech output to read computer screens.

The Portable Document Format (PDF) file system developed by Adobe has become widely used for making documents available on web pages. Despite considerable work done by Adobe, PDF remains a relatively inaccessible format to people who are blind or vision-impaired. Software exists to provide some access to the text of some PDF documents, but for a PDF document to be accessible to this software, it must be prepared in accordance with the guidelines that Adobe have developed. Even when these guidelines are followed, the resulting document will only be accessible to those people who have the required software and the skills to use it. The Commission's view is that organisations who distribute content only in PDF format, and who do not also make this content available in another format such as RTF, HTML, or plain text, are liable for complaints under the DDA. Where an alternative file format is provided, care should be taken to ensure that it is the same version of the content as the PDF version, and that it is downloadable by the user as a single document, just as the PDF version is downloaded as a single file.

It should also be borne in mind that some content, such as graphs and maps, cannot be made accessible online to people who are blind or vision-impaired. Organisations who need to make such pictorial content available need to consider strategies for making it accessible, for example, by using qualified contractors to produce tactual maps and diagrams on request.

2.4 Access to New and Emerging Technologies

Rapid developments continue to take place, both in the mainstream technologies that are used on the Internet, and also in the specialist approaches that are used by manufacturers of screen-reading software. The move towards the adoption of standards based on XML is likely to benefit accessibility initiatives. However, there is often a considerable lead time between a development and when the average user with a disability benefits from its implementation. New versions of screen-reading software are generally quite expensive, and training opportunities are limited. Web designers should assume that most users with a disability will not have access to the most current version of software, or know how to use its advanced features.

As an example, work is currently underway to make Macromedia's Flash technology accessible to people who use screen-reading software. While some positive progress has been made, it will be a considerable time before most users will benefit, and even then, Flash may be accessible only in certain specific circumstances. It is certainly wrong for web designers to assume that improvements in the accessibility of a technology mean that it can be used indiscriminately without regard for the principles of accessible web design.

3. Access advice

3.1 Introduction

The Commission believes that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines that have been developed by the W3C Consortium provide the most comprehensive set of benchmarks for assessing the accessibility of websites, and represent current international best practice in accessible web design. Familiarity with these guidelines should thus be viewed as essential for anyone involved with the design or evaluation of an accessible website.

In addition to these guidelines, web designers and authors have a range of tools and resources to choose from in meeting accessibility goals, and we think that the resources described in the following sections will help people provide accessible online services as required by the Disability Discrimination Act.

3.2 The Importance of Expert Advice

In considering a disability discrimination complaint about Worldwide Web accessibility, the Commission would take into consideration the extent to which the best available advice on accessibility had been obtained and followed.

The Worldwide Web is, by its very nature, a global activity. Widespread accessibility will be assisted by a universal performance Standard, and could be hindered by the proliferation of a multitude of standards. Development of industry standards in this area is proceeding at a rapid pace, and a high level of expertise is involved.

The Commission encourages web designers to use expert information that is kept up to date with Worldwide Web publishing and access challenges and solutions. A number of Australian companies and organisations provide consultancy and design services with specialisation in accessibility. There is currently no national authentication and accreditation of expertise in this area, so potential clients of such services should use standard assessment practices such as speaking with referees and examining samples of their work.

There are a number of evaluation tools and techniques that web designers can employ to test the accessibility of their sites. However, there is no real substitute for user testing, and designers should, wherever possible, involve users of assistive technology in the testing and evaluation of the accessibility of their websites.

3.3 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) has developed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0. Released as a W3C Recommendation on 5 May 1999 following a period of extensive review and public consultation, the WCAG is now a stable document and may be used as reference material or cited as a normative reference from another documents. W3C's role in making the Recommendation is to draw attention to the specification and to promote its widespread deployment. This enhances the functionality and universality of the Web.

The WCAG is rapidly gaining acceptance around the world as the standard for website accessibility. In June 2000, the Online Council, representing the Commonwealth and all State and Territory governments, agreed that the Worldwide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 will be the common best practice standard for all Australian government websites.

3.4 The AusInfo guidelines

The AusInfo Guidelines for Commonwealth Information Published in Electronic Formats were launched by the Australian government on 23 March 1999. They are a good source of advice on a wide range of issues in electronic publishing, including access for people with disabilities. The Commission believes that integrating accessibility into general authoring and publishing advice is the best way of bringing it into mainstream practice. The AusInfo Guidelines are intended to evolve to keep pace with best practice. The Commission believes that reasonable attempts to achieve current best practice will generally satisfy the access requirements of the DDA.

3.5 Other resources

There is a growing body of both general and technical literature in the area of web accessibility, involving academic, industry, government and community representatives. A major source of such literature is the Web Accessibility Initiative at the Worldwide Web Consortium.

Of particular interest to Australian web designers is the Better Practice Guide: Internet Delivery Decisions, published by the Australian National Audit Office. Component 9 of this document deals with web accessibility, and provides a concise and easy-to-read summary of the main principles of accessible web design. This section of the Guide is included for convenience on the the Commission website, at www.humanrights.gov.au/disability_rights/webaccess/anao_guide.htm.

