EC considers web accessibility legislation
Viviane Reding sees herself as internet Robin Hood
The European Commission has proposed legislating to ensure that all EU nations adopt accessibility rules designed to ease disabled people's access to the web.
Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding has for the first time talked of a 'European Disability Act' that could compel EU nations to adopt web accessibility rules together so that all of Europe's websites become accessible at the same rate.
"We cannot achieve the Single Market by leaving aside certain parts of our population," said Reding in a speech yesterday. "I am talking about e-accessibility: 15% of our population is disabled and our rules on accessibility are still fragmented."
"We should in my view encourage the European-wide adoption of the global web accessibility standard, the new Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)," she said. "We should do it together and in step so that the online services industry can reap economies of scale and the users get a decent and reliable framework. I believe the way we should do this is to develop together with stakeholders a European Disability Act."
UK anti-discrimination legislation which guarantees the rights of disabled people is derived from the EU's Equal Treatment Directive. However, the main UK law on disability, the Disability Discrimination Act, is unusual in Europe because it created a duty of web accessibility that applies to private and public sector web operators.
WCAG, now in version 2.0, is a set of technical standards written by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). They are designed to ensure that websites are constructed in a way that makes them accessible to disabled people by being structured in certain ways and being compatible with assistive technologies.
Reding said that the EU is facing fragmentation on the issue that may put it at a disadvantage.
"Each Member State is going its own way. We have to consider that this is costly for industry because they have to respond to a wide range of fragmented national standards. It also leaves disabled people without a consistent level of service that they can expect," she said.
Reding suggested the European Disability Act while promoting greater harmonisation within the EU of practices, laws and technologies connected to the market for digital media services.
"We need a harmonised single European market with clearer rules enabling users to be free to buy and enjoy anywhere, anytime and on any platform the content they paid for," she said. "We want to focus the debate on practical solutions for encouraging new business models, promoting industry initiatives and innovative solutions, as well as on the possible need to harmonise, update or review legislation."
Reding also committed herself and the Commission to ensuring that telecoms companies did not start trying to extract payment from content providers as well as consumers. Network neutrality, which is a guarantee that all internet traffic will be treated the same and delivered to telecoms consumers equally, has become an issue in the US.
Reding said that new telecoms rules expected to be agreed by the European Parliament this autumn will give the Commission more power to defend network neutrality. "When the telecoms package enters into force, it will give the European Commission and national regulators new instruments to ensure that the net will be open and neutral in Europe," she said.
"The new telecoms package is in many instances a quite robust answer to such new threats to net neutrality. However, I also know that technology and regulation will evolve further in the years to come. And I plan to be Europe's first line of defence whenever it comes to real threats to net neutrality," said Reding.
Reding said that the Commission would publish a European Digital Agenda in March 2010 that would contain more details of its proposed actions.
Struan Robertson, a technology lawyer with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, gave Reding's comments a cautious welcome.
"It's great to see web accessibility on the Commission's agenda, but it's too early to know what the plans are. Commissioner Reding talks about 'encouraging' the adoption of WCAG 2.0 but she also talks about a 'European Disability Act' which implies something mandatory."
"The EU doesn't pass 'Acts' – it passes Resolutions, Regulations and Directives. We're not told anything else about the plans, so for now, it's all rather ambiguous," he said.
"It was only a small mention in a big speech, but getting any attention for web accessibility at a pan-European level has to be good news," said Robertson.
Details of the speech can be found here.
Copyright © 2009, OUT-LAW.com
OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.
"The Other Steve" - I want to have your babies
But don't get your hopes up too much, I'm a happliy married straight male! (not to mention old, fat and ugly)!
re: "How many neighbourhoods will be bulldozed to build wheelchair ramps for the information superhighway "
Absolutely hits the nail on the head. I was told by a dodgy web designer touting for business that I needed my website to be accessible to the blind because there are 15 million disabled people in UK . By not making it accessible I'm denying all those folk from buying from me (so I can look forward to a massive boost in sales so his costs will pale into insignificance...) and I risk a fine if my website isn't "accessible". Iif I recall correctly, few years ago RNIB were offering a DDA Webcheck service for £40 per page, they would produce a report telling you what needed fixing - and leave you to fix it and be in possession of the evidence they needed to take you to court if you didn't because you could no longer claim to have made reasonable efforts if you'd disregarded their advice.
