BBC News Online disability affairs reporter
The Disability Discrimination Act has been on our statute books since 1995 but has been implemented in stages. On 1 October 2004 the final phase - part III - of the Act becomes law. The change has been described as a 'landmark' for people with disabilities. So what changes?
1 October is when the law gets physical: in other words it is the physical or architectural barriers which have blighted the lives of disabled people for years that must be removed by service providers.
Shops will have to be accessible, inside and out
The law says that where a physical barrier makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for a disabled person to use a service then that barrier must be addressed.
This can be done either by removing it, altering it, or providing another way round the barrier.
On the other hand, the provider could choose to make their services available in another way altogether.
What exactly does this mean?
When we talk of physical barriers people usually have steps and stairs in mind. In the case of a shop, there is little point in having a wheelchair-accessible changing room if there are several steps up to the entrance.
Flat or 'step-free' access is certainly a start but there are several other considerations. Is the doorway wide enough? Is there enough room to move around inside the shop? Is the counter too high for a wheelchair user to reach?
And, in the case of clothing shops there is the matter of that all-important accessible changing facility. Businesses also need to think about lighting levels, marking steps to make them visible and improving the appearances of signs and notices.
Access needs to be matched by good customer service
When it comes to customer service, it's no good having all of these if the staff are unfriendly and unwilling to help a disabled person to make their purchases.
In terms of how a service can be provided in a different way, the classic example is a hairdresser who might operate from an inaccessible building but who will offer to come to a person's home to cut their hair.
Or in the case of professionals - doctors, dentists, lawyers or accountants - many of whom operate from inaccessible, old buildings, a home visit or a consultation at an accessible, alternative venue would be another way of offering the service.
For anyone panicking about whether their business could bear the cost of the necessary improvements, the law builds in an economic defence.
The Act refers to 'reasonable adjustments', and nobody is expected to bankrupt their business in order to comply with the law.
Nonetheless, the Disability Rights Commission - the body that oversees disability equality in the UK - is reminding businesses that they "cannot run and cannot hide".
"It's worth remembering that disabled people have been waiting an awfully long time to have these rights implemented," Catherine Casserley - the DRC's senior legal adviser - told BBC News Online.
Businesses must think of employees and customers
"I think as a result, disabled people will want to use these rights."
But there will be no 'disability rights police force' knocking on doors and serving businesses with orders to fit a ramp here, a lift there and an automatic door somewhere else.
The DDA is a civil law, so it will be up to individuals or organisations to bring cases.
And once the courts have heard a number of them, lawyers, disability rights groups and businesses will have a much better idea of what is meant by 'reasonable adjustments'.
And then there's the DRC itself.
"We not only have the power to provide individual assistance, but we can also launch formal investigations into sectors or particular service providers if we feel they're breaching the law," said Ms Casserley.
"We have a vast range of legal mechanisms at our disposal."
Access to jobs
Companies employing fewer than 15 people will no longer be exempt under the DDA.
And here again, business owners will need to consider making their premises accessible in order to allow a disabled person to do their job.
All employers - with the exception of the armed forces - will now be covered by the Act.
This includes the uniformed services - police, fire and prison - all of whom have been making changes to their recruitment and employment policies.
What doesn't change?
Transport is one of the main exceptions from the 1 October changes - and probably the one which most irks disabled people.
There is a draft disability bill currently before Parliament which the DRC hopes will be in place before Christmas.
In addition to transport it will cover the 'built environment' - the way our streets are laid out and whether or not kerbs are dropped to allow step-free access.
It will also place duties on public bodies to promote equality for disabled people, and will require landlords to make 'reasonable adjustments' in relation to housing.
Whether or not the DDA will improve civil rights of disabled people in the UK in the way that the legislation in America undoubtedly has will depend on the persistence of disability rights groups, the tenaciousness of lawyers and the way the law is interpreted by the judiciary.