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Web 2.0 sites are springing up everywhere like wild mushrooms. Most of them are using AJAX to provide interactive features and to improve performance by not downloading the whole page after every user action. But are these sites falling foul of the law by discriminating against people with disabilities?

Oracle has recently been involved in replacing some human resources and other software for the state of Texas in the USA. Unfortunately for a number of blind employees of the state it turned out that the new software is not accessible to them. For example one employee has to rely on a sighted person to help them enter or review hours worked, leave taken and even information concerning employees that he supervises. This has led to a civil suit being filed by the employees in a Texas state court. The complete article can be found here.

Another case was reported on the 25th of January in the UK. Sam Latif, an IT Project Manager, wanted to study for the Project Management Professional (PMP) qualification from the Project Management Institute (PMI). Part of the recommended study material included a textbook called the Project Management Body of Knowledge or PMBOK Guide. Unfortunately she could not get an electronic copy of the manual that she could read using her JAWS screen reader. PMI had first supplied her with a PDF and later with an MSWord version of the document. She could not even open the PDF file while she struggled to navigate the MSWord version. Her experience of trying to sit for her computer-based exam was even worse! The complete article can be found at The Register.

Another case in the USA was first reported in October of last year. In this case Bruce Sexton was suing Target for discriminating against him because he cannot use their website to order products online. In September a Federal judge sustained the discrimination claims against Target . This has far reaching implications for all online retailers in the USA as it establishes a precedent that online retailers must make their sites accessible to people with disabilities.

In the USA all government sites has to comply with Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act. Private company websites will have to comply under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the UK all public websites have to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995. A similar act exists in Australia and in New Zealand all websites have to ensure that they do not discriminate against people with disabilities under the Human Rights Act.

What does this mean for Web 2.0 sites? You have to make sure that your site can be used by people with different types of disabilities. Do not assume that your users can see the page or that they will be able to use a mouse to interact with your AJAX-enabled or Flash-based utilities on the page. Keep in mind that some users disable Javascript entirely for example to avoid flickering caused by animation which could trigger a seizure.

There are some very good guidelines available from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) on how to design and implement sites that do not discriminate against people with disabilities. These can be found at the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

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