I think that to reach a figure of 15 million it must include people who need artificial aids such as spectacles and hearing-aids. The proposed fixes to the website would all be directed at blind users (although I'm not sure how many blind people want to buy my paintings, on the other hand my profoundly deaf customer had no difficulty at all using my website).
Even your figure of ~153,000 people registered blind in the UK seems to exaggerate the situation. I know 3 people who are registered blind but are not profoundly blind. One is elderly and has no use for or interest in computers, her condition is age related, were there to be a need for her to access some on-line only information she would get help from a sighted friend. The second works in IT and compensates for very poor eyesight by having an enormous monitor, he can read inch high letters. The third has very limited tunnel vision and is actually helped by using a small monitor. Finally a proportion of the profoundly blind have a above average ocurrence of other disabilities making them still less likely candidates for computer usage.
The disability lobby will get very shrill about responses like this and accuse me/us of not caring about the disabled. Well rather the opposite really. Expensive technical fixes draw resources away from addressing the same issues by providing individual human personal care. Would a couple of thousand pounds spent on "upgrading" my website benefit anyone at all (apart from dodgy webdesigner) or would I be better to contribute to the wellbeing of my disabled friends and realtives by taking a morning off to take them to an appointment, to help with shopping, to help my friend with a large monitor computer when it comes to upgrading or adding new components with plugs and sockets he can't see? Sorry I can't afford that morning off, I need to generate the income to fund the DDA "upgrade" to my website.
The political reality is that Government doesn't like having to bear the cost of disability. It's a drain on resources and doesn't buy many votes. It is keen to shift any of that burden to business or to charities, friends and relatives. Backing the shift of responsibility with the force of law enables them to buy the votes too by being _seen_ to be acting.
Pot, kettle, black
I've heard (reliable) leaks that some of the Commission's own intranet sites aren't exactly a shining example of "accessibility"!
One size fits none
"accessibilty" isn't as simple as putting a ramp beside a staircase. Diffeerent societies and cultures look at things in different ways. For example, I have yet to see any French website that I can navigate easily (despite being fluent in French) yet I don't have the same problem with UK or US ones. Similar differences (does that make sense? :) ) exist across various national daily newspapers. Given the similarity between French sites, I assume (possibly wrongly) that they've been done according to some user style that suits that particular culture.
If the proposed disability rules are drawn up rigidly and as requirements, the end result is likely to be of little use, a generic "one size" that works for no-one. Far better to simply impose a duty of care on each state, and let each one decide how to respond.
Oh wait, that's what we already have, but of course the status quo won't let Ms Reding continue to increase the size of her empire. How silly of me.
How many neighbourhoods will be bulldozed to build wheelchair ramps for the information superhighway
"15% of our population is disabled"
That screams out for a definition, doesn't it ? A better figure would be the percentage of the population whose disability presents them with accessibility challenges that can _only_ be overcome with the cooperation of content providers.
For example, the UK's DDA defines disability as "physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities." This includes learning difficulties, HIV and cancer (e.g. being thick, and being ill)
Even taking that into account 15% is a low figure already, and it would be much, much lower if the above criteria were applied.
Take for example the case of those who are blind or partially sighted, who make up a vanishingly small percentage of the population, but experience arguably the largest number of accessibility challenges due to the largely visual nature of much web content.
There are ~153,000 people registered blind in the UK , out of a total pop of ~60.8 million  which makes up a staggeringly small ~0.2516% of the population.
I have no idea how many more people there are who are blind or partially sighted but aren't registered because they don't want the stigma and are in any case gainfully employed  (like me), I'd guess quite a lot, but probably not enough to pull that figure up to anything significant.
And frankly, if you have a disability, there are things that you aren't going to be able to do like everyone else. However unPC it is, most disabled folks know this. If you've got no legs, you have no career as a ballroom dancer ahead of you. Blind ? No train driving for you! It's a bummer, sure, but that's life, and you just have to suck it up.
So while it's very sweet of Viv to think of us, frankly, I'd rather she spend the money (tax revenue will be lost as businesses accrue compliance costs) on medical research. Bionics would be a great place to start. Wheelchair guys get to be the six million dollar man, me I want a field of vision like a terminator or Geordie LeForge. I'm sure most of us crips and mongs would gladly line up to join a super secret cyborg army, why not fund that instead ?
 http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=uk+population (no idea where they sourced that from)
 People register to get benefits and parking permits and avoid working, there are no other advantages.
Without any understanding of the issues they will legislate that we need to use friendly electrons...