Australia to adopt European standard to make government IT more accessible

The federal government is aiming to provide a greater level of inclusion and accessibility for staff and citizens, adopting an internationally aligned standard for IT services.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Australian government has announced it will be adopting an internationally aligned standard for IT accessibility in government, requiring vendors at procurement stage to offer accessible website, software, and digital device services.

The standard, Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services, is a Direct Text Adoption of European Standard EN 301 549 and establishes a minimum standard to ensure that all Australians can access information and use services electronically by public authorities and other public sector agencies, the government said.

The government expects the new standard will be used by all levels of government when determining technical specifications for the procurement of accessible IT products and services, including computer software and hardware, telecommunications, and office equipment such as printers, photocopiers, and scanners.

Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) CEO Teresa Corbin said that while the standard is intended in particular for use by public sector bodies during procurement, she believes there is application in the private sector.

"The standard will help industry and operators avoid creating technologies that exclude users from the information society," she said. "This way everyone can access information and use services that are being delivered electronically."

The decision to implement the standard came out of consultation between the Department of Finance, Standards Australia, ACCAN, and others, and follows a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission into the accessibility of IT in the Australian public service.

The commission published its report [PDF] titled Information and Communications Technology in the Australian Public Service - the need for change, in April last year, which concluded the low rate of employment of people with disability in public service was unsatisfactory.

To rectify this, the commission said widening the use of accessible IT was necessary to improve the public service's performance on the employment of those with a disability.

At the time, the commission said the establishment of the federal government's Digital Transformation Office (DTO) alongside the government's proposed shift towards a shared services model for government agencies presented the opportunity to implement change in IT procurement policy.

The commission made eight recommendations to the government to fix its position, which included the government adopting existing international standards for IT accessibility, or developing a new set of standards to suit the Australian context, noting public service agencies should also comply with the same standards.

"Universal design principles should be applied to all IT, but currently this is not the case," the report said. "Universal design is not only important for people with disability, but also for older people, people with an illness or injury and all people who, with a wide spectrum of capabilities, make up human diversity."

It also suggested that a Government Product Accessibility template be developed for vendors with tailored training on IT accessibility also recommended to be provided to chief information officers across government agencies.

In its report, the commission also pointed to the private sector, noting ANZ bank, Westpac, and Telstra had already implemented IT strategies that were inclusive of those with a disability, making what the commission called a significant commitment to product accessibility for staff and customers.

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