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Call for disabled internet revolt

Being nice has achieved little

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The Disability Rights Commission plans to call upon disabled internet users to rise up against inaccessible website owners and help it take complaints with the force of law.

The rabble-rousing message will be broadcast by the DRC following the launch of new guidelines to amend what it says are limitations in the WAI accessibility standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium .

Threats to website owners accompanied the DRC's first notable publicity grab, marked by the publication of its formal investigtion into web accessibility two years ago.

"We are serving notice that the Disability Rights Commission will use all its powers to secure compliance on this very important matter," warned DRC commissioner Michael Burton at the time, while his lawyer said those who refused to settle out of court would be "pursued all the way".

But the warning has never been honoured, even though a high profile court case would do wonders for its cause. Six years since the Disability Discrimination Act made it illegal to produce an inaccessible website in the UK, the laws have gone limp through disuse.

Even the Royal National Institute for the Blind, which has been more diligent in its pursuit of ignorant web owners, has only brought legal action against two sites, and both of those cases where settled out of court.

The problem is that the campaigners need disabled people who are prepared to complain and bring action with their assistance. The DRC gets around 2,000 calls a week, but very few complaints. Most calls are pleas for advice and help. The commission reckons that when disabled people come across inaccessible sites they usually just move on to one they can use.

Without disabled people prepared to challenge the establishment in the courts, the DRC can do little more than provide advice and guidelines. But the marketing for its latest latest publication will include a call for disabled people to complain about offenders so it can take action against them.

"It will be a part of our marketing to encourage people to ring us and complain," a DRC spokeswoman said today.

Of course, corporations and public sector organisations are easily embarrassed into making their sites accessible, as many already have. And few are likely to want to commit commercial suicide by making a bigoted stand against accessibility in the courts.

Then the educational work of the DRC does help. The criticism in its formal report that the WAI guidelines were too technical has been followed up with the launch this week of its own code, which recommends adhering to WAI standards, but provides further advice on non-technical issues such as commissioning websites.

This could be useful, as 80 per cent of developers told the DRC that their clients were not interested in building accessible sites.

Most notable is the guide's insistence that the automated testing most website owners do to ensure accessibility is inadequate. The DRC asserts that it is vital that disabled people are used to test a site.

Its new guidelines have been developed in conjunction with the British Standards Institute, so have some significant kudos. That does mean, however, that it costs £30 to acquire them and the price does not include a kite mark that considerate site owners can use to display their credentials.

Yet the softly-softly approach appears to have achieved little. The DRC revealed two years ago that 81 per cent of websites were inaccessible. They still are, it says. ®

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