The first formal investigation into Web site access for Britain's 8.5 million disabled people has been launched by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC).
Web sites that fail to comply will not face prosecution, however: the nature of the investigation is to lead to good practice rather than legal compliance, and the DRC, which is funded by the Department of Works and Pensions, does not have enforcement powers.
Initial research into 1,000 sites will be conducted in collaboration with a team from the Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design at City University, London, led by Professor Helen Petrie. In addition, 50 disabled people will be involved in in-depth testing of a representative sample of these sites for usability.
The head of legal services at the DRC, Nick O'Brien, told ZDNet UK: "We are not specifically testing sites for W3C disability standards," referring to the W3C's Web Access Initiative. "The testing will be guided by the panel and cover e-commerce, e-shopping, e-banking, that sort of thing."
O'Brien said the DRC investigation would be the most in-depth to date in the UK. "The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) has had a campaign running on the issue of Web accessibility for the past three years and produced their results," he said, "but the scope of the DRC investigation is far wider-reaching and the range of impairment covered is wider."
There have been no instances of legal action in the UK brought against Web sites that were inaccessible for the disabled. However, the Sydney 2000 Olympic site was successfully taken to court by the Human rights and equal opportunity commission in Australia for having a site that was found to discriminate against disabled access.
Justifying the latest study, DRC chairman Bert Massie said in a statement: "In a relatively short period of time the Internet has had a profound impact on the way we live, work and study. It is vital that this new and powerful technology does not leave disabled people behind, but that its potential for delivering a genuinely inclusive society is realised to the full."
The DRC findings are expected by the end of the year. Meanwhile, said the DRC, there are a range of measures site designers can take to make sure their sites are accessible to users with disabilities, ranging from using large clear fonts to having text alternatives for images and avoiding the need for "subtle" mouse movements.