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A “tax on accessible books”: mixed emotions at Marrakesh Treaty progress

The latest agreement in the process of implementing the Marrakesh Treaty, which aims to help end the ‘book famine’ faced by blind and visually impaired people, has been met with a mixture of praise and frustration.

The treaty aims to increase the availability of books in accessible formats, such as Braille and e-books, by relaxing copyright laws which make it difficult or time-consuming to share accessible books across different countries (read e-Access Bulletin’s previous coverage of the Marrakesh Treaty at the following link: http://eab.li/6j ).

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EU accessibility legislation: Keeping the public sector accessible

By Carine Marzin.

The EU directive on making the websites and mobile apps of public sector bodies more accessible was adopted at the end of 2016 and is the very first piece of EU legislation on digital accessibility. It will benefit over 500 million European citizens, including an estimated 80 million Europeans living with a disability, by making digital content from the public sector across Europe more accessible.

Governments will have to check that public sector bodies consistently adhere to the accessibility standards and there will be a new enforcement procedure, making it easier for members of the public to complain about inaccessible content and get the situation resolved.

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US Congress called on to create technology equality bill

The National Council on Disability (NCD) has made a series of recommendations to the United States Government on making technology more accessible, including a call to establish a ‘Technology Bill of Rights for People with Disabilities’.

Other recommendations called for by the NCD (which is tasked with advising key strands of the US Government on disability policy) include the following: action should be taken to clarify that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to the internet, and; federal agencies in the US should take “aggressive steps” to comply with a law requiring that their ICT (information and communications technology) is accessible.

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A cautious welcome as Europe looks to lock-in web accessibility

A provisional agreement to make public sector websites and mobile apps across Europe more accessible has been reached, creating mixed reactions from the accessibility community.

The deal between the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission was made earlier this month, and relates to the existing ‘Directive on Web Accessibility for Public Sector Websites’, which has been the subject of debate since its introduction in 2012 (See e-Access Bulletin’s previous coverage at the following link: http://eab.li/b ).

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Conquering the website accessibility divide

By Donna Jodhan.

There is the digital divide and then there is the technology divide. Now I’d like to add the website accessibility divide to this list.

The ‘website accessibility divide’ refers to those of us who are unable to access websites due to navigable and usability reasons, versus those who do not have any difficulty accessing websites.

The former group often describes those of us who are visually impaired, and for me, as one who falls into this category, I can tell you that it makes a huge difference in my personal life whenever I am unable to do things such as: access information independently and in privacy; complete forms on my own; request information without having to ask for sighted help; download and read documents without having to ask for sighted assistance; read content on a website on my own.

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Accessible book body to focus on developing countries

An initiative to increase production and dissemination of accessible format books for blind and print-impaired readers in developing countries has been launched by a group of international bodies.

Members of the new Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) include the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO); the World Blind Union (WBU); the DAISY talking book format; the International Publishers Association; and the International Authors Forum. It is intended as a stop-gap measure pending implementation of a WIPO treaty on access to printed works for blind and print-impaired people, signed in July last year.

The ‘Marrakech Treaty’ will eventually allow exceptions to international copyright laws permitting sharing of accessible printed materials, but must first be ratified by 20 countries, a process still being completed.

Maryanne Diamond, chair of the WBU’s ‘Right to Read’ campaign, told E-Access Bulletin the consortium will be testing some elements that need to be in place for implementation of the treaty.

“[It] provides the opportunity to trial different ways to get books in the hands of persons who are blind,” Diamond said. “It will undertake capacity building of: publishers to publish accessible [books] and organisations in developing countries to produce and distribute accessible books,” she said.

Further work will focus on will focus on boosting demand for accessible books among groups of blind and print-impaired people in developing countries, including work already underway in Bangladesh.

Other areas of work for the ABC include talking with publishers and (printed materials) rights holders, and urging them to publish their texts in accessible formats. Once the Marrakech Treaty is fully ratified, the body’s work will scale back, Diamond said.

A detailed report on the Marrakech Treaty and its background can be found in a previous issue of E-Access Bulletin.

