Gisele Mesnage, who is vision impaired, uses screen reading technology (which converts screen text to speech) to navigate internet sites. Coles (that supermarket giant) offers its goods and services online through its website. Ms Mesnage claims that Coles’ online shopping site is partly incompatible with the screen reading technology making it extremely difficult for her to use the service independently.

In what appears to be the first Court action based on web accessibility (the AHRC ruled on this issue back in 2000), Ms Mesnage has lodged a claim in the Federal Circuit Court claiming Coles has discriminated against her on the basis of her disability.

The Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act places a general prohibition on discrimination in, among other things, the provision of goods and services (including those provided online). That includes indirect discrimination, so Coles’ blanket requirements that all customers use an incompatible website could fall under that definition.

An exception to the prohibition exists where to avoid the discrimination would impose an ‘unjustifiable hardship’ on the person or company providing the goods or services. The consideration of what is an unjustifiable hardship requires consideration of the company's financial circumstances and how much it would cost to be non-discriminatory. Note: Coles is way rich.

The law aside, it’s not a good look for Coles. Australia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which calls on signatories to ‘promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet’ and to ‘urge private entities that provide services to the general public, including through the internet, in accessible and usable formats for persons with disabilities’.

And if international law wasn’t enough (which, let’s be honest, it isn’t), the Australian Human Rights Commission has endorsed, and Australian government agencies are required to comply with, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines released by the World Wide Web Consortium. Those guidelines directly consider access of websites by screen reading technology. So there’s plenty of reference material out there.