The European Union delegation in collaboration with the European Disability Forum organised an event on the 12th June in New York that brought together different perspectives with regards to accessibility and standardisation.
It was as a side event to the 11th session of the Conference of State Parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which took place from the 13-14 June in the U.N. headquarters in New York.
Moderated by Ms Emmanuelle Grange, Head of Unit on Disability and Inclusion of Directorate-General of Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion of the European Commission, the discussion touched upon different national and international efforts resulting in standards for a common approach to implement accessibility.
Mr David Capozzi, Executive Director of the U.S. Access Board began the debate by recalling the times in which standards in the U.S were overlooked because there was no enforcement in place. He explained that the situation changed in 1998, when the standards become mandatory, as they were incorporated in legislation.
He further explained that when the U.S Access Board wants to publish a new standard, such as the US Section 508 on ICT accessibility, they always check with experts and go through different rounds of public consultations to industry and disability groups.
The representative to the United Nations of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Ms Ursula Wynhoven underlined the potential of new technologies to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Ms Wynhoven informed participants about an ITU programme called Internet4all to boost web accessibility, that ITU is developing along with governments, media and IT professionals to ensure that websites are truly accessible to persons with disabilities.
On behalf of the Bulgarian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, Ms Nadezhda Harizanova stressed that one of the priorities of the first-ever Bulgarian Presidency of the EU is the proposal for the European Accessibility Act. The Bulgarian state expert also mentioned the commitments agreed by the UN agencies to make their premises accessible for people with disabilities, including the main room of the New York headquarters.
Ms Inmaculada Placencia, Senior Expert on Disability and Inclusion of the European Commission, showed how the efforts in standardisation and in policies are now fitting together in the EU. From the horizontal legal tool that represents the European Accessibility Act to sectorial legislation (e.g. on audiovisual services or electronic communications), the idea behind is to require the same level of accessibility to private sector and public agencies. These same accessibility requirements, according to Ms Placencia, will also be applied when EU funds are used. Finally, regarding accessibility standards, the objective is to detail down general functional requirements and to take advantage of the international developments, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
Precisely on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, Mr Shadi Abou-Zahra, Accessibility Strategy and Technology Specialist at the international standards organisation W3C WAI, pointed at public accountability as the key factor for the success of the organisations’ standards. For Mr Abou-Zahra it is essential to involve all stakeholders and find the balance among them that will bring quality to the standards. Given that the web is the predominant interface of the Internet, in which many technologies converge (mobile and TV apps, Internet of Things, software etc.), it is crucial to have coherent and widely applicable accessibility standards. Europe will most probably adopt very soon the recently released WCAG 2.1.
Ms Mia Ahlgren explained the involvement mechanism set up at the Swedish Standards Consumers and Workers Council, formed by three public agencies, three NGOs and two trade unions. The peculiarity of this Council is that all organisations involved decide on the budget to fund their participation in standardisation at national and international level. Hence, the NGOs receive funding to join the standardisation committee and to cover travels and time to prepare meetings so they can participate on an equal basis with others. Ms Ahlgren put as example a recent ISO standard on easy-to-open packages initiated and led by a Swedish organisation of persons with disabilities.
Mr Stein Erik Skotkjerra, Lead Accessibility Strategist of Siteimprove explained that standards and guidelines are the backbone of everything Siteimprove does as a Software As A Service company to offer accessibility monitoring among other things. Apart from this business perspective, Siteimprove also considers accessibility as part of its corporate responsibility, which is aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. According to the Siteimprove representative, coherence in standards also allows to measure trends and to share practices and expertise, which will never hinder innovation in any case.
The last speaker, Mr Alejandro Moledo, European Disability Forum’s New Technologies and Innovation officer stressed the importance of building the capacity of organisations of persons with disabilities in standardisation to be involved. Involvement will ensure make sure standards are fit for purpose and actually meet the needs of persons with disabilities. Additionally, a key factor is the adoption of a clear legal framework with mandatory requirements and enforcement mechanism that standards can support and assist in implementation. For the EDF officer standards should also go beyond what is legally required to facilitate industry and public administrations, for instance in public procurement, to strive for the best level of accessibility.
All the panellists agreed and some gave examples on the fact that accessibility drives innovation. MEP Brando Benifei, present among the participants, took the floor to reiterate that accessibility should be presented as beneficial to everybody. During the discussion afterwards, it was also reminded that it is way more cost efficient to incorporate accessibility from the outset than retrofitting it. A key factor raised in the debate was to clearly show the business case of accessibility.