Disabled groups’ dismay at Parliament vote on accessibility

A wheelchair-using passenger on a disability ramp at Ottawa station in Canada - the sort of infrastructure the EU Accessibilty Act promises. [ShankarS/Flickr]

Disability groups have expressed dismay at this week’s vote in the European Parliament on the proposed EU Accessibility Act, saying it risks making the act “meaningless for millions of people.”

On Tuesday (25 April) the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) voted on the act, which is intended to improve accessibility requirements for products and services for disabled people and PRMs (people with reduced mobility).

The report as passed by IMCO was immediately lambasted by the European Disability Forum (EDF) – an umbrella group representing 100 associations and some 80 million disabled people across the EU.

It said the report was a “watering down” of the original responsibilities of the act, and that IMCO had ultimately “favoured business demands over the rights of people”.

They point to a series of measures which they say has diluted the original intentions of the act, which itself was an adoption into EU law of principles first espoused by the United Nations.

The IMCO voted by 20 votes in favour, 17 abstentions and zero against the report on Tuesday, under Danish MEP and rapporteur Morten Lokkegaard.

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According to the committee’s analysis, the draft rules approved by IMCO will make products and services such as smartphones, ebooks and ticket machines “more accessible” to people with disabilities.

Lokkegard, from the liberal ALDE group, said “Accessibility is a precondition for persons living with disabilities to enjoy equal participation and therefore to play an active role in society. To this end, it is vital to ensure smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. With greater accessibility for people with disabilities, we get a stronger Europe, which is not just a goal for politicians but also for businesses, which the European Accessibility Act will encourage to innovate with more accessible products and services.”

However, the EDF are urging MEPs, when they meet in plenary in June, to vote to “substantially” amend the report. Spokeswoman Lila Sylviti highlighted some eight areas in which they think the report falls flat.

She said: “This deletes the definition of ‘persons with functional limitations’, it exempts both SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and micro-enterprises  from notifying obligation to authorities, it limits the application of the act on transport services, and does not address the accessibility of the built environment.”

According to the EDF, “millions of people will continue facing barriers to enter a bank, a school or a train station.

“Even if they are not ‘accessible’, cash machine ATMs or ticketing machines can still be used until the end of their economic lives – they don’t have to be replaced by ones which would make it possible for all people to use them to withdraw money or buy a ticket.”

The UITP (International Organisation of Public Transport Authorities and Operators) – which represents private and public transport providers across Europe – has previously strongly argued that staff and personnel present to help disabled passengers was a more realistic solution that replacing all ticket machines at stations and metro stops.

Separately, the EDF has criticised the IMCO report for allowing SMEs – that is companies up to 250 employees – for being able to continue making inaccessible (to PRM) products without notifying authorities, if they consider making accessible products “would be too much of a burden for them”.

It also condemns the decision to allow a company to estimate how many disabled people would be “directly affected”, saying this would exclude older people and people with temporary ailments.

However, MEPs do specifically state in their report that “lack of priority, time or knowledge” shall not be considered as legitimate reasons for claiming that a burden is “disproportionate”.

The report will be debated by the Parliament at its June plenary, before going to EU ministers in the Council.

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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.

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The European Accessibility Act for people with disabilities opens a "huge horizon" and new innovation fields for everybody, but its scope should be widened to more products and services, MEP Konstantina Kuneva said in an interview with EURACTIV.com.

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