Blind and partially sighted people have asked the EU's current Greek presidency to revive the debate on web accessibility before the May EU elections and push the European Parliament to strengthen the legislation.
The prevalence of eye diseases is increasing – with the global incidence set to double between 1990 and 2020, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Blindness is a common complication of other diseases, or the result of common age-related complications.
Every five seconds someone around the world goes blind and 80% of blindness is preventable or curable.
There are 285 million people worldwide who suffer serious vision impairment. Of those cases, 90% occur in the developing world.
Since the World Wide Web has become an integral part of most people's daily routine, blind and partially sighted people have been struggling for a way to improve accessibility so that they can navigate the internet as autonomously as possible.
In order to make it work, web developers are required to follow specific guidelines which make websites accessible to the special devices that blind people use, such as text-to-speech screen reader software or Braille displays.
To this end, the European Commission proposed a directive on public sector websites a year ago.
The legal text was aimed at making a large part of the public sector’s websites easily navigable for the visually impaired. Even though the European Blind Union (EBU) deemed the directive “too little too late” because of its reduced scope, it nonetheless represented a starting point for further improvement.
The directive, which does not include a number of public sectors - transport, banking and schools - and does not apply to other digital supports such as tablets or mobile phones, is currently being negotiated between the EU Council, Parliament and Commission, but the Lithuanian presidency did not prioritise the issue and no substantial progress has been made on the issue since the first half of 2013.
According to the EU Commission's impact assessment, it would cost between €260 and 560 million across the EU to reach full compliance of the websites concerned in one year. 21 EU member states already have web accessibility measures for the blind, the document says.
Now, the EBU places all its hopes on the Greek presidency, which took over the rotating spot at the head of the Council of the EU on 1 January, and on the European Parliament for amendments to strengthen the text before the end of the legislature in April.
In an e-mailed response to EurActiv, the Greek ministry of networks, transport and infrastructure confirmed that it would tackle the dossier.
“The web accessibility directive is planned to be included for discussion during the Greek presidency. We support relative initiatives and they could be considered for inclusion in the agenda. Furthermore, Council agreement is necessary in order to make such changes as widening the scope of the directive. Issues such as implementation cost and the existence of relative technical standards should be addressed,” a ministry spokesperson said.
An EU source confirmed that the issue “is considered an important file and is part of the Greek programme but its progress depends on other files (electronic ID, broadband rollout cost, cyber security, telecoms single market)".
In other words, “its adoption under the current legislature is not certain.”
No online banking services for the blind?
Parliamentary sources say they hope to have the directive adopted by February, as developments in the sector are fast and by the time it is adopted it might already need to be adapted.
However, the European People's Party Group in the Parliament has already announced its opposition to having banking services included in the directive. The Commission and member states are also “reluctant”, as they find it “too burdensome”, which, if adopted, is certain to anger blind and partially sighted people.
In a raising awareness brochure, the EBU highlighted precisely that aspect of the legislation.
“Currently, people with sight loss have to rely entirely on staff to enter the correct amount on the PIN entry device for their banking transaction … they have to trust it has been entered correctly and no additional money has been taken, maliciously or by accident.”
Whatever the outcome, the blind advocacy organisation is calling on EU institutions’ to at least check their own websites and fix the many bugs visually impaired people encounter when surfing those pages.
The EU Council’s website “touch-to-speech” function, for example, works solely in English, giving way to tragicomic situations where the French version of the website is being read out with an incomprehensible English pronunciation.
The European Blind Union published a comment on the proposal for a directive saying: "Blind and partially sighted people use assistive technology such as text-to-speech screen reader software, screen magnification software or Braille refreshable displays to access the Internet. For this to work they rely on websites being designed in an accessible manner, according to recognised web accessibility standards.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of websites, including public sector websites, do not meet these voluntary standards so the information they contain is therefore inaccessible. In 2008 the European Commission published a study highlighting that only 5.3% of government websites were accessible. This is evidence that non-binding instruments have failed to deliver accessible websites.
The Digital Agenda for Europe set out clear objectives for the European Commission in relation to the full accessibility of public websites and websites providing basic services to citizens by 2015. Unfortunately, the proposal published by the European Commission on 3 December 2012 falls considerably short of this commitment. The European Blind Union was disappointed by the proposal and the EBU President described it as being “too little, too late”."
8 and 9 April 2014: Funka Nu Accessibility Days, conference on accessible ICT in Stockholm