About 1,000 UK websites will be investigated over the next six months for their ability to be used by the UK's 8.5 million disabled people.
The sites will be tested for basic compliance with recognised industry accessibility standards. In addition, 50 disabled people will be involved in in-depth testing of a representative sample of sites to assess practical usability.
Commission chairman Bert Massie said the key aim of the investigation will be to identify recurrent barriers to web access and to help owners and developers to recognise and avoid them.
But the commission may take legal action in extreme cases, lawyers said. "There is likely to be some litigation on websites that discriminate against disabled people, as has already happened in the US," said Suzanne Mercer, a partner in IT and e-commerce practice at law firm Eversheds.
"This will particularly apply when people who can't use websites are excluded from financial incentives, such as when low-cost airlines offer cheaper flights online rather than over the phone."
The push to make websites more accessible to disabled users has gained momentum in the past two years in a campaign given extra impetus when the EU designated 2003 the European Year of Disabled People.
- The organisation charge of rolling out the UK chip-and-Pin programme for secure credit and debit card use has refuted claims that the point-of-sale technology behind the scheme will cause difficulties for disabled users.
"Suppliers have not addressed the needs of disabled users yet," said Nigel Langstone, technical manager at consulting firm Fujitsu Services, which has worked with retailers on the initiative.
The Project Management Organisation, which oversees developments for banks and retailers, insisted that disabled users have always been high on its agenda.