A company that discriminates against nearly one-fifth of the UK population is either going to go under pretty fast or get sued out of existence, right?
If you run an ecommerce site, you're running exactly that kind of business risk. There are about 8.5 million people in the UK with some sort of disability who are being ignored by the ecommerce revolution, and they're not going to suffer in silence any longer.
As reported last week, UK disabled rights campaigners are considering using the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) to follow the example of the US National Federation of the Blind. This has mounted a test case against America Online, which it claims is discriminating against disabled people.
The UK legislation, which is being phased in over the next four years, forces service providers to ensure that information can be accessed by the disabled.
"We believe there needs to be a test case under the DDA," says a spokesman for the Disabled Rights Commission (DRC). "We are aware of the implications for websites and are planning to take action in some way. All it needs is someone to complain that a website is inaccessible," he adds.
"The implications for IT managers are twofold," says Geoffrey Busby, chairman of the BCS Disabled Group. "Disabled access to the web should be seen as an opportunity, not an inhibitor, because it can increase business for a company. Disabled people have approximately £40bn of disposable income," he says.
"The second consideration is legal. The DDA is a positive piece of legislation that should ensure that website providers follow the guidelines (see below) for designing disabled accessibility."
The trouble with websites
Most website providers have not considered the difficulties that disabled people face. For example, visually-impaired people struggle to identify graphics or small text; the hearing impaired cannot listen to audio output; and some people with learning difficulties can struggle to comprehend how to navigate a website.
"The internet is designed for a full sensual range, but there is a growing disabled and elderly population with reduced use of their senses," says Chris Yapp, ICL Fellow of lifelong learning. "There is a danger of creating a digital divide between those who can use the internet and those who can't. It is the responsibility of technology to improve society and tackle this."
So what do web developers need to do? The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has a programme called the web accessibility initiative, which publishes guidelines for website designers to ensure disabled access, says Kevin Carey, director of HumanITy, a campaigning charity.
The majority of UK firms are unaware of the issue, and Busby estimates that 90 per cent of IT managers don't know about the implications of the DDA or how to make their websites accessible, but the first response from the dotcom world has nevertheless been a positive one.
"The web is a perfect medium for accessibility. It's all about being able to tailor content to the needs of individuals," says Joel Brandon-Bravo, marketing director of internet startup whatsonwhen.com. "Disabled access is an opportunity for the web to stand out against other media as a means of accessing information. Technology and the internet should herald a new era of inclusion for disabled people."
Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the internet, and now a director of W3C, adds: "The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone, regardless of disability is an essential aspect."
The UK IT community must recognise and harness the commercial potential of internet access now, before disabled rights campaigners make recourse to the law.
"If service providers refuse to make websites accessible, disabled people can use the law to force them to do so," says the DRC.
Guidelines for designing disabled accessibility
The World Wide Web Consortium's (WC3's) 14 guidelines for accessible website design are:
- Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content
- Don't rely on colour alone
- Use markup and style sheets, and do so properly
- Clarify natural language use
- Create tables that transform gracefully
- Ensure that pages featuring new technologies transform gracefully
- Ensure user control of time-sensitive content changes
- Ensure direct accessibility of embedded user interfaces
- Design for device-independence
- Use interim solutions
- Use W3C technologies and guidelines
- Provide context and orientation information
- Provide clear navigation mechanisms
- Ensure that documents are clear and simple.
The full details of the W3C's web content accessibility guidelines are available at its website: www.w3.org/wai
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