Legal Uncertainties Hamper Technology Access by Disabled People

A lack of case law is hampering access to information and communication technologies and both public and private sector websites for disabled people, according to a new report on from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

Despite a legal duty on service providers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people, no cases involving ICT have yet been brought to court, the report finds.

The field is covered by two UK laws – the Equality Act 2010 which ensures that disabled people are not discriminated against in accessing services or information; and the Communications Act 2003, which gives Ofcom the power to regulate communication service providers in their provision for disabled customers. Ofcom have ensured, for example, that emergency services must be accessible by SMS message.

However to date, no case law exists for charges brought under the Equality Act, the report finds. Any claims that have been brought have been settled out of court under non-disclosure agreements, making it unclear both to individuals and service providers exactly what constitutes a reasonable adjustment.
However the report says a precedent may soon be set, as the Royal National Institute for Blind People has started proceedings against the low cost airline bmibaby, claiming that their website was too inaccessible for blind people to benefit from online deals. It is less likely the RNIB will settle than an individual bringing a case.

In the public sector, particular problems have been reported with the accessibility of many government and local government websites, the report finds. However – somewhat optimistically perhaps – it says: “These problems will largely be addressed after the introduction of a single government domain, due in late 2012, which will provide an accessible and consistent format for any government website with a address.”

Another area where government might be able to help is in procurement, the report finds. In contrast to the US, the UK currently has no law enforcing the procurement of accessible goods in the public sector but the European Commission is currently drafting a set of guidelines in this field – Mandate 376. Following their release it is hoped that the UK and other EU governments will use their spending power to encourage industry to develop accessibility features which will then “trickle down” into everyday technology, it says.

More than 80% of the UK population access the internet regularly but this figure drops to 55% for the nation’s 10 million disabled people due to social exclusion, inaccessible design of products and services, costs, motivation and lack of support, the report finds. Age and disability are strongly correlated, so as the population ages, debate on disabled people’s use of ICT will increasingly come into the spotlight, it says.

Another finding that might set off alarm bells in Whitehall is that cloud computing services are not always accessible or compatible with assistive technologies. With the government’s G-Cloud in full swing, care will need to be taken that exclusion of disabled users is not an unintended side-effect.

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology:

Reproduced from