Web accessibility will now be the law of the land in Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Dita Charanzová [Charanzova.eu]

On Tuesday (3 May), after a long night of negotiation, and after more than three years since its proposal, it was agreed that web accessibility will now be the law of the land in Europe. This is a victory not only for persons with disabilities, but all of us, writes Dita Charanzová.

Dita Charanzová MEP (Czech Republic, ALDE), is the rapporteur of the Directive on Web Accessibility for Public Sector Websites.

The Directive requires:

– All new public sector websites and apps will have to accessible and current websites will have to be updated

– Older content, like old videos or word documents, will be available to citizens in accessible form on demand

– Government videos will have to have closed captioning or another accessible alternative, including live streaming within a maximum of 14 days of broadcast.

– Online services, like paying fines or fees, will have to be accessible.

– A clear statement on each website on to explain if a part of a website is not accessible.

Today, our lives centre around access to information online, either at our workplace or in our school or in our relations with government authorities. Most of us could not go through our day without this digital communication, no matter if it is on a computer or a smart phone. This will go without saying as more of the population become ‘digital natives’.

We, as a digital society, however, can only be complete when all citizens have access, and this access must include persons with disabilities.

More than 80 million Europeans have disabilities. As we age as a society, this number will only grow (currently at 87 million over 65). One in five of us will have sight loss by the time we are 75, according to the European Blind Union. Even more of us will have physical movement problems. We must all face the fact that at some point in our lives, we will all have a disability, either temporary or permanent.

This legislation is therefore vital to all of us, even those without disabilities today.

From an original proposal that covered only a few limited services, thanks to good will of the Dutch Presidency and the hard work of the members of the European Parliament, in the future, all public sector websites and mobile apps will have to be accessible. The fact that mobile apps are included is a major victory as more and more communicate with public sector bodies is via Apps. This will, I hope, lead to a new world where e-government is fully possible and there is no longer a need to queue for hours for a stamp on a piece of paper. A blind person should not be forced to queue any more than someone else.

Many of us take reading a website for granted, but public authorities should not. Especially when a good website will mean less time needed to answer problems where there is clear information available online, which will save them both time and money. Public authorities already know the benefits in terms of online services like paying your taxes online. Online tax declarations have already saved billions of euros in printing and postal costs and thousands of fewer tax errors and CO2 emissions. In some member states there is a move to become completely paperless for services like taxes. But how does a person with a disability do this if she cannot read the website or the PDF of the instructions? Or use the payment system, because they are not accessible?

This legislation should solve this problem.

If implemented by the member states, even taking into account short term-costs, a fully accessible public sector will save tax payers millions of euros from fewer call centres, fewer letters, and other costly alternatives. The long term benefits far outweigh the short term transition.

Sadly, however, legislation alone will not solve all accessibility issues.

First, we must ensure that this European Directive is transposed into national legislation correctly. Not only do national associations need to ensure that the minimum standards of the directive are included in the law, but push even further. The Directive leaves the door open for Member States to do more and to include more websites within the law. But it also includes some scope exclusions at the request of the Member States. For example, public broadcasts are not covered. If Member States want to only do the minimum, the voices of supporters of web accessibility will have to demand why and the reason should be a good one.

Secondly, while this directive is only on government websites and apps, our citizens use the internet for far more than paying parking fines. We use it to watch television, pay our gas bills, we check our bank accounts and we buy countless goods and services. As we move towards the Digital Single Market, we must ensure that more than just public websites and apps alone are accessible. We must ensure that any attempts to weaken the European Accessibility Act proposal or to block true requirements for accessibility in the revised AVMS directive fail.

When I took up the post of Rapporteur (author) of this law in the European Parliament, I made one promise. That I would only support a compromise that would honestly help our citizens practically in their daily lives. That I could not accept a law which is only fine words on a piece of paper. This morning, I am happy to say we have delivered on this pledge. This is an important first step towards full equality for all in our digital world, but it cannot be the last.

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