Web sites need access for disabled

When businesses think about making their organisation 'disability-friendly', ramps for wheelchairs and accessible toilet facilities usually spring to mind.

However, companies now need to turn their attention towards ensuring their Web sites are accessible for people with disabilities too.

According to Patrizia Mercuri, employment and industrial relations partner for Minter Ellison, failure to do so could mean possible discrimination claims and damages payouts.

"It's about having regard for people using their Web site, the possible limitations these people may have, and employing best practice in the industry. Nowadays you wouldn't build a building without providing access for people with disabilities, and the same theory should be applied to Web sites."

The Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games' (SOCOG) Olympic Internet site was recently found to have discriminated against people with visual impairments due to a failure to offer 'ALT text' on images and image map links, access to the index of sports from the schedule page, and access to results tables.

The committee was ordered to fix the problems by September 15, but failed to comply with the ruling and faces a damages claim when it returns to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) in early October.

Peter Coroneos, executive director for the Internet Industry Association, said the SOCOG decision confirmed the view that the Disability Discrimination Act applied to the online provision of goods, services or facilities to the public in Australia, whether for payment or not.

"Disability access is a serious consideration for any Australian business wanting to establish a presence on the Net. Sites that target customers overseas might also be liable under equivalent legislation in the US, Canada, the UK and elsewhere," he said.

Australian federal and Victorian laws prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities or impairments. The legislation is set up as a complaint-based system with a tribunal determining if the complaint is justified. Outcomes may include an order for the site to be fixed, or damages.

"HREOC estimates that almost one in five Australians suffer some form of disability, including problems brought about by age. Well-designed sites can assist those people. In addition, they are faster loading, more accessible by mobile, text-based Internet devices and by those in areas where telecommunications infrastructure is still poor," Coroneos said.

Mercuri said the issue of Internet accessibility commonly involves people with visual impairments who rely on speech output programs.

"When confronted with tables and columns on a Web page for example, such programs may read one column of text into the next rather than recognising and delivering the intended structure," she said.

"Another concern involves commonly-used navigation systems which require a Web site visitor to read a menu in a side bar frame while scrolling through the document in another frame.

"This can make navigation particularly difficult for the sight impaired if they cannot find their way out of the first frame to see the rest of the site."

Mercuri suggested businesses wanting guidance on providing access for the disabled should visit the HREOC Web site (www.hreoc.gov.au/disability_rights), or test their sites against the 'Bobby' Web page which is at www.cast.org/bobby

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