Litigation a real threat for sites not following disability standards

Companies should treat the UK's first case brought under the Disability Discrimination Act as a wake-up call, lawyers have said.

Companies should treat the UK's first case brought under the Disability Discrimination Act as a wake-up call, lawyers have said.

Last week, the Royal National Institute for the Blind confirmed that it is supporting a number of individuals in cases against companies which are failing to make websites available to visually impaired users.

Under the Disability Discrimination Act, passed in 1995, all organisations are required to make reasonable adjustments to their systems to allow people with disabilities to access them. The Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people in employment and in the provision of goods, services, facilities and premises.

Suzanne Mercer, a partner in IT and e-commerce practice at law firm Eversheds, said litigation has already been successful in the US and Australia and was inevitable in the UK. She warned companies to address the issue.

"Litigation will particularly apply 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," she said.

The RNIB said it could not release details of the action as it is at an early stage, but said there are steps companies should take to avoid similar problems.

For example, said Margaret O'Donnell, website manager at the RNIB, companies need to put pressure on their software suppliers to ensure they are addressing accessibility issues.

"A lot of web designers still do not know a lot about accessibility, which you cannot get with out-of-the-box software products.

"We heavily customised [our website software] as nobody had really done anything in this way before. It is also important to keep the pressure on moving forward."

Online accessibility for disabled, deaf and visually impaired users has come under the spotlight in recent months since the Disability Rights Commission began an investigation into 1,000 UK sites.

A separate survey of 1,000 government websites by the Office of the E-Envoy revealed that three-quarters of the sites needed rebuilding for accessibility rights at a cost of millions of pounds.

Access guidelines

The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines are the global standard. See Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines for software developers

The Office of the E-envoy has published the Guidelines for UK Government Websites and an illustrated handbook for web development teams

Systems built to international guidelines can be tested online by the Bobby service, developed by the Centre for Assistive Technology in the US

UK Online's Easy Access system is intended to be used by government webmasters

Read more on IT legislation and regulation