Website accessibility law and policy guide

  • Author: Tim Lohman
  • Date: 24 Mar 2014

An overview of Australian law and policy that supports web accessibility and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 compliance.

Web accessibility, if it is thought of at all, is often thought of as a ‘nice-to-have’ or as ‘something we should look at… one day’. But the fact is that having an accessibility website isn’t just the right thing to do — it is a must, under the law.  

Despite this, many organisations across business, government, education and the not-for-profit sectors simply aren’t aware of their obligations under law, as well as under a growing body of policy, which demands they provide accessible websites.

With that in mind Access iQ has put together a brief overview of the major laws and policy directions to aid organisations in understanding their obligations. However, and as a disclaimer, the following should not be taken as legal advice or replace legal counsel on an individual organisation’s obligations under the law.

Disability Discrimination Act 1992

The cornerstone of the legal imperative for organisations to provide accessible websites is the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

The key element of the Act, Section 5, has been interpreted as requiring organisations to make their websites and web content accessible. This is because not doing so would result in someone with a disability being treated “less favourably” than someone without a disability. Also, making a website and its content accessible to someone with a disability is viewed as constituting a “reasonable adjustment” so organisations are required to make this adjustment. Section 5 states:

(1) For the purposes of this Act, a person (the discriminator) discriminates against another person (the aggrieved person) on the ground of a disability of the aggrieved person if, because of the disability, the discriminator treats, or proposes to treat, the aggrieved person less favourably [Access iQ’s emphasis] than the discriminator would treat a person without the disability in circumstances that are not materially different.

(2) For the purposes of this Act, a person (the discriminator) also discriminates against another person (the aggrieved person) on the ground of a disability of the aggrieved person if:

  • the discriminator does not make, or proposes not to make, reasonable adjustments [Access iQ’s emphasis] for the person; and
  • the failure to make the reasonable adjustments has, or would have, the effect that the aggrieved person is, because of the disability, treated less favourably than a person without the disability would be treated in circumstances that are not materially different.

The most notable legal example of a web accessibility-related discrimination action under the DDA is the case of Bruce Lindsay Maguire v Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games. While the case involved three elements of unlawful discrimination, one of the three was the failure to provide a website which was accessible to the complainant.

United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Further legal requirements to have accessible websites are provided by Australia’s 2008 ratification of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 21 of the convention states that, “… information intended for the general public to persons with disabilities in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities in a timely manner and without additional cost”.

The convention also urges, “…private entities that provide services to the general public, including through the internet, to provide information and services in accessible and usable formats for persons with disabilities.”

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the ratification of the convention means Australia has obligations to implement policies and practices that are consistent with it.

“The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities asserts the right of people with a disability to participate fully and independently in all aspects of society, including the internet and access to information. The Convention calls on parties to take all necessary measures to ensure that these rights are upheld and promoted,” the Commission states in an advisory note on web access.

National Transition Strategy

The major piece of Australian Government policy supporting web accessibility is the National Transition Strategy, or NTS.

The NTS, which came into effect in 2010, sets out a strategy and work plan for implementing WCAG 2.0 and conforming to WCAG 2.0 over a four-year period. The NTS is noteworthy because it states that WCAG 2.0 is applicable to all online government information and services, whether they are internet, intranet or extranet sites.

The NTS states that, “…accessibility is a requirement for all websites…” and that, “agencies that do not implement WCAG 2.0…  must accept they may be at greater risk of complaint under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and other anti-discrimination Acts.”

While many businesses may view the NTS as only applying to Australian Government sites, the reality is that the NTS should be viewed as a proxy for all organisations to conform to WCAG 2.0, regardless of whether they are a government agency, business, educational institution, NGO or NFP. That’s because all organisations are equally at greater risk of complaint under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and other anti-discrimination Acts if any of their websites are inaccessible.

State governments

Along with the Federal Government, state governments are also putting, or have already put in place policy to support web accessibility.

New South Wales: The Department of Premier and Cabinet committed to achieving compliance with WCAG 2.0 Level A by early 2013.

Victoria: The Victorian government states that as at December 2012, the website conformed to W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 at Level AA. The Victorian Government’s Accessibility Standard requires that all websites must be Level AA compliant (W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, Version 1.0).

Queensland: In November 2011 the Queensland Government said that its site had been designed and developed to ensure that its content is available to people with disabilities who may use assistive technologies. The Queensland Parliament site also commits to making its content accessible, and the Government also requires that all its sites carry accessibility information

South Australia: The South Australian Government states that its website has been developed by the South Australian Government to ensure government services and information are readily available to as broad an audience as possible. Other government sites, such as the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure acknowledge that they are required by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 to ensure that online information and services are accessible by people with disabilities. 

Western Australia: Western Australia has committed (.PDF download) to having all websites within the scope of the accessibility policy (.Doc download) are to be made compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) Version 2.0 Level A (minimum) or Level AA (preferred) by 31 December 2013. Accessibility is also a feature of the state’s AccessWA initiative and Western Australian Tourism Commission website.

Northern Territory: The Northern Territory Government has endorsed the WCAG 2.0 and the Australian Government’s Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy. The government has stated that it is aiming to have all of its websites and web content meet WCAG 2.0 Level A compliance by 31 December 2012 and Level AA compliance by 31 December 2014.

Tasmania: The Tasmanian Government’s Disability Framework for Action 2013-2017 (.PDF download) requires that the Government:

  • Ensure that all new Tasmanian Government websites are compliant with level A of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 at a minimum.
  • Develop a new structure for web content accessibility reporting based on WCAG 2.0 compliance.
  • Initiate a project for the provision of accessibility advice and testing of Tasmanian Government websites and publications.

ACT: The ACT Government has committed to meeting WCAG 2.0 AA level compliance. However it states that this is an “ongoing process”.

Want to learn more about WCAG 2.0 and web accessibility?

The Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility, a university-accredited online qualification jointly conducted by W3C member Media Access Australia and the University of South Australia, is a fully assessed six-week program that covers both accessibility principles and techniques. The course provides students with all the essentials needed to achieve compliance with international best practice in accessibility. Accessible documents, among many other aspects of WCAG are covered in Access iQ’s complete guides to web accessibility for content authors, web developers and web designers.