This guide is based on UK law. It was written in March 2007.
A website or other service that is provided to the public is caught by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). Neither intranets nor extranets are offered to the general public and if software is a product then it's not a service – so you might think they're all irrelevant to the DDA. Not so.
If you want to know about the duty to make websites accessible, see our guide, Disabled access to web sites under UK law: an overview.
Intranets and the law on accessibility
An intranet is a private network that an organisation will use to share information with employees. Part of the DDA deals with the rights of employees.
Section 4 of the DDA says: "It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a disabled person whom he employs … in the opportunities which he affords him for … training … or [by] subjecting him to any other detriment".
Section 5 of the DDA says: "an employer discriminates against a disabled person if … for a reason which relates to the disabled person's disability, he treats him less favourably than he treats or would treat others to whom that reason does not or would not apply; and … he cannot show that the treatment in question is justified".
Section 6 of the DDA says that where "any arrangements made by or on behalf of an employer … place the disabled person concerned at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with persons who are not disabled, it is the duty of the employer to take such steps as it is reasonable, in all the circumstances of the case, for him to have to take in order to prevent the arrangements or feature having that effect".
Most intranets will be caught by the DDA because they are used to provide basic information that helps staff to perform their normal duties, information like contact details, forms for holiday requests or appraisals, office manuals and more. Without access to this, a disabled person could argue that he is subjected to a 'detriment' in terms of section 4; being treated 'less favourably' in terms of section 5; and being put at a 'substantial disadvantage' in terms of section 6.
It follows that a failure to make an intranet accessible to one disabled member of staff could result in a finding of discrimination – and an award of damages against the employer.
This requirement has been in force since 1996 (longer than the requirement for websites which has been in force since 1999). There was an exception for workplaces with fewer than 15 employees (albeit smaller businesses are less likely to have intranets); but that exception expired on 1st October 2004.
Extranets and the law on accessibility
An extranet is a private network that an organisation will use to share information with one or more third parties, such as customers or suppliers.
If it is necessary for your staff to use your own extranets or those of a third party to perform their duties, a disabled employee to whom an extranet is not accessible might argue that he is being treated less favourably – though the likely success of that claim will, as with any claim, depend on the circumstances.
If you offer extranets in the expectation that another organisation will use them, that organisation owes a duty to its employees. If it expects a disabled employee to use an extranet to perform his duties and that extranet is not accessible, it could be facing a claim of discrimination. Accordingly, the organisation may pressure you commercially to provide only accessible extranets.
Software and the law on accessibility
Developers do not need to make 'packaged' software accessible to comply with the DDA because packaged software is usually classed as goods in the UK. If software is supplied as a digital download it is more likely to be classed as a service – and therefore it should be accessible if it is being offered to the public. This distinction may seem unrealistic given that the same software is often offered in both formats, i.e. as a choice of download or on a disc; but that is how the law stands.
There is a legal duty on employers, however: if your staff need to use software to perform their duties, that software should be accessible, for the reasons described above in relation to intranets and extranets. Recognition of this duty encourages software developers to make their software accessible.
If your company develops software and wants to find out how to make it accessible to the disabled, there is a relevant technical specification from the International Organisation for Standardisation, ISO/TS 16071. This provides guidance on the design of software that is accessible and connects and interacts with supporting tools such as screen readers, Braille displays and screen magnification software.
To whom is the legal duty owed?
The intranet, extranet and software issues described above are employment issues within Part 2 of the DDA and would come before an employment tribunal, not a court.
When looking at the duty to make a website accessible to members of the public, disabled people will be considered as a class. The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) states in its 339-page Code of Practice on access to services (1.29MB Word document, at page 68) that the duty on service providers (e.g. website operators) to make reasonable adjustments "is a duty owed to disabled people at large." The Code, which will be influential in any court proceedings, goes on to say that it is "not simply a duty that is weighed up in relation to each individual disabled person who wants access to a service provider's services".
Workplace requirements are different. The duties which the DDA places on employers "are owed to the individual disabled people with whom they have dealings," explains the 251-page DRC Code of Practice on employment (937KB Word document, at page 21). "There is no duty owed to disabled people in general," it says. Accordingly, an employer needs to consider the needs of any disabled member of staff.
Employers with disabled members of staff have legal duties that may affect their use of intranets, extranets and software.
Employers without disabled members of staff should think ahead when procuring new systems: it makes more commercial sense to 'buy accessible' whenever possible to accommodate a more diverse workforce.
The legal duty is not the only incentive. Accessibility improvements often bring better usability – and better usability can increase productivity.