US trumps EU on blind-friendly high-tech consumer products

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SPECIAL REPORT / The EU is trailing behind the US on online accessibility laws that make it easier for the visually impaired to access the internet or use a smartphone.

In the United States, a big part of business has moved online and American companies have a legal obligation to make their websites just as accessible for disabled groups as their brick-and-mortar stores.

These laws are aimed at making life easier for disabled people so that they do not have to rely on wheelchair ramps and self-opening doors to do their grocery shopping, for example.

Still, some companies continue to refuse making their websites more accessible and the National Federation of the Blind and the National Association of the Deaf is winning legal victories against them.

The situation of disabled people should improve further when the US Department of Justice issues new regulations on website accessibility later this year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

These could require websites to include spoken descriptions of photos and text boxes for the blind. It could also impose captions and transcriptions of multimedia features for the deaf.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the costs of making a website accessible to disabled groups vary based on the complexity of the site. It is also much cheaper to build accessibility features into a new site than to retrofit an old one.

No similar EU law

In the EU, there are no common rules yet on online accessibility for public or private websites. Countries are free to determine for example how blind people should be helped to shop on the internet.

María Jesús Varela Méndez of the Spanish National Organisation for the Blind says the US is way ahead of Europe when it comes to online accessibility laws.

"This has been good for the blind and partially sighted because the US is a very big market and since that law entered into force, important companies and manufacturers such as Google, Samsung and Apple have taken into account the characteristics we need to use their smart phones or tablets. Things are improving day by day," Méndez said.

“In the case of Europe, the situation is completely different because the laws are different in each member state," Méndez added.

She explained that while the UK and Spain had adopted helpful legislation for the blind or visually impaired, this was rarely the case across Europe. Member states had sometimes proposed laws that would improve blind people’s online access or access to technology, but often failed to complete or implement them.

The spokesperson from the Spanish National Organisation for the Blind said national associations for blind people were on an “impossible mission” and would prefer that the European Blind Union (EBU) press for a common EU law.

“This is the best way to get a better legislation in every country,” she stressed, adding that a directive could include cross-border online shopping.

Single market?

Thorkild Olesen, chairman of the Danish Blind Society, said that in many member states, a lot of work had been done to make public authorities’ websites accessible for blind people, but that for the most part, private companies could make those decisions on their own.

Instead, the blind and partially sighted help each other find websites that are accessible for them, the chairman said.

“But it would only be natural if the EU as the place which defends free trade across borders that they were first movers and said 'This is how it should be'. That would only be natural for the single market,” Olesen stated.  

The core elements of the EU disability strategy, which combines anti-discrimination, equal opportunities and active inclusion measures, are reflected in the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The rights cover almost all policy fields from justice to transport, from employment to information technology, from social to health policy.

Pressed by EurActiv to provide clarification on the status of the directive, the European Commission declined to comment.

Timeline: 
  • 10 Oct. 2013: World Sight Day
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