BBC News Online disability affairs reporter
Businesses failing to cater for disabled people have a year to make improvements or they will face possible court action, disability minister Maria Eagle has warned.
Maria Eagle: "One year to go"
Changes to part three of the Disability Discrimination Act - affecting physical alterations to buildings - will come into force on October 1 2004.
And as employers, companies with fewer than 15 people will no longer be exempt from the Act.
Ms Eagle told BBC News Online that while some businesses have already made plans, others have not even started thinking about it.
She has a blunt message for those who are not up to speed with their new obligations.
"Wise up quickly - the law is changing, and if it changes and you haven't dealt with your obligations you might be taken to court.
"But more than that, there are 8.5 million disabled people who might want to access your services and you might be missing out on a big market," she said.
"To ignore disabled people, well it's more fool you and many of your competitors are a lot wiser than you in this regard, and they're already tapping into this, so you'd better do something about it quickly."
Eight years to change
The Federation of Small Businesses has been urging the government to allow the cost of alterations to attract a 100% tax allowance this year instead of the current 25%.
But the minister said that people have had eight years to plan for the changes.
"It [the DDA] has been implemented gradually. Money's not everything - more often it's about thinking what's needed and spending money in a wiser way.
"If you look at the average pub it gets refurbished every few years and it's easy to build in better access if you think about it.
"It's about inclusion and recognising that disabled people have the same rights as everyone else to be employees, or to go to a pub with their mates."
The Disability Rights Commission is about to launch an awareness campaign to alert organisations who will need to improve accessibility.
"People think it's more complicated than it is," said Marie Pye, the DRC's Head of Policy.
"There's a lot of technical language being used and this puts people off, but it's about looking at your business, how people use it."
Fuss 'will die down'
She said that it will take some time for the law to bed in, but in less than 10 years' time people will wonder what all the fuss was about.
"Look at those shallow trolleys the supermarkets now have. Originally there were only two or three of them in each store, and everyone rushed to use them.
"The point is they're not just useful to disabled shoppers."
"I think that in the long term it will make people more creative about design," she said.
The Centre for Accessible Environments, a charity that provides specialist advice on improving access to buildings, is concerned that businesses will be tempted by rogue consultants promising to issue 'certificates of compliance' in exchange for substantial fees.
"Many people think it's only about buildings," said Sarah Langton-Lockton, the CAE's chief executive.
"It's services that need to be accessible. Some service providers will still be in trouble even in accessible buildings."
"As soon as a new fees market opens up all sorts of people move in. Some access audits produce colossal lists - don't waste your money," she said.
And Maria Eagle thinks companies should look closer to home for advice, at least initially.
"Ask your own disabled employees - and if you don't have any, why not?"