Election access at heart of Canadian disability law campaign

The removal of barriers to voting and elections is among key principles of a new Canadians With Disabilities Act which a group of Canadian disability rights advocates is urging all the country’s main political parties to pledge to pass, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

The campaign is spearheaded by a group of five leading disability campaigners led by Donna Jodhan, who in 2012 won a six-year legal battle to force the Canadian government to make its websites more accessible (see E-Access Bulletin September 2013). Other members of the “Barrier-free Canada steering committee” are Steven Christianson, advocacy manager at baby health charity March of Dimes; David Lepofsky, a law professor at University of Toronto; Jutta Treviranus, director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at Ontario College of Art & Design; and Marc Workman of the Canadian national blindness charity CNIB.

The group is urging all parties to support the principles behind passing a new law ahead of national elections set for October next year. “We believe more work is needed to ensure the rights of Canadians with disabilities remain intact”, Jodhan told E-Access Bulletin this week. “Web accessibility is just one component of our landscape and if we hope to become an equal partner in society then other rights need to be respected and preserved. We need to have equity with the mainstream world.”

The group has drawn up a list of 14 principles for the new law, which would echo the US Americans with Disabilities Act.

These include that it “should require providers… to ensure that their goods, services and facilities are fully usable by persons with disabilities”; that the government of Canada should lead other sectors in achieving the aims of the new law; and that it should provide for a “prompt, independent and effective process for enforcement”.

The law should also require the government to review all current and future federal legislation and regulations to identify possible accessibility barriers that they may impose or permit, pass new legislation to address these barriers, the principles state. “As an immediate priority under these activities, the Government of Canada should get input from voters with disabilities on accessibility barriers in election campaigns and the voting process, and should develop reforms to remove and prevent such barriers.”

The final principle says: “The Canadians with Disabilities Act must be more than mere window dressing… It must have real force, effect and teeth.”

EU accessibility policy and standards: The slow arm of the law

For many years, the disability community in Europe has been pushing the EU to write accessibility into its trade rules for ICT goods and services, not least when it comes to ICT purchased by governments themselves.

Similar rules have long been in place in the US, perhaps surprisingly for those who like to caricature America as a champion of free trade at any social cost. Now it seems, some progress is being made in Europe. But is it fast enough?

The ‘European Standard on accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services in Europe’ (EN 301 549) was published in February by ETSI (the European Telecommunications Standards Institute) in association with international groupings of national standards bodies CEN and CENELEC. It had previously been known as Mandate 376, through a drawn-out development period of some seven years (see EAB, July 2012).

The standard aims to ensure ICT products and services – including websites, software and digital devices from computers to smartphones and ticketing machines – are made more accessible to people of all abilities, either directly or through compatibility with assistive technologies such as text-to-speech. It is accompanied by three technical reports (TR 101 550, TR 101 551 and TR 101 552), adding more detail.

Currently, however, its use is not mandated either by EU law or national law in any individual country, a fact which is likely to delay its take-up in most parts of Europe for some time, Matthias Schneider, chairman of the ETSI technical committee on human factors, told E-Access Bulletin.

“The EU has not yet ruled that the standard has to be used for procurement at European level, and unless a state regulates that the standard has to be applied by public procurers, I wouldn’t expect many organisations will switch over to using it”, Schneider said.

In 2011, the European Commission did announce it was developing a European Accessibility Act covering the accessibility requirements of all goods and services bought and sold in the EU, which would be likely to use the new standard. However despite several false dawns – including a promise last year that the act would finally be drafted in the first quarter of 2014 – it has since been delayed again.

“So far it has still not been drafted, and there is no clear insight why the commission has delayed for so long”, Schneider said. “My personal opinion is that it will not appear prior to the instalment of the next European Commission in July or August, so I don’t see anything happening before October.”

As and when an accessibility act is passed it will cover both public and private sector procurement, and it will then be possible for member states to apply the new accessibility standard across all sectors, after a late change to it at the urging of the European Commission, Schneider said.

