Europe to mandate accessibility

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2006 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

A recent ministerial meeting of the European Union is likely to have a much greater impact than a first reading of its declaration suggests.

The meeting of 25 countries from the EU plus 9 other European nations with 600 delegates spent two days discussing ‘ICT for an Inclusive Society’. It covered all the benefits and issues including:

  • The needs of older workers and elderly people.
  • The geographical digital divide.
  • Enhancing eAccessibility and usability.
  • Improving digital literacy and competence.
  • Promoting cultural diversity in ICT.
  • Promoting inclusive eGovernment.

The final declaration from the meeting is full of re-affirmations of intent, exhortations to improve, and suggestions of ways forward but very light on any specific actions. However, it does show a real understanding of the importance of ICT inclusivity if Europe and its diverse populations are going to prosper and survive. In particular, with a large number of people with disabilities, including the growing elderly population, the need for accessible ICT is seen as paramount.

Paragraph 25 of the declaration is the most prescriptive “Promoting and ensuring accessibility of all public (meaning government) web sites by 2010… Calling on the private sector to do likewise, … and to develop the appropriate authoring tools and software”. This paragraph is really mandating all participating governments to sort out their own houses. I think it will have a major impact that will have knock on effects to all parties.

Firstly the public web sites will have an enormous amount of peer pressure, as well as top down pressure, to become accessible. If they want to be compliant by 2010 then plans have to be in place as soon as possible as major web sites no longer change at ‘web speed’ and anything created now is still going to be in use four years from now.

Procurement departments in government departments now need to ensure that software vendors and development consultancies can, and do, create accessible solutions. This will lead to a growing awareness of the need and as vendors and consultants gain experience they will start to build accessibility in automatically whether it is mandated or not.

Software vendors are already being driven by Section 508 in the US to ensure products, such as authoring and development tools, are accessible. What 508 is not as strong at is ensuring that the solutions produced by these tools are themselves accessible. For example a document production tool may be accessible but the PDF file that it generates may not be. The EU declaration puts more stress on the accessibility of the final output rather than the tool.

The services and consultancy organisations need to show that they not only understand the requirements but also know how to implement accessibility and can do so without significantly increasing time or cost.

Private sector organisations should also be mandating accessibility because it is the right thing to do, but also to ensure that they are not excluded from the lucrative public sector market. If a public sector organisation has implemented an accessible solution that can be used by employees with disabilities, then they will expect/mandate any external provider to provide the same level of access. This will be even more important if the public sector organisation is using the external provider as part of an overall solution to its clients, as they will only offer this opportunity to organisations that can show they are accessible.

Finally, as the population gets accustomed to accessible and usable services from eGovernment they will not tolerate anything less from the private sector.

This latest EU Ministerial Declaration is an important signpost showing the way to a more inclusive society through ICT. All parties: public and private organisations, vendors, consultants, industry watchers and trade organisations should take note and plan how they are going to meet the challenge.