European Commission proposes new laws on accessibility of public sector websites

As I reported on Twitter earlier this week, the European Commission has proposed a new directive governing the accessibility of websites operated by organisations in the public sector.

If passed, the directive would set out requirements in relation to how many public sector bodies ensure that their websites are accessible to users with disabilities. The European Commission estimates that there are over 700,000 public sector websites in the EU.

Determining what is “accessible”
One of the big issues with legislating on website accessibility is the need to have an objective set of criteria for determining what an accessible website looks like. Accessibility, by its nature, is a subjective issue, as accessibility problems will vary depending on an individual’s disabilities and the device/browser software that the user is using. This makes it difficult to have a law that sets out clearly what organisations have to do.

The UK Equality Act deals with this by a set of objective criteria for determining discrimination (that apply regardless of the type of discrimination that is alleged to be taking place), but translating this into the specific steps an organisation should be taking in relation to its website has always been difficult, as the law simply refers to policies or practices that have effect of discriminating against the individual concerned.

The proposed directive addresses this issue by presuming that the website meets the accessibility requirements where it complies with a number of external standards.

These are:

  • initially, the recently approved international standard on website accessibility ISO/IEC 40500), which in turn references Level AA conformance under version 2.0 of the W3C‘s long-established and recognised web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG);
  • any European standard on website accessibility, which may include any standard under the ongoing Commission’s Mandate M/376 project (which is also likely to be based on WCAG Level AA conformance); and
  • ultimately the harmonised standards for accessibility drawn up and approved by the EU institutions, which in turn will be based on the European standard based on M/376.

Disappointingly, the presumption of “accessibility” appears to be based only on compliance with tick box criteria (rather than say, user testing, as recommended by the British Standard BS8878). However, as I note above, it is difficult to legislate for subjective assessment.

The proposed directive is intended to sit alongside the proposed European Disability Act, which will address the accessibility of goods and services, including ICT.

Timescales
As a directive, the new laws will need to be locally implemented in each member state. The Commission’s current timetable envisages the date for this laws coming into force as being 30 June 2014.

Whilst the transitional arrangements are not yet clear, public sector bodies looking to update their websites over the coming year should bear in mind the likely new laws and accessibility requirements when developing their technical requirements specifications.

For many, this should not require a huge change in approach, as WCAG level AA conformance has been a UK Government recommended standard for several years now. However, if the directive is passed then that obligation will now be part of a clear legal framework.

Martin Sloan

3 Responses to “European Commission proposes new laws on accessibility of public sector websites”


  1. 1 Jonathan Hassell (@jonhassell) December 21, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks for an interesting angle on this new EC proposed directive, Martin.

    This new directive could be very useful, or it
 could be very divisive – it’s already prompted a clash between the European
 Commission and Minister Plasterk in Holland on the ideals of making websites 
accessible to all vs the pragmatics of how to do that for different types of
 website.



    So there are pros and cons to the directive as it stands.

    However, there are ways of bridging the impasse between the ideals and pragmatics, as discussed in my analysis blog at
 http://www.hassellinclusion.com/2012/12/clear-eu-accessibility-law/

    It’ll be interesting to see how the directive evolves…


  1. 1 Will the proposed EU directive on the web accessibility lead to confusion and hinder innovation? « Brodies TechBlog Trackback on January 29, 2013 at 7:13 pm
  2. 2 A clear EU accessibility law proposed? At what cost? - Hassell Inclusion Trackback on December 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm

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