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A draft British Standard on web accessibility warns organisations to consider how easily disabled users can access their websites on mobile phones, tablets and TVs. Ignoring their needs could breach BS 8878 and the Equality Act, it says.

Standards body BSI has launched a second consultation on 'BS 8878 Web Accessibility – Code of Practice'. It is a non-technical standard that explains how organisations should create policies and production processes to identify and remove barriers that result in websites excluding disabled and elderly people.

A first draft of the Standard was issued in December 2008 and attracted what BSI described as "an unprecedented amount of interest." That draft has been extensively restructured, according to BSI. The latest draft addresses new issues including user-personalisation and dealing with user complaints.

A nine-page annex to the Standard explains the evolving legal duties for websites to be accessible to disabled users. It addresses the Equality Act, which is due to come into force across Great Britain from October, replacing the existing Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). It also addresses the DDA, which will remain in force in Northern Ireland.

The Standard acknowledges that websites, which it refers to as "web products," are increasingly accessed on devices other than desktop computers. But it advises that other devices can introduce challenges for users with disabilities.

"For example, users might wish to access web products via mobile phones, internet tablets, games consoles or televisions," it says. "However, some web products might not be accessible to disabled users of these devices."

"Making a web product accessible across multiple platforms can be difficult and consequently expensive," says the Standard. "For example, a web product might be optimized for the accessibility features of one manufacturer's mobile phone but it might be incompatible with the accessibility features of another manufacturer's mobile phone."

The Standard notes that support for accessibility features varies across platforms and the ability to make a site accessible on a particular platform may be constrained by that platform's infrastructure.

"While many mobile phone platforms (e.g. Android, Symbian, iPhone, Windows) do include the necessary infrastructure, most IPTV platforms (e.g. Sky, FreeView, FreeSat, Virgin Media) currently do not," it says.

The Standard suggests that if a website is not accessible to anyone on a particular platform, there is unlikely to be any legal duty to make it accessible to disabled users of that platform. However, it says that a legal duty may arise in other circumstances.

"If a web product has not been optimized for a particular platform but happens to be accessible only to non-disabled users of that platform, there might be a case for arguing that it needs to be accessible to disabled users as well," it says. "The test will be whether such an adjustment is reasonable."

The Standard lists the factors that might be taken into account when considering what is a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act and the DDA.

"If a web product has been optimized for a particular platform, there is likely to be a stronger case for arguing that it needs to be accessible to disabled users of that platform," says the Standard. Consequently, an organization needs to consider the platforms that can be used to access its web products."

It tells organisations to consider, for each platform: "the importance or popularity of that platform for non-disabled users; whether that platform is used or is likely to be used by disabled people; whether it is possible to make adjustments to the web product to make it accessible to disabled users of that platform; and where it is possible to make such adjustments, whether it is reasonable to do so."

The draft Standard also explains that the legislation can apply to some types of software, not just websites. "It is likely to cover software, and require it to be accessible, where it is provided as a download for installation and running on a user's computer or as an 'app' provided as a download for installation and running on a mobile device."

Jonathan Hassell, Head of User Experience and Accessibility at the BBC, chaired the committee responsible for writing BS 8878. He said the Standard gives site owners something that is presently missing.

“Site owners urgently need an end-to-end guide to help them to ensure their products consider the needs of disabled and elderly people at all stages of the web production process, from initial requirements gathering, through selection of technologies and platforms, testing, launch and maintenance," said Hassell. "BS8878 is that guide."

"This Draft for Public Consultation is a chance for people to tell us whether our drafting committee have got the content and style of the standard right and both given them an idea of the breadth of the parts of their production process that accessibility issues impact, and also demystified accessibility so they feel confident they know how to proceed," he said.

BSI is inviting comments until 30th June 2010. The Standard is expected to come into force in November after which organisations will be able to claim compliance based on self-assessment or by assessments carried out by another party.

Disclosure: Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, was among the organisations involved in drafting BS 8878.

See: The draft Standard (free registration required)

Copyright © 2010, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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