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Making a firm’s website accessible to disabled people should not be difficult and will ensure it complies with the Disability Discrimination Act, says Helen Monks

What do the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games have to with UK financial advisers? The answer is that a legal case involving the organising committee for the Games and a disabled web user is being held up as an example of how the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act might be enforced in the UK.

If website design does not take into consideration the needs of disabled users, such as the visually impaired and blind, dyslexic or those with motor disabilities, then they are effectively inhibited from accessing the services usually available to the able. This means there may be grounds for one of the UK’s estimated nine million disabled consumers to take legal action under the act.

Broadly speaking, the act makes it unlawful to discriminate against the disabled in the way in which you recruit and employ people or provide services and education. Discrimination can take place by treating a disabled person less favourably or failing to make reasonable adjustments sothey can participate in employment and education or make use of a service.

Since 1999, web service providers have had an obligation to ensure that websites are fully accessible to disabled people – a position clarified by an amendment to the act. But if disabled users are offered access to the same services through an alternative means, such as 24-hour telephone banking, it is possible to argue that discrimination has not taken place in the provision of that service.

While there is no case history which can contribute to a full understanding of what constitutes discrimination in the UK – although it is worth noting that the Royal National Institute for the Blind has pursued two cases on behalf of disabled web users, both of which were settled before they went to court – the Australian case is often used to illustrate the potential pitfalls of failing to consider the needs of disabled web users.

In June 1999, a blind web user, Bruce Maguire, lodged a complaint against the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission under Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

Maguire alleged that Socoq’s website was inaccessible to him as a blind person. He did not use screen-reading software, which reads out web pages, but a refreshable Braille display. Both types of technology require graphics to have a descriptive text equivalent which can then be communicated to the user.

Partly because the website was heavy with images that had no text equivalents, Maguire contended that significant parts of the Socoq website were inaccessible to him. In August 2000, the HREOC agreed and ordered certain access provisions to be put in place on the site. It also fined Socog when changes were not made in a timely fashion.

Skipton Building Society senior e-commerce consultant Darren Cousins says a similar situation could occur in the UK. He says: “A repeat here is very likely if a company accused of operating in a discriminatory fashion is unwilling to make the recommended changes.

“That said, where possible and particularly where a positive attitude to compliance is displayed, the aim of the parties involved is likely to be to settle out of court.”

Cousins says it would only take one high-profile case in the UK to potentially send the fees of web compliance consultants soaring.

So, what is the extent of the problems affecting disabled web users and what should IFAs be doing if they have never considered web access issues?

An investigation by the Disability Rights Commission in April last year tested 1,000 websites and suggested that more than 80 per cent were unusable by disabled people. Activities such as managing a bank account online, searching for the cheapest credit card and booking a holiday were difficult or impossible for many disabled people.

Where an advisory firm fears that some of its online services might be inaccessible, Gwilym Morris of specialist web consultant The Pollen Shop (www.the pollenshop.co.uk) says the first thing to do is not panic.

He says if a business is asked to change its website, it will concern “reasonable measures” and should not be prohibitively expensive.

“It is not the intention to send small businesses out of business with the cost and effort of avoiding discriminatory practices,” he says.

The other good news, according to Morris and Cousins, is that there is a wealth of help and guidance available. Morris also makes the point that charities such as the RNIB aim to help businesses increase their accessibility by providing the tools and expertise at often nominal costs.

Cousins says: “Busin- esses that make sure their websites comply with the accessibility guidelines can go on to tap a long disenfranchised market nd more than likely increase the usability of their web- sites for all customers.”

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