European Commission: Public sector sites must become disability-friendly

The European Commission (EC) says that by 2015, disabled users of public sector websites should be able to access particular content and services.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

The European Commission (EC) has launched a new set of draft proposals which would make public sector websites obligated to become disability-friendly.

european commission new proposals legislation website accessibility disabilities

The EC say that the proposed legislation, which would make public sector bodies that operate one or more of 12 types of website in the EU -- including online income tax calculations, job searches provided by government agencies, driving license applications and university enrolment -- would benefit "over 100 million EU residents."

By standardizing access and adding a legal backbone, the idea is that online services which many now consider basic, such as applying to renew a passport, should be accessible to anyone in the EU without impairments being an issue. 

Currently, standardisation across the web is in early stages, and if you have a visual impairment, for example, the convenience online services are meant to represent can cause little more than hassle, or be downright impossible. Examples of how these new policies would work in practice are that public sector websites would have to offer keyboard or mouse-only accessibility, audio descriptions of images, and written descriptions for audio files.

The draft directive's proposals (.pdf) suggest that website changes should be put in place by the end of 2015.

According to the European Commission, the website developer market consisted of roughly 175,000 enterprises in the 27 EU member states in 2009, employing 1 million people with a generated turnover of €144 billion. When it comes down to website accessibility, the European market was evaluated to be worth €2 billion. However, the EC argues that this market could grow "significantly" as less than 10 percent of websites currently employ accessibility standards, and as the population in Europe ages, this will become a problem for a technology-reliant community.

The European Commission says:

"Member states would have to take necessary measures to ensure that the websites concerned are made accessible [...] in a consistent and adequate way for users' perception, operation and understanding, including adaptability of content presentation and interaction, when necessary, providing an accessible electronic alternative [and] in a way which facilitates interoperability with a variety of user agents and assistive technologies at Union and international level."

Arguing that web-accessibility is a top priority for public sector organisations in order to fulfil their public responsibilities, introducing accessibility standards would result in greater functionality, reduced website fragmentation, a fairer system, and eventually would mean lower costs in order to provide such functionality -- as a standard set of rules would remove the need for extra adaptions or continual, complicated website improvements.

The draft legislation reads:

"The non-harmonised national approaches to web-accessibility create barriers in the Internal Market. Suppliers that operate cross border face additional production costs. Competition, competitiveness and economic growth are hampered because enterprises, SMEs in particular, lack the knowledge and capacity to cope with all the specifications and procedures."

Before any measures become written into law, the Council of Ministers and European Parliament would have to approve the Commission's draft proposals.

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