Business is being warned to be ready for the final stage of legislation giving rights to disabled people. BBC News Online explains what businesses need to do by October 2004.
By Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter
What is the Disability Discrimination Act?
The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) aims to protect disabled people against discrimination - both in employment and when using a service or facility.
The government has implemented the legislation in three phases.
Phase I in 1996 made it illegal to treat disabled people less favourably because of their disability.
Phase II in 1999 obliged businesses to make 'reasonable adjustments' for disabled staff, like providing additional support or equipment. They also had to start making changes to the way they provide their services to customers, for example providing bank statements in large print.
Phase III from October 2004 businesses may have to make physical alterations to their premises to overcome access barriers. The example people most readily think of is installing ramps for wheelchair users.
The exemption applying to companies that employ fewer than 15 people will be removed.
How does this affect businesses?
They are already affected by parts of the DDA. But from October 2004 they will have to make 'reasonable adjustments' to their premises in order to make their services accessible to disabled people.
This might include putting up clearer signs for visually impaired customers, installing an induction loop for deaf people or installing ramps to improve wheelchair access.
The law says they can make the alterations in four ways:
Remove the barrier or obstacle
Altering such as adding a ramp
Find a means of avoiding the problem - for example, reconfiguring the internal layout of a building Providing a service by reasonable alternative means. A GP with an inaccessible surgery might see patients in their homes
What if an alteration costs too much?
The DDA refers to 'reasonable adjustments'. If the cost of an alteration would put someone out of business it wouldn't be reasonable and would make that service less accessible to everyone.
Bodies like the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) and the Centre for Accessible Environments will be able to advise people about how they can prepare for October 2004.
But precisely what constitutes a reasonable adjustment will be open to interpretation until the legislation is tested in the courts.
Are listed buildings exempt?
There are restrictions on how listed buildings can be altered, but they are not exempt under the DDA.
Businesses that operate from listed buildings need to take specialist advice about how to remove access barriers.
How will the legislation be policed?
The Disability Rights Commission is the official watchdog and it may bring some early test cases to help to clarify the law.
If a disabled person feels that a building is inaccessible they will be able to approach the DRC to pursue the case in the courts if negotiations fail.
What if businesses have no disabled customers?
That's no argument under the law. The duties under the DDA are 'anticipatory' so saying you have no disabled customers will not provide any legal protection.
What are the risks of doing nothing?
There is a possibility of having to defend a costly legal action.
But there is also a pressing economic argument. The DRC estimates that disabled people's spending power amounts to £50bn. It argues that ignoring the DDA means losing custom - especially if competitors have already made improvements.