Public sector organisations will be required to ensure that disabled users of their websites have the same access to certain content and services as other internet users by the end of 2015 under new European Commission proposals.
The Commission said that more than 100 million EU residents would benefit from the rules it has proposed in its draft directive [19-page 126KB PDF] on the accessibility of public sector bodies' websites.
Under the proposals public sector bodies that operate one of 12 types of website, including those that allow the public to apply for passports or driving licences, conduct income tax calculations, enrol with universities and submit benefits claims, would be required to ensure that access to that information and service is available to all on a standardised basis.
EU member states would have to take "necessary measures to ensure that the websites concerned are made accessible ... in a consistent and adequate way for users' perception, operation and understanding, including adaptability of content presentation and interaction, when necessary, providing an accessible electronic alternative [and] in a way which facilitates interoperability with a variety of user agents and assistive technologies at Union and international level," according to the draft Directive.
The EU countries would be able to go beyond what the draft Directive requires and force additional public sector bodies offering other services via their websites to adhere to the rules.
The proposals are aimed at "approximating the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States related to the accessibility of the content of public sector bodies' websites to all users, in particular people with functional limitations including persons with disabilities," the draft text said.
The Commission said that the "web accessibility market" had only reached 10% of its potential, and that the implementation of its draft Directive would lead to "innovations" that would "improve the internet experience of all internet users through greater functionality and lower costs in providing that functionality."
"A single set of accessibility rules would mean developers could offer their products and services across the whole EU without extra adaptation costs and complications," the Commission said in a statement.
It said an example of how the proposals would work in practice would be where public sector bodies' websites allow visually impaired people to "hear descriptions of images when using a screen reader" and for the hearing-impaired to see "written captions for audio files". In addition, the Commission said that "all parts of a website" would have to be accessible using keyboards only as well as through using a computer mouse.
The draft Directive was welcomed by the European Disability Forum (EDF). "[The prospective new laws] will contribute to ensuring citizenship rights and direct access of the 80 million citizens with disabilities to public services, and as a first step to the removal of all barriers to access internet products and services in the single market," Ioannis Vardakastanis, EDF president, said.
The Commission described public sector web accessibility currently as "dire" and said that just a third of all Europe's 761,000 public sector and Government sites are "fully accessible", despite the technology being available to provide that level of accessibility.
EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who is responsible for the EU's Digital Agenda, said that the draft Directive would address the issue.
"These days virtually all of us depend on internet access to go about our daily lives in one way or another, and we all have the right to equal access to government services online," Kroes said. "This proposal would make that right a reality, and not just an idea. It would create better market conditions, more jobs, and make it cheaper for governments to make their websites accessible."
The Council of Ministers and European Parliament would both have to approve the Commission's proposals before the Directive could be implemented. Earlier this year AbilityNet, a UK charity, claimed that five of the UK's most popular price comparison websites failed to comply with laws on discrimination set out in the Equality Act because the websites were not fully accessible to all.
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