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European Parliament urges stronger public website access law

Members of the European Parliament have voted by a huge majority to beef up a proposed European Directive on the Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites.

This week MEPs backed a move by 593 votes to 40, with 13 abstentions, to require EU member states to ensure all public websites are fully accessible, not just those in 12 categories proposed by the European Commission such as social security benefits and enrolment in higher education.

The parliament also wants the new rules to apply to websites run by private firms performing public tasks, such as energy utility companies and companies providing outsourced public services such as transport or health care.

According to the Parliament’s plan, an optional exemption would be included in the private sector condition for small businesses, however. This would mean companies employing up to 12 people could be exempted from the new law if member states wish. MEPs have proposed giving member states one year to comply with the rules for new content and three years for all existing content, with a further two years for live audio content.

The vote constitutes the European Parliament’s first reading of the proposed directive. The EU Council of Ministers, made up of government ministers from all member states, may now accept, reject or adapt the recommendations, for further subsequent discussion with Parliament.

In a statement following this week’s vote the European Blind Union, an umbrella group of blidness associations from 43 countries including the RNIB in the UK, welcomed “ the strong message sent by the European Parliament to EU governments”.

However it urged rapid action – “within days” – by the current Greek Presidency of the EU to schedule meetings to discuss the directive, something it says is currently not planned other than in general terms.

“It is not enough for the Greek Presidency to have this directive on their ‘to do’ list”, EBU President Wolfgang Angermann said in the statement. “If the presidency refuses to organise a meeting to discuss the directive with member states then they are effectively blocking the legislative process.

“When 92% of MEPs are calling for action, we believe that council members should listen and engage… Failure to act will delay new rules for many months and therefore be hugely detrimental for the 30 million blind and partially sighted EU citizens who struggle to access information and services online”, Angermann said. “People with sight loss have been shut out of the online world for far too long.”

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.

Access to the Internet by Older People and Mobile Tips at Heart of e-Access 13

Access to the internet in homes for the elderly and developing inclusive services on smartphones and tablet computers are among topics on the agenda at e-Access 13, the UK’s leading event on access to technology by people with disabilities.

Delegates will hear about the Connecting Care project, looking at how care homes for older people can make the most of new technology to support their organisation, carers and service users. The project is run by Lasa, a technology support group for charities and public sector bodies, with funding from the Department of Health.

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Web Accessibility: One Million Steps: Boosting Access Awareness, One Website at a Time.

By Robin Christopherson

Recent research shows that the great majority of websites are still failing consistently to comply with even the lowest priority checkpoints of the accessibility guidelines set out by the international web standards body the World Wide Web Consortium. Despite a plethora of initiatives to raise awareness of this issue, from Citizens Online’s ‘Fix the Web’ campaign to Global Accessibility Awareness Day, the situation does not seem to be improving at a significant rate.

Little wonder, therefore, that one in six of us is still reluctant to venture into the online world and not surprising either that around half of those on the wrong side of the digital divide are disabled, and a similar number are aged 65 or over. The scope for mainstream technologies to transform the lives of this sizeable minority seems largely untapped.

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Paralympics Star is this Year’s e-Access Conference Keynote Speaker

GB Paralympics star Hannah Cockroft MBE, winner of two gold medals at the London 2012 Paralympic Games in wheelchair sprint races, is this year’s inspirational keynote speaker at e-Access ‘13, the UK’s leading event on access to technology by people with disabilities.

The event will analyse the ‘Paralympics effect’, focusing on how increased public and media interest in disability after the 2012 Paralympic Games can be used to maximum benefit for accessibility progress. Other speakers include Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative industries Ed Vaizey, who will update delegates on how the government is addressing accessibility; and disability consultant and campaigner Simon Stevens, star of a Channel Four TV comedy show.

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BBC Issues Draft Guidelines for Mobile Accessibility

A draft set of standards and guidelines to make BBC web content and apps more accessible when viewed on mobile devices has been released by the corporation following a year of testing and development.

The Draft BBC Mobile Accessibility Standards and Guidelines were announced in a blog post by Henny Swan, senior accessibility specialist at the BBC. Up to now the BBC’s existing accessibility guidelines have been used as a basis for creating accessible mobile content, Swan says, but it was felt that more specific mobile standards were now needed.

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Practitioners Rally To Defend Web Access Guidelines

Accessibility practitioners have defended the international standard ‘WCAG’ web content accessibility guidelines this month, in the wake of an academic study suggesting they were “ineffective”.

The PhD study by André Pimenta Freire of the University of York, as reported in E-Access Bulletin in May, said adherence to the WCAG guidelines could not resolve many problems on website pages encountered by print-disabled computer users. In a series of responses on the bulletin’s website, however, several practitioners raised objections to points raised in Pimenta Freire’s study.

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Employers ‘Need Support To Make Job Applications Accessible’

Employers need more support to make their digital job application processes accessible to people with disabilities, according to a new report from disability employment services charity Shaw Trust.

The report, ‘Making work a real choice’, examines the government’s disability employment programme Work Choice through the experiences of more than 400 people – a mix of job applicants, employers, and Shaw Trust staff.

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International Web Access Guidelines “Ineffective”, Academic Claims

Conforming to the international industry standard Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can be “ineffective” as a method of reducing problems encountered by blind and visually impaired web users, one IT academic has claimed.

The WCAG guidelines are created by the international World Wide Web Consortium, which oversees web standards. In his PhD thesis for the University of York, ‘Disabled people and the Web: User-based measurement of accessibility’, André Pimenta Freire – a specialist in human-computer interaction – writes that a large number of problems on website pages encountered by print-disabled computer users would not have been resolved by conformance to WCAG criteria.

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Global Accessibility Awareness Day: A Worldwide Audience For Web Accessibility

By Tristan Parker

This year, 9 May recently marked the second Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), an event that aims to encourage web developers and related communities to think about accessibility for disabled computer users when designing and building web pages.

GAAD was inspired by a blog post in which US-based developer Joe Devon called for widespread accessible web design. The post was noticed by accessibility professional Jennison Asuncion, and the two began working to raise the profile of digital accessibility.

Individuals and organisations from across the globe create and take part in awareness-raising activities during GAAD, from holding talks to tweeting accessibility messages to using only part of a computer to simulate the barriers faced by someone with an impairment or disability.

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