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Governments warned not to “exclude millions” by legalising digital barriers

A letter from 20 NGOs has warned European ministers of the severe impact on disabled citizens’ lives that proposed changes to a web accessibility directive would have.

If exemptions to the EU Directive on the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites are adopted, then electronic communication with public organisations, downloading documents and accessing intranets at work will all be affected, and in some cases made impossible for disabled citizens throughout Europe, say the NGOs.

Signed by the European Blind Union (EBU), European Disability Forum (EDF) and AGE Platform Europe, among others, the letter sets out its objections after stating: “It is not acceptable to legalise digital barriers to employment. It is not acceptable to exclude millions from full participation in society.”

The letter also highlights increased mobile access of digital content, stressing the need for public sector websites to be accessible on mobile devices.

The proposed exemptions to the directive effectively exclude a number of website types and content formats from the accessibility guidelines set out elsewhere in the document. Under the proposed changes, NGO websites, online mapping and route-planning tools, intranets, and certain office file formats would all be exempt from the accessibility guidelines.

Carine Marzin, chair of the campaigns network at the EBU, spoke to e-Access Bulletin about some of the barriers that two of the exemptions (access to intranets and NGO websites) would present: “If disabled staff don’t have access to the intranet of their employer, they won’t be able to access information to do their job – (for example) checking internal policies, booking holidays, engaging in internal communications. (Secondly) many NGOs are lifelines for disabled people, providing valuable advice and support.”

It is hoped that the co-signed letter will influence ongoing negotiations about the directive, Marzin said: “We all hope this open letter will prompt ministers to understand how important it is to ensure that the directive is ‘fit for purpose’ and meets the needs of millions of disabled people and older people too.”

Speaking about why some governments have proposed and/or supported the exemptions, Marzin said: “In essence, the most common ‘reason’ given to our members was the ‘cost’ to make websites accessible, though we have not seen figures to back this up. We have argued that excluding people from the digital environment would be hugely damaging … and pointed to evidence that alternative ways for public authorities to interact with citizens are far more costly.”

Final negotiations on the directive will take place on April 26, between representatives from the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission. If a version of the text is agreed on by all parties, the directive could be adopted later this year.

Marzin said that members of the EBU are continuing to meet with European ministers and officials to stress the importance of access to digital content for blind and partially sighted citizens throughout Europe.

Read the full letter to European Governments as a PDF: .

Link to the full web accessibility directive – proposed exemptions can be found on pages 40-43: .

Find out more at the EBU website: .


  1. Anita Shelton | April 25th, 2016 | 12:27 am

    The Glasgow Retired Members’ Branch of Unite the Union is one of many standing committees integral to the workings of the largest trade union in the United Kingdom. A guiding principle of Unite is “to promote equality and fairness for all, including actively opposing prejudice and discrimination on grounds of gender, race, ethnic origin, religion, class, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability or caring responsibilities”.

    It is, therefore, of serious concern to our Branch that exemptions to the EU Directive on the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites are under consideration. As retired trade union member, the adoption of exemptions would severely limit equal access to information, thus increasing digital exclusion among demographic groups, especially including those affected by disability and/or economic disadvantage.

    We write in strong support of the sentiments and opinions expressed by the 20 NGOs in their Open Letter to Ministers in charge of Digital Affairs in all EU member states, Chairs of National Parliament’s Committees in charge of Digital Affairs, and the Permanent Representatives of all EU member states. Further, we support their statement that “80 million persons with disabilities, and the 150 million older people, who live in the European Union [must] have equal access to the Digital Single Market and the online public services provided to citizens in the EU”. We must have nothing less.

    Anita Shelton
    Retired Members’ Lay Equality Officer
    Glasgow Retired Members’ Branch
    Unite the Union

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