An agreement on new European Union (EU) rules on the accessibility of public sector websites is a “crucial milestone” on the journey towards an inclusive digital society, say disabled campaigners.
This week’s agreement between MEPs, the European Commission and the EU Council should mean that the rules will be introduced through domestic legislation across the EU.
The European Disability Forum (EDF) said it was “delighted” that the “main demands and expectations” of the disability movement had been “listened to and taken on board” for what will be the first EU-wide rules on the accessibility of public sector websites and mobile phone apps.
It described the agreement as “a crucial milestone to achieve an inclusive digital society”.
The rules will cover local and national government, police forces, public hospitals, universities and libraries, and many other public sector organisations.
The EU Directive on Web Accessibility for Public Sector Websites will mean that new websites and mobile phone apps of all public sector organisations will have to be accessible, while existing sites will have to be updated.
Older content, such as videos, will have to be made available in accessible formats on demand, while government videos will have to feature closed captioning or an accessible alternative.
Online services, such as paying fines or fees, will also have to be accessible.
Dita Charanzová, the Czech MEP who has been the directive’s rapporteur – or liaison officer – for the European parliament, said she hoped it would “lead to a new world where e-government is fully possible and there is no longer a need to queue for hours for a stamp on a piece of paper”.
In an article on the EurActiv website, she said: “If implemented by the member states, even taking into account short-term costs, a fully accessible public sector will save tax payers millions of euros from fewer call centres, fewer letters, and other costly alternatives.
“The long term benefits far outweigh the short term transition.”
Some of the proposed exemptions that disabled campaigners had been pushing the EU Council to drop appear to be still in the draft directive – which has not yet been published – which means that the websites of public broadcasters and live audiovisual streaming will be exempt from the new rules, as will the websites of publicly-funded charities.
But there are hopes that the proposed European Accessibility Act could address some of the areas not covered by the directive.
The text of the directive will now have to be formally approved by the European parliament and the EU Council.
After the directive officially comes into force, EU member states will have 21 months to ensure it becomes law through their own national legislation.
EDF said that three years of lobbying by the forum, its members and other organisations had improved the original proposals put forward by the European Commission, improving the plans from something which only covered websites for 12 public services and had “very soft enforcement measures” to “a truly future proof and meaningful directive”.
Yannis Vardakastanis (pictured), EDF’s president, said that accessibility was “a human rights issue”.
He said: “It is a condition for participation in society, for education, for employment, and for access to public services.
“This directive is an important step in promoting the rights of persons with disabilities within the EU.
“The EU, and all EU member states, should make all of their public services accessible, including those delivered through the web, including through apps.
“This directive provides for a harmonised way to do this within the EU, and will assist the EU, and its member states, in meeting their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”
Carine Marzin, RNIB’s EU policy and campaigns officer, said: “We welcome this political agreement on the EU web accessibility directive.
“We will comment on the final text when it is published but it is great to hear that European parliament negotiators have been successful in agreeing new EU-wide rules on web accessibility in the public sector with our governments.
“We are also delighted to hear that these rules will guarantee the accessibility of mobile applications.”
Conservative MEP Vicky Ford, who chairs the European parliament’s internal market and consumer protection committee, said: “The UK is already leading the way in this area and much of our good practice has been fed in to the legislation.
“Being able to obtain information from websites and apps about key public services is a necessity of modern day life and we must spread the benefits of the digital single market to all.”