Ensure disabled web access or face court, warn lawyers

Online service providers that fail to make their websites accessible to disabled users will be hit by litigation this year as...

Online service providers that fail to make their websites accessible to disabled users will be hit by litigation this year as part of the government's drive to raise awareness of the issue, lawyers warned last week.

The warning came after it emerged that the Disability Rights Commission will begin a formal investigation next month into online service providers. This could result in the closure of websites that fail to comply with the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act.

"There is likely to be some litigation in 2003 on websites that discriminate against the disabled, as has already happened in the US," said Suzanne Mercer, a partner in the IT and e-commerce practice at law firm Eversheds.

"This will apply particularly when people who cannot use websites are excluded from financial incentives, such as when low-cost airlines offer cheaper flights online rather than over the phone."

The terms of the Act were updated in 1999 to state, "Online service providers have to consider making reasonable adjustments to the way they deliver their services so that disabled people can use them."

The steps that online service providers are expected to take include converting text into speech, making forms accessible via assistive technology and providing text equivalents for important images.

Although the legislation has been in place for more than three years, many companies are unaware of their legal responsibilities, Mercer said. "Every consumer-facing website will be at risk," she said. "It is likely that a big name will be targeted to give everyone a wake-up call."

The push to make websites more accessible to disabled users has been gaining momentum over the past two years, driven by organisations such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind. The campaign was given extra impetus when the European Union designated 2003 as the European Year of Disabled People.

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