“The original purpose of the standard was very clearly public procurement, but during its development the commission realised it could be used for many more purposes”, he said. “The problem was, to change its purpose halfway through development would have meant asking new groups of interested parties to comment, which was no longer possible. So in the end, we came up with something which didn’t go all the way to what the commission wanted but still could also be used in other tasks such as in the private sector, provided someone mandates it.”

The compromise reached can be seen in a small but key change in the standard’s title, from the previous ‘Accessibility requirements for public procurement’ to the final ‘Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement’, with the new wording leaving its use open in other fields, Schneider said.

In a bizarre quirk of the European standards system – that could cause unnecessary expense to the unwary – the new European Standard EN 301 549 is available free of charge from the ETSI website but costs a significant fee to buy from some national standards bodies. The latter group includes the British Standards Institution (BSI), which is charging members £134 and non-members £264 to buy the same standard (its website does not specify how much it charges for membership, which depends on how many standards an organisation uses).

It is usual for all national European standards bodies to publish their own copies of European standards, numbered within their own systems – the new standard is published by BSI as BS EN 301549:2014. However because different standards bodies have different business models, some charge for their products, while others do not. ETSI, funded by more than 700 members worldwide including technology companies, does not charge for its standards.

The situation is made even stranger by the fact that the British and other national ‘versions’ of a standard such as this one do not differ in any way from the pan-European version, Schneider said.

“It might have a different cover page, but the content is identical because they cannot change it. It is one of the puzzles that the European standards situation creates every once in a while.”

The new standard does not create its own technical specifications from scratch in most areas, since this groundwork has already been carried out for existing hardware and software standards in Europe, the US and elsewhere, he said.

For example there are already standards specifying the range over which speech volume should be adjustable; and for web accessibility the new standard refers to level ‘AA’ of WCAG 2.0, the web content accessibility guidelines produced by the international World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Likewise for software that runs on desktop computers or other devices and for documents, the requirements are harmonised with work by the W3C’s WCAG2ICT Task Force. This means that the requirements for the web, documents and software all follow the same principles.

The work on this standard is seen as crucial for global trade and so ETSI and its partners have worked hard to ensure the accessibility requirements contained in the new standard are consistent with the revision of Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act, a US law requiring ICT purchased by public bodies to be accessible, Schneider said.

However, this work has been complicated by the fact that Section 508 has been undergoing its own review process which is lasting longer than policymakers originally expected, he said.

“We have tried to synchronise with the newest version of Section 508, but unfortunately the newest version is not finalised, so we don’t know what its contents will be yet. It could be that in half a year from now, when the US comes out with the newest version of Section 508, we might have to change ours again so it is compatible. We hope that this will not be the case.

“Harmonising our approach with US was extremely difficult and very time-consuming, but we want it to be harmonised because international companies such as Nokia, Motorola or Microsoft have no wish to develop products designed for accessibility requirements in Europe which are different to the US.”

Progress in some areas is happening a bit faster, however. While Europe continues to wait for a general accessibility directive, one area where the new standard may be put to use more quickly could be public sector websites. There is a proposal to use it as part of accessibility guidelines for a new public sector website accessibility directive already passing through the EU law-making system (see E-Access Bulletin, February 2014).

It would also be possible for European nations to pick up on the new standard individually and embed it in their own policies, Schneider says. “Member states can act individually, so I would expect that some – probably Nordic countries and Germany first – will mandate it in their state procurement rules.”

As well as creating major potential social benefits, European policymakers also hope the standard, and European Directives or state laws mandating its use, will help boost the market for technology companies and companies working in the accessible and assistive technology sectors.

As Elena Santiago Cid, director general of CEN and CENELEC, said in a statement: “We believe that including accessibility requirements in European standards will deliver both societal and economic benefits, by helping to expand the market for accessible products and services.”

While the workings of European law move slowly, the new standard is the latest piece in a jigsaw puzzle which does seem to be finally coming together.

Despite the long delay in its development, and the new further wait for a law mandating it to be widely used, the standard’s publication – following on from the directive on public sector websites – marks the beginning of a breakthrough.

