IT accessibility must improve, says European Commission

Out-Law News | 15 Sep 2005 | 5:25 pm | 4 min. read

The accessibility of websites, software, digital TV and 3G phones could become a legal requirement across the EU if plans announced today by the European Commission fail to  improve accessibility for elderly and disabled people within two years.

Advert: Phishing conference, London, 27th October 2005By the end of 2005, public procurement rules may also change, to demand that authorities award contracts only to bidders providing accessible services.

These messages are part of a Commission Communication on what it calls eAccessibility. Published today, it calls upon Member States to do more to promote EU eAccessibility initiatives and to encourage uptake by industry.

The need for change

People with disabilities comprise about 15% of the European population, according to the Commission, and many of them face barriers when using ICT products and services. Many older people face similar problems and the and the number of elderly people is rising fast: 18% of the population was aged over 60 in 1990; 30% will be over 60 by 2030, according to UN figures.

Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding spoke of the opportunities for ICT today: “The demographic change in Europe is a tremendous social challenge that Information and Communication Technologies can help to tackle."

She continued: “New electronic devices, services and technologies can be used and further developed to enhance the older generation’s quality of life, support independent living and help them contribute their experience and talents to our economy and society."

She also acknowledged the commercial opportunities in this developing market for products and services. But the Commission is conscious of the need for progress, a message sent in feedback to an EU consultation at the start of the year.

There were fewer than 500 responses to the consultation – which equates to only about one in a million people living in the EU – but 88% of those who did respond agreed that the European institutions should take initiatives to make ICT products and services more accessible.

Among the suggestions in the consultation was an accessibility certification scheme for products and services. Six months ago, the Commission published its findings from the consultation and concluded that a voluntary self-certification scheme was the preferred way forward. Curiously, this route was favoured by only 16.1% of respondents, while a mandatory scheme was favoured by 51.5% of respondents.

Today's proposal opts for voluntary initiatives, at least for now.

The report notes some of the ICT problems faced by disabled people: web accessibility for those with visual and cognitive disabilities; screen readers that don't work after new operating system releases; interference between mobile phones and hearing aids; or the fact that there are seven different, incompatible text phone systems for deaf and hard-of-hearing users.

Laws on accessibility today

There are existing European policies and laws that recognise the need for accessibility, making reference to the inclusion of disabled and elderly people; but they stop short of imposing such inclusion. These include the Electronic Communications Directives, the Universal Services Directives and the Public Procurement Directive.

Some Member States have passed their own laws. The one that goes farthest for IT is the UK's Disability Discrimination Act, in practice demanding that websites are accessible to the public and that intranets are accessible to staff, albeit there is no obligation for goods to be accessible.

The Commission is conscious of the need for harmonisation and the risk to industry of market fragmentation caused by differing eAccessibility requirements. "The risk for consumers is even greater," it notes in its paper, "particularly for people with disabilities and older persons: a fragmented market means costlier, more unfamiliar and incompatible products, more difficulty in accessing/moving information across borders, etc."

However, new laws are not proposed in the short term; rather, the Commission says the "eAccessibility potential" of existing laws will be exploited – something that will be the subject of a study later in the year.

Standards

Standardisation could bring economies of scale for manufacturers and that should mean price reductions for the consumer. Agreeing common accessibility standards for ICT in Europe should also ensure compatibility and interoperability amongst accessible products.

The Commission is looking at introducing new European Standards on eAccessibility that it hopes will meet the needs of industry, designers and providers of products and services without hampering creativity or innovation.

It hopes the standards themselves will be free or available at a reduced cost to make their uptake easier, especially by SMEs. The paper comments: "Whilst promoting interoperability, care should be taken that patented technologies without reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND) licensing are not promoted as standard solutions."

It notes that Member States have already committed themselves to make their public websites accessible according to WCAG guidelines. It also sees a need for certification schemes of web accessibility as a result of those Member States, like the UK, that mandate accessibility and have a need to assess compliance. It mentions a European Committee for Normalization (CEN) Workshop that is already working on specifications for a European web accessibility certification scheme and a Quality Mark. It does not elaborate on this.

Public procurement

Existing Public Procurement Directives mention the possibility of including accessibility requirements in conditions for tender; but this is not an obligation. The Commission says it is now prepared to follow the US example, where the a rule known as Section 508 mandates accessibility requirements in federal procurement.

So the Commission is preparing a mandate to the European standardisation organisation to develop European accessibility requirements for public procurement of products and services in the ICT domain.

"The mandate is currently submitted to the Member States for consultation," it notes in the paper. "It is foreseen to be issued to the European standardisation organisations by the end of 2005."

Certification

The Commission notes that ICT standards exist for making products and services accessible; but it notes that, "at present there is no reliable means to assess the conformity of products with those accessibility standards."

Accordingly, it advocates certification schemes for "accessibility of products, organisational processes and professionals (based on the European Key Mark and on European standards). A Commission will be launching a study on this towards the end of 2005.

Watching for progress

Two years from now, the Commission will review the state of eAccessibility. At that point, according to today's paper, "the Commission may consider additional measures, including new legislation if deemed necessary."

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