This article is part of our special report European Accessibility Act.
The EU tech industry has criticised the European Commission’s draft Accessibility Act, saying it is too prescriptive and fails to provide incentives for innovative businesses to develop the solutions that will make life easier for people with disabilities.
The Council of the EU, representing the bloc’s 28 member states, has urged the European Commission to formulate rules that facilitate the “scale-up of innovative European businesses that wish to offer goods and services across borders and/or establish in other member states”.
But tech industry association DigitalEurope believes the draft European Accessibility Act, presented in December, has not “completely succeeded” in creating a future-proof legal framework that meets the Council’s requirements.
Digital technologies can have an “immense positive impact” on the lives of people with disabilities, said John Higgins, Director General of DigitalEurope.
“We want to ensure that the Act will allow us to continue on this very successful trajectory,” Higgins told euractiv.com, recognising the efforts made by the Commission to create a future-proof legislation.
However, he believes that the European Commission hasn’t completely succeeded. “This is evidenced by the accessibility requirements in Annex I,” he said. “They are currently formulated at a too specific and technical level and any attempt to define accessibility requirements for specific ICT product and service types in legislation is almost certain to be ineffective because of the rapid development and evolution in this sector,” Higgins said.
According to Higgins, the specific requirements mentioned in the Act should be replaced by outcome-oriented functional performance requirements, not detailed prescriptions.
Outcome-oriented requirements “will leave economic operators the flexibility to strive for creative accessibility solutions that fulfil users’ needs”, Higgins argued.
Inappropriate and ineffective
According to the tech industry association, accessibility cannot be subject to a generic pass or fail assessment because user requirements vary and usability is subjective. Moreover, usability criteria are not measurable in the same manner as compliance with safety standards.
“Instead of demanding complete accessibility at all times, the Directive should encourage economic operators to be as ambitious as they can and make all efforts possible to innovate and make their products and services accessible,” Higgins said, citing the US Communication and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) as an example of future-proof legislation that keeps administrative requirements at a minimum.
For the tech industry, a pragmatic approach to market surveillance and enforcement is needed in order to create an effective directive.
“It is inaccurate to refer to the term ‘risk’ in the accessibility context,” Higgins said. “As products or services that lack a specific accessibility feature do not present a safety risk, it is disproportionate to demand their withdrawal or recall,” he remarked, saying many issues related to accessibility could be solved through a constructive dialogue with consumers.
Civil society groups, for their part, have taken the opposite side of the argument, warning that the draft Accessibility Act was leaving businesses with too many loopholes for non-compliance.
The European Disability Forum (EDF), an umbrella organisation representing 80 million persons with disabilities in Europe, hailed the Commission’s proposal but expressed concerns related to its narrow scope.
It also criticised measures designed to shield private companies of any “disproportionate burden” in the implementation of the Act, as well as weak enforcement mechanisms.
Indeed, the Commission foresees exceptions for private companies who find it too complicated or expensive to make their products and service accessible to disabled persons.
Referring to this provision, EDF President Yannis Vardakastanis stressed said this provision should be used in exceptional circumstances, otherwise “you create a loophole for non-compliance”.
Vardakastanis said it also has to be ensured that the Market Surveillance Authorities, who would be responsible for checking compliance, have the necessary resources to do their jobs.
“It could be a problem if economic operators can get exceptions from the rules too easily and ignore the accessibility requirements,” the EDF president pointed out.
EU refuses to sign “a blank cheque”
Contacted by EURACTIV, a European Commission official noted that certain safeguards were provided so that the application of the accessibility requirements only applies to the extent that they will not impose any disproportionate burden on businesses.
“However, this is not a blank cheque to circumvent the requirements,” the official stressed. “The safeguard clauses have been introduced to protect small-scale operators and take into account the size, resources, and nature of the economic operators concerned,” he said.
“For example, a small-scale bakery opening a web shop can examine whether the compliance with the accessibility requirements of the Directive would impose a disproportionate burden and can on the basis of this assessment decide not to apply these,” the EU source added.
For the executive, the European Accessibility Act will make it easier for small businesses to export products and services that comply with EU requirements because they will not have to adjust to divergent national rules.
“In particular, this will help small business to take full advantage of the EU market, and it will allow people with disabilities to benefit from a greater supply of accessible products and services at more competitive prices,” the official explained, adding that the legislation intends to avoid administrative burden and includes light procedures for industry.
Impact on public budgets
According to the Commission, the Act will also improve the chances of people with disabilities following an education or finding an employment opportunity. Jobs related to accessibility expertise will also be boosted by the new law, he said.
Finally, the directive is expected to have a positive impact on public budgets, the official remarked.
“By bringing more people with disabilities to education and jobs, as well as by allowing older people to have longer working lives, the proposal will enable them to be active citizens and taxpayers,” the officials said.
“It can thus reduce dependency and pressure on pensions and public budgets,” the EU official said in conclusion.
According to statistics, 80 million EU citizens are affected by some kind of disability, a number which is projected to increase to 120 million by 2020 considering the rising elderly population.
In a Eurobarometer study, nearly three in ten Europeans (29%) stressed that they or someone in their household had a longstanding illness or health problem, which has lasted, or was expected to last, for 6 months or more. The highest numbers were recorded in Poland (44%), Estonia (42%), Hungary (41%), Finland (39%) and Malta (38%).
In addition, the vast majority of respondents (97%) underlined that people with disabilities should be integral part of the society like people without disabilities. For instance, people with disabilities should have the opportunity to go to school, get employed, access shops and supermarkets etc.
86% of Europeans agree that having similar accessibility solutions across Europe would enable them to travel, study and work in another EU country. Countries with the highest level of agreement with this statement are Malta (96%), Italy (94%), Ireland (93%), Lithuania (92%) and Greece (92%).