In December 2015 the European Commission released the European Accessibility Act: formal title Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States as regards the accessibility requirements for products and services. This directive was long awaited by the disability movement and key players like the European Disability Forum and EBU have undergone years lasting negotiations, until the proposal was finally drafted and launched. EU institutions and its member states have made great efforts in creating an accessible Europe which allows free circulation of goods and services as well as greater flexibility in travelling and working abroad, access to all these promising and natural opportunities for disabled citizens is still very limited. Buying reasonable priced travel equipment at your favourite online retailer, finding and choosing the most cost effective travel option on the web or via a mobile APP, easy check-in online or at a self-service-terminal, withdrawing some cash quickly, total control and confidence where to hop off the bus, comfortable payment via debit or credit card and an entertaining movie in your cosy holiday apartment, are activities non-disabled persons take for granted.
For those among us who are blind, partially sighted or have any other sensory or physical impairment, the enjoyment of these activities often turns into a daunting and frustrating experience. An inaccessible retailer's website makes it difficult to find equipment, check and selection boxes are poorly labelled, so that selecting the best price remains impossible. Buying a ticket via self-service-terminal (ticketing machine) is almost impossible, since the majority of terminals are equipped with flat touchscreens without a spoken menu as a guide to what is shown on the screen. Payments via payment terminals or cash withdrawal again an impregnable challenge, due to a lack of terminals using vocal screen readers or magnifying software. On top of that the unpleasant experience of getting off at the wrong stop, as the bus or train does not provide vocal announcements of the stops, is a problem all blind and partially sighted people have faced. Even watching a movie on TV as a deserved reward for all your trouble often leads to frustration and anger. The TV has no distinguishable buttons and the remote control is flat and plain which does not allow you to choose your favourite channel. Electronic program guides are not equipped with a spoken menu explaining how to navigate on the screen. If you were fortunate enough to accidentally select a movie, you may not have a clue of the story, since it does not provide audio description. The technology and knowledge to remove these barriers already exists. The fact that some ATMs, phones, computers, TVS etc., are already accessible to blind and partially sighted people proves that point. Most of these devices are still not accessible, however. Unless the law requires their inclusive design, most of these products will continue to be out of bounds for blind and partially sighted people.
The legislative proposal for a wide reaching “European accessibility act (EAA), which addresses accessibility as an overarching requirement in various sectors and establishes mandatory accessibility functional requirements could be a European mile stone for disabled European citizens in accessing daily goods and services. Former legislation has mainly focused on a specific single sector like the mandate for public authorities to make their websites accessible, or directives to encourage public service providers to procure accessible products to render accessible services etc. Some accessibility requirements are already included in EU rules, but there is no one single, coherent set of rules. The European accessibility act pursues a horizontal approach that comprises a wide range of products and services in different sectors and seeks to bridge gaps in other legislative acts, which would fill the term accessibility with life and concrete meaning.
The EAA proposal covers computer hardware and operating systems, ATMs, ticketing machines, check-in machines, phones and smartphones, tablets, TVs, online shopping, banking services, e-books and websites of transport companies as well as related infrastructure for bus, train and waterborne transport. A range of products and services which receive EU funding need to comply with the criteria of the European Accessibility act.
EBU welcomes the commission's proposal suggesting a broader and more ambitious scope of the act. Nevertheless we feel that the act has some crucial omissions concerning accessibility which would be vital for the everyday lives and independence of blind and partially sighted Europeans. Find here EBU's initial position paper, commenting on the legislative draft of the European Commission.
Currently the Commission's EAA proposal is being negotiated in the European parliament and the council. For more than 18 months both institutions have been trying to come up with proposals which may change the proposal to the better or on the contrary downgrade its actual ambitions to vague and weak legislation. The lead committee IMCO (Internal market and consumer protection) of the European parliament has tabled a very disappointing final report, proposing amendments which favour business demands over the rights of disabled and older persons. The report waters down the European Commission's proposal to such an extent that there is a risk that the Accessibility Act may be meaningless for millions of people in Europe. On 13 TH September the plenary of the European parliament has the chance to adopt IMCO's position as its first reading position. Besides all members of the European parliament are entitled to propose further amendments, which embark the opportunity to uplift the potential of the act and to strive for clearer and binding requirements, which can improve this legislative proposal.
What follows is a brief outline of the key counter-productive amendments the IMCO has tabled, despite strong advocacy efforts from EDF and EBU and assurances given by IMCO members to fight for a strong and robust accessibility act:
Looking at these rather gloomy prospects we have to fight all the more for an ambitious act, which is urgently needed to transform Europe into an accessible Europe for all. National governments, parliamentary members and key industrial players need to understand that investing in accessibility will be a future-proof investment, benefiting society at large, fostering growth and technical innovation and paving the way to a more inclusive and equal society for disabled persons.