Another useful resource for web designers is "Bobby", a software tool that checks Web pages for accessibility, reports on problem areas, and suggests possible improvements. Bobby and other automated evaluation tools are not a substitute for user testing, but they do allow web designers to get a sense of how accessible their pages are.

Web page accessibility checkers are available for a number of web authoring tools. These include:

4. What Limits Are There on Obligations to Comply With Access Requirements?

The advice provided in these notes is intended to give effect to the requirement of the DDA for access to be provided without unreasonable barriers that exclude or disadvantage people with a disability. In some (but not all) circumstances, obligations under the DDA to provide equal access are limited by the concept of unjustifiable hardship.

4.1 Introduction

A provider may be able to demonstrate that it would involve unjustifiable hardship to meet particular access requirements. Providers should note that unjustifiable hardship has to be demonstrated and cannot simply be assumed. In particular, stylistic preferences rather than functional requirements are highly unlikely to be accepted as constituting a basis for a defence of unjustifiable hardship (other than in cases where the artistic form of a site is a significant function). This does not imply any attempt to prohibit innovative design. It does mean that design must address access requirements, directly or by provision of alternative means of access.

Commonwealth Government departments and agencies, and other organisations where they are involved in administration of Commonwealth laws and programs, do not have the benefit of an explicit unjustifiable hardship defence under the DDA. These organisations are required to provide equal access free from unreasonable barriers.

4.2 How is Unjustifiable Hardship Interpreted

Where issues of unjustifiable hardship have to be decided, section 11 of the DDA requires the Commission or the courts to consider all relevant circumstances of the case, including:

  • the nature of the benefit or detriment likely to accrue or be suffered by any persons concerned; and
  • the effect of the disability of a person concerned; and
  • the financial circumstances and the estimated amount of expenditure required to be made by the person claiming unjustifiable hardship; and
  • in the case of the provision of services, or the making available of facilities-an action plan given to the Commission under section 64. Some of the ways these factors may apply to Web access issues are as follows.

4.3 Nature of Benefit Or Detriment

Unjustifiable hardship decisions involve balancing the benefits of providing equal access against any detriment that may be incurred in achieving access.

Benefits to consider in this area include:

  • direct benefits of access to people with a disability
  • benefits to other users whose browsers, hardware or line connections have relatively limited capabilities and who therefore benefit from provisions of alternatives (for example being able to select text access for a whole page or for a particular item)
  • benefit to providers by enabling them to reach an increased range of users, and to reduce the need to implement more expensive means of access which the DDA and/or the marketplace might otherwise require.

Relevant forms of detriment to consider might include:

  • difficulties in achieving compatibility between different access requirements
  • delays in publication associated with translating one format into another.

These factors, however, may affect how access should be achieved, rather than whether it should be achieved at all.

Where there is doubt about how different factors should be weighed up, it should be noted that the concept of unjustifiable hardship has to be interpreted in the light of the objects of the DDA, including the object to eliminate discrimination "as far as possible". The words "unjustifiable hardship" in themselves also indicate that some degree of hardship may be justifiable, rather than any significant degree of expense or difficulty being accepted as prevailing over claims for equal access.

4.4 Effect of A Person's Disability

The reference in the DDA to the effect of a person's disability, in the Commission's view, requires recognition of the fact that disability inherently means that a person may not be able to take advantage of some opportunities, equally effectively with other people or in some cases at all (at least in the present state of what is technically feasible). However, this reference directs attention to the actual effect of a person's disability rather than to assumptions or generalisations. Thus, for example, in the current state of technology the effect of blindness is NOT that a person cannot read web pages. Rather, the effect of this disability is that the person can read only those web pages documents configured so as to be readable by those devices delivering Braille or audio output which are currently reasonably available to the person.

4.5 Financial Circumstances and Expenditure Required

Financial cost is likely to be less relevant as a limiting factor on required achievement of equal access to Web pages than in relation to areas such as building access or public transport, where extensive and expensive civil and mechanical engineering requirements arise. To the extent that financial costs do arise, these need to be weighed against the benefits of measures to achieve access, including benefits to people with a disability, other users and potentially to the provider. As indicated by the reference to financial resources, more demanding requirements may be applied to government publishers, corporations and large education providers than to individuals or small businesses. This should not be taken either as a general exemption for smaller providers or as imposing unsustainable requirements on larger providers.

4.6 Action Plan

The DDA allows, and the Commission encourages, service providers to prepare Action Plans indicating the provider's own strategies for eliminating discrimination in its services. Relevant terms of such an Action Plan are required to be taken into account in considering a complaint against a provider that has submitted its Action Plan to the Commission. These Guidelines may assist service providers in preparing Action Plans in relation to their Worldwide Web presence. The Commission also has materials available on the process of preparing an Action Plan and (subject to resource limits) may be able to provide further advice in this respect on request. Direct enquiries by E-mail through disabdis@humanrights.gov.au.