Disability legislation puts onus on IT managers

IT pros in the public sector will soon need to take more initiative on accessibility, regardless of cost

Public sector IT managers will need to be more active about tackling inclusion issues under new legislation due to come into force in December, a disability charity has warned.

The Disability Equality Duty (DED) is a general regulation that requires all public authorities to give "due regard" to promoting equality for disabled people and embedding such practice into the everyday ways that they operate.

It was created under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 2005, which was first passed in 1995, but revised a decade later. The DDA simply requires that organisations make "reasonable adjustments" when catering to the requirements of people with special needs, but the term "reasonable" has proved difficult to define and enforce in law.

One of the key aims of the DED, which becomes active on 4 December 2006, is to encourage the participation of disabled people in public life, and this requires public-sector bodies — and their IT departments — to take steps to meet their needs.

This includes publishing a Disability Equality Scheme, which includes writing an Action Plan and involving disabled people in its production. It also means that companies must be able to demonstrate that they have taken such action and achieved an appropriate outcome, and that they continually review and revise the Scheme.

In an IT context, the new Duty has a direct impact on matters such as procuring new systems, explained Robin Christopherson, head of accessibility services at charity AbilityNet.

"In the past, it was an ugly Catch-22," said Christopherson. "If someone with a vision impairment, for instance, was the strongest candidate for the job but couldn't use a system, which is very, very common, the DDA says that the employer only has to make adjustments if it's reasonable and if it's not, they don't."

As a result, the company could choose not to employ a candidate if it would cost £5m, for example, to alter a system to their needs.

"With the DED, however, employers have to be proactive, so the next time they buy a new system, they have to anticipate that they might be employing disabled people and factor it into the procurement process," Christoperson explained.

According to Bill Fine, AbilityNet's principal consultant, the most practical way of doing this is to require suppliers to demonstrate how they are going to meet DED requirements at the tender stage.

"It's called Paragraph 23B, and can be inserted by purchasers of IT systems to make it clear that accessibility is mandatory, and if it's not included, you won't even read their bid," Fine explained.

Accessibility features include ensuring that the system can be accessed by other means than a mouse, can be understood by a screen-reader or includes magnification software.

AbilityNet is a charity that provides a range of services to help disabled people exploit computers and the internet more effectively.

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