Web accessibility laws have long been on the books for a number of years. In the UK, The Disability Discrimination Act was enacted five years ago in order to force provision of access for users of commercial websites.
The basic summary of the Act:
"The Disability Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against a disabled person by refusing to provide any service which it provides to members of the public the range of auxiliary aids or services which it might be reasonable to provide to ensure that services are accessible might include accessible websites."
But how effective has it been? I found this information on a thread at Cre8asite Forums. It intrigued me, and I had to find out more. This article relates that even though laws are in effect in the UK for helping apply technical standards to ensure accessibility in many commercial websites, it appears some of the efforts have gone half done or apparently not at all. Many companies the article claims may be moving to more acceptable accessibility standards but not changing web design as a result. What ends up happening is a largely gross user experiences that makes navigating for the disabled a task in itself. Some of the main things left out include leaving out efforts in changing the navigation and content. Additionally one common issue that is arising, and one I thought was applicable to everyone working on usability is the incorrect use of the ALT tag.
So for example we plan to hand over the work of making our site accessible to webmaster or tech guy or even ourself. We go into the code and start coding the ALT tags. For the image with our logo we put "image" or we put "company logo". Ok we just made the first step to making our site accessible, right? Not even close. What is left out is the usability part of the equation, an ALT tag with the effect or our company name, example: ABC Corp, including a short description describes way much more than "image" and "company logo".
The article says that education is a critical part of enacting a law like this. A mandate that websites needs to focus on accessibility but leaves out the fact that some of the information comes with a learning curve. Not all tech people are accessibility experts, nor usability experts. The user is often left out of the equation in such a law, and likely so such things are only half as effective as they should be.
So what should companies do to reach out to disabled customers on the web? Applying standards (already in place) with the accessibility requirements. The World Wide Web Consortium, as such a place for these. Some may complain as pointed out that W3C standards impact the look and feel of the site, and ruin the use of more advanced technology. I disagree, merging the use of both would be quite an accomplished than focusing entirely on one. I can create a super accessible website conforming to standards in no time, and one that uses advanced Flash technology but merging them would be the best.
The article makes a good statistic that I can't entirely validate, but it seems on track that 9 million people in Britian have some form of disability. Enough people to make them a shining light on the radar for any government or much less commercial website.