In the US, Section 508 law is credited with driving the biggest technology companies including Apple and Microsoft to pay far more attention to the accessibility of their mainstream products. Step by step, Europe seems to be catching up.

Are airline check-in kiosks onboard with accessibility?

Readers who have travelled by air in the past few years are likely to have come across new technologies designed to enhance the convenience of travel such as automated kiosks where people can check in without queuing for hours in a barely-moving queue of bored passengers.

As so often with new technologies, however, it seems that their accessibility for people with disabilities was not always considered when they were first being developed. And now, in the US, the issue is about to hit the courts.

Earlier this month, US-based charity and campaigning organisation the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a lawsuit against the country’s Department of Transportation claiming the department’s new regulations on the accessibility of airport check-in kiosks breach discrimination legislation.

The law the NFB claims has been violated is the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), passed in 1986 to ban discrimination against air travel passengers with disabilities. As part of its duties to comply with this act, the DoT issued the new accessibility regulations which came into effect in December 2013. However, the NFB claims the new rules do not go far enough, and hence do not comply with the law.

So, what is the detail of the federation’s case?

The regulations are split into two separate sections. The first covers website accessibility, requiring airlines to make all public-facing content on their websites compliant with level ‘AA’ of the international World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 by 12 December 2016 – three years after the regulations took effect.

But although the NFB did express frustration back in November at what they called an “overly generous” time period back for website improvements, they are not challenging this timescale in the courts – in fact, their current legal action relates to the second part of the DoT regulations, regarding airline check-in kiosks.

This states that at least 25% of all existing check-in kiosks in an airport must be made accessible to disabled passengers by December 2023, including the display screen, inputs and outputs, instructions and floor space. However this is a timescale which the federation does believe is so long as to be unreasonable.

It claims that offering a compliance period as long as 10 years means that the DoT is failing to implement the ACAA as it was intended, and is therefore breaking the law.

In a statement explaining the decision to take legal action, NFB president Marc Maurer said that the technology to make airline check-in kiosks accessible to visually impaired passengers is “readily available” and is already in use in bank cash machines and other types of kiosk across the US. “The Department of Transportation violated the law by allowing continued discrimination against blind passengers based on spurious assertions by the airline industry that making kiosks accessible will cost too much and take a decade”, Maurer said.

The NFB has also published details of how it says kiosks can be more quickly made accessible in the same way as bank machines and other devices, such as: “affixing Braille labels, installing headphone jacks and adding speech software that provides audio prompts to the user.”

As yet, there has been no word on how – or if – any court action might proceed, or any response from the DoT. But this is not the first time that the NFB have pursued legal action over this issue. In 2011, the charity filed a lawsuit against Las Vegas McCarran International Airport on behalf of four blind passengers, claiming its self-service kiosks were inaccessible due to the visual-only instructions on their screens.

As in so many sectors, website accessibility is also an ongoing issue. In 2012 the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) sued low-cost airline bmibaby.com (now no longer active), claiming that customers with sight-loss were unable to use the company’s website to search for and book flights, as it was only possible to do so using a mouse.

Several months after initiating legal action, RNIB reported that bmibaby.com had made changes to its website which improved its accessibility, enabling visually impaired customers to book flights online, and withdrew its case.

So the new action keeps up the pressure on the airline industry: legal action may not be frequent, but it does keep coming, and organisations representing disabled travellers will continue to push for governments to fully implement their own anti-discrimination laws.

Top e-Book Reader Makers Contest US Accessibility Law

Three of the biggest e-book reader manufacturers – Amazon, Kobo and Sony – have petitioned the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ask for exemptions from US laws requiring products to be accessible to users with disabilities.

The three are urging the commission to waive parts of the 21st Century Video and Communications and Video Accessibility Act which require any product offering ‘advanced communication services’ (ACS) to be “accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.” The manufacturers say that as e-readers are used almost exclusively for reading, they do not provide more generic ACS. They argue that to make them fully accessible would increase their cost and weight and decrease battery life, essentially turning them into different devices more similar to tablet computers.

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