Facebook-EDF Policy roundtable on the European Accessibility Act

Facebook-EDF Policy roundtable on the European Accessibility Act

GAAD 2021 – Thursday, 20 May 2021

“Accessibility is not the goal; accessibility is not the right that we are expecting or demanding. The right that we are demanding is full and equal enjoyment of Human Rights, fundamental freedoms, Accessibility is merely a tool to achieve this goal or it’s more, maybe more than a tool, it’s a pre-condition, a gateway that we need to be able to reach these goals.” Stein Erik Skotkjerra

On 20 May 2021, Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Facebook and EDF co-organized a roundtable discussion on the European Accessibility Act. Representatives from the European Commission and the European Parliament, Member States, standardization bodies, Facebook and the European Disability Forum came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by the European Accessibility Act, with a particular focus on its impact for the digital world.

The discussion was opened by Monica Desai, Head of Facebook’s Global Connectivity and Access Policy and Humberto Insolera, Executive Committee member of the European Disability Forum.

Ms Desai welcomed the participants and shared some of the examples of Facebook’s accessibility features and assistive technologies for persons with disabilities. In order to successfully develop technologies which are accessible for everyone Ms Desai emphasized importance of mainstreaming accessibility in different work streams of the company, including design, research, engineering, policy and legal aspects. Importantly, ensuring diversity of the workforce and actively employing persons with disabilities is paramount for success.

Mr Insolera echoed the importance of involvement of persons with disabilities, and highlighted that this involvement was one of the key factors for the success of the European Accessibility Act. He called on EU national governments to transpose the Act with great ambition and take advantage of accessibility requirements of the Act. He also called them to make sure that organisations of persons with disabilities are meaningfully involved in the transposition – they are consulted, and their views are reflected in the final legal texts.

Digital accessibility expert Stein Erik Skotkjerra gave a keynote address focusing on the opportunities for private and public partnerships presented by the European Accessibility Act and explored how a healthy EU ecosystem for accessibility can be promoted. He warned that we need to ensure the proper conditions for digital transformation to create rather than to take away opportunities and that one of the crucial conditions is ensuring accessibility by design in all new technologies. In this context he highlighted the significance of inclusive standardisation work, and well-trained and funded market authorities for implementation of the Accessibility Act. He particularly noted seeing accessibility as a skillset and profession, stressing the importance of developing expertise in accessibility in educational programmes across Europe. He also pointed out that many mainstream technologies such as captions or voice assistance services originated in the accessibility and assistive technologies space, showing that accessibility is very often a driver of innovation.

After the keynote address EDF Director Catherine Naughton opened the floor for a panel discussion on how the European Commission, Member States and industry are preparing for the Act; the expectations of persons with disabilities; the role of standardization; and possible implementation difficulties for the Act. The panel consisted of Inmaculada Placencia-Porrero, Senior Expert on disability and inclusion from the European Commission, Zuzanna Raszkowska, Deputy Director of the European Affairs and International Cooperation Department of the Polish Ministry of Funds and Regional Policy, Fernando Machicado, Secretary of CEN-CENELEC-ETSI Joint Working Group on e-Accessibility, Johan Keetelaar, Head of EMEA Connectivity and Access Policy of Facebook, and Alejandro Moledo, Head of Policy at European Disability Forum.

The speakers started with sharing their relation to the Accessibility Act, how and in what capacity they were involved in its development and continue during implementation. After this, Ms Placencia-Porrero introduced the next steps in relation to the Act, including working with Member States and disability organisations (DPOs) to support transposition, as well as ensuring inclusive and participatory standardisation in parallel in cooperation with accessibility experts, persons with disabilities and industry partners.

Ms Raszkowska then presented the challenges and opportunities in the transposition and implementation of the Act from the Polish government perspective. She noted that during transposition the challenge is to find the right balance between the goal to improve access to services and products by persons with disabilities and at the same time not creating unnecessary burden for businesses, especially small local companies. “It is important to have understandable and enforceable obligations so that the Act is implemented correctly”, she said.

Mr Machicado introduced the role of standardisation for the Accessibility Act. He noted the importance of the European Standard on accessibility requirements for ICT services and products (EN301549) for the Act, as the Act is very ICT-oriented. He also mentioned that standardisation is important because it is a result of agreement between different stakeholders, because of its voluntary nature, and as it ensures that all countries in the EU have a harmonized understanding what accessibility means in practice.

Mr Keetelaar followed to present the benefits and challenges of the Accessibility Act for Facebook as a technology company. He spoke broadly on the importance of having a harmonised approach to transposition and implementation, including enforcement of the Act, as often during these stages there can be deviations from the original legislation. He also noted that regulation is very important but to ensure that innovation is not hampered good standardisation is key, therefore Facebook will engage actively in the process.

Finally, Mr Moledo elaborated on the expectations of persons with disabilities regarding the Accessibility Act. He went into more detail what Member States can do to expand and improve accessibility in their national laws during transposition, going beyond the Act when it allows. For example, they can update their national building codes on the basis of the voluntary accessibility requirements for the built environment in the Act, and using the new European Standard on accessibility and usability of the built environment (EN17210); they can apply the user interface requirements for ICT products to household appliances which are not covered by the Act; they can apply the interoperability and accessibility requirements to answering to communications to the European single emergency number 112 to national emergency numbers. He invited to consult the EDF toolkit for transposition of the European Accessibility Act for recommendations on how to best