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Spreading the net

Consider the problems that a disabled person might have in accessing the internet. What do you first think of? Blindness or visual impairment, yes, but how about deafness, colour blindness, dyslexia or even repetitive strain injury?

The truth is that unless you have personal experience of disability, you are unlikely to have spent much time thinking about the difficulties encountered in using websites by people who are less able than you.

But from October 1, part III of the Disability Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to provide goods and services in a way that makes it difficult for disabled people to access them. The Act also places a duty on providers to make reasonable adjustments to the way their services are delivered so they are equally accessible by all, regardless of disability.

The new law will have a far-reaching impact on the physical design of shops, offices and high streets. What is less well appreciated is that accessibility will also be a legal requirement in the virtual high street of the internet.

The size of the audience that has hitherto been excluded from full access to the internet is vast. An estimated nine million people – or 15 per cent of the UK population – have some form of disability and that is excluding the millions more with literacy problems or dyslexia.

It is a myth that disabled consumers do not have significant disposable income. Given the buying power of this segment of the population – valued at between £45bn and £60bn – it is surprising that the profit motive has not brought about greater advances in online accessibility.

A report in April by the Disability Rights Commission into 1,000 UK websites covering Government, business, entertainment and e-commerce found that 81 per cent failed prevailing web access guidelines. The same survey found that the average home page contained 108 barriers that made it impossible or very difficult for disabled people to use.

Further research on Britain&#39s supermarkets, published by AbilityNet in June, revealed that only Tesco operated a website that was easily accessible by people with a visual impairment, dyslexia or a physical disability making mouse use difficult.

It is tempting to conclude that if such retail giants have not bothered to take action, there is no need for concern. The fact is that, under the impending law, a disabled person may lodge a complaint against you or take their case to the Disability Rights Commission, which has a conciliation service. Alternatively, a disabled person can take civil proceedings against you. If the court agrees that you have discriminated against them, you could end up paying damages for financial loss, including injury to feelings. It looks as if it will be you, as the provider of an online product or service, rather than the website designer who will be held legally liable.

The Disability Discrimination Act is not prescriptive in its definition of an accessible site so the reasonable adjustments it refers to will become better defined as case law builds.

In the absence of a detailed rulebook, you could start by looking at the web content accessibility guidelines published by the World Wide Web Consortium. Taking as their guiding principle the ability of people with disabilities to have access and use of information that is comparable with individuals without disabilities, the guidelines are due to be updated with a second version. Among the highest priority recommendations are to:

•Provide a fully explanatory text element for every non-text element, which is useful in conjunction with a visually impaired person&#39s screen reader software.

•Design web pages so that they may be read without style sheets. For someone who is colour blind, the ability to see text in a different colour to that set by a style sheet could be the difference between them buying at your site or somebody else&#39s.

•For tables of data, identify the row and column headers in text. This is particularly relevant to financial websites, where numerical information is often tabulated.

•Where there is audio streaming, provide synchronised captions or subtitles, and where there is video streaming, provide an auditory description of important information.

There are other simple steps which are frequently overlooked. Text size on most sites is hard-coded, making it difficult to enlarge. Then there is the prevalence of buttons which assume the site visitor can use a mouse. Other sites are reliant on JavaScript and cannot be read by users of most assistive technology.

There needs to be a word of caution when it comes to the use of automated tools, such as Watchfire&#39s Bobby software, to measure a website&#39s accessibility. According to AbilityNet, such tools measure only about one-third of the checkpoints given in the web content accessibility guidelines and it is not at all certain that such automated checks will be viewed by the courts as a sufficient sign of compliance.

Perhaps the main point to be grasped in embracing the spirit of the new legislation is that of design by inclusion. It is possible to have both a funky-looking site and one which is accessible to all users but only when designing for accessibility moves from an afterthought to a core component of the development process.



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