New laws will ensure that the disabled have access to websites, but are firms complying? Janet Awe explains

Most people would probably be horrified if they thought their company was breaking the law. Unfortunately, this is likely to be the case for the vast majority of people reading this article.

A company's website is at the root of the issue. It is possible for issues to arise around whether insurance cover complies with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), in terms of how a website can help to fulfill a company's obligations to the disabled community.

However, there are other elements of the Act that insurance companies need to consider. The internet is a lifeline for many disabled people, enabling them to integrate with society and achieve some independence.

To this end, in October 1999, it became complusory for service providers, such as insurance companies, to ensure that disabled people can access their services as easily as everyone else. Specifically, Part 3 of the DDA references the use of "accessible websites" to achieve this.

Same experience
The million dollar question is how to define accessibility. W3, the governing body of the world wide web states that a truly accessible website enables all users to have the same experience, but in the way that is most suitable for to them.

The key principle to achieving this is to design websites that are flexible enough to meet different users' needs, preferences and situations. The starting point to making a website accessible is to lose all assumptions, such as blind people don't use websites. Also, to accept that not everyone can: use a mouse; interpret images; hear audio; download 'plug-ins'; upgrade to the latest browser technology; or access pop-up windows.

Astonishingly, around 20% of web users are disabled. As such, their experience of using the internet can be a million miles away from the other 80%. For example, many disabled people use the cursor keys on the keyboard, instead of the mouse.

Therefore, if a website has areas that can only be accessed by hovering the mouse over it and clicking, immediately a percentage of visitors are alienated.

Similarly, visually-impaired web users will use assistive technology, such as screen readers that read the information off the screen and relay it to them through speakers.

And, if a site uses a lot of visuals without the option of switching them off and replacing them with text, those messages will be lost on disabled visitors.

In 2004, the Disability Rights Commission released a report about levels of website accessibility within the UK, based on research it commissioned the City University, in London, to undertake.

The report found that 97% of large organisations said they were aware that web accessibility is an important issue, with 68% claiming to take accessibility into account when designing websites. However, of 1,000 websites examined, 81% failed to meet basic standards of accessibility.

While no prosecutions for breach of website accessibility legislation have yet been made in the UK, two cases have been pursued, with support from the The Royal National Institute for the Blind - a regular prosecutor of the insurance industry over DDA breaches. In both cases, the organisations settled out of court.

However, a landmark ruling in Australia in 2000, set an international precedent when the Sydney organising committee for the Olympic Games lost a case brought by a visually impaired man for failing to provide a website that he could access.

Accessibility is not only a legal requirement, but it can also deliver many positive benefits for an entire customer base.

Obviously, the more accessible a website is, the more people will be able to access it and the more effective a effective sales tool it will be. Additionally, as search engines latch on to key phrases, the more thatdescriptive text is used, rather than graphics, the higher the site will appear in search results when potential customers are looking for services.

Text-based script
Also, like assistive technologies, some mobile internet devices, such as personal digital assistants or mobile phones, can only read text-based script. Therefore, making your website accessible enables customers wherever they are to access business details.

If the argument for making company websites accessible is not entirely convincing, perhaps the prospect of luring in about

9 million disabled people with a combined spending power of £50bn, will result in a change of heart.

Business potential is reinforced with the prospect that accessibility issues will affect everyone eventually. The ageing process can affect hearing, sight, dexterity and general ability, and willingness, to interact with technology. This is something that shouldn't be lost on the insurance industry.

According to the ABI, over £141m was paid out by the industry to pensioners and long-term savers, in 2004 - £6m more than the government paid out in state pensions. That's big business.

Many of these potential customers will want to access information online. Aside from the legal or moral obligations, if the disabled community cannot access the information they need easily from one website they'll simply go to another which provides that facility. IT

' Janet Awe is at Awesome Communications

10 tips for an accessible site
1. Design a website to accommodate browsers of all types and needs. This includes assistive technologies, such as screen readers, braille readers, scanning software and text-only browsers. Most assisstive technology can only access text, so anything presented differently may be inaccessible

2.Designs which launch extra pop-up windows can also cause problems for users, so ideally they shouldn't be used. If they are, alternative content should also be provided for those that can't access them

3.Remember, not everyone has broadband, so limit the size of the visuals within your website, to help reduce download time

4.Don't use images to represent or convey important points or messages. If essential, ensure they can be turned off and replaced with text, so that they can be 'read' by any assistive technology

5.Similarly, use descriptive text for links, rather than simply inserting an image or writing 'click here'

6.Ensure foreground and background colours contrast sufficiently, to aid reading

7.If providing supplementary information as a pdf, ensure it's also accessible as text or HTML, to give people the option of downloading a smaller-sized file

8.Don't try to impose plug-ins, or other technology, on visitors

9.Warn the user in advance if a link is going to take them into a new window, or cause pop-ups to appear.

10.Include a site map to aid navigation.