April 29th, 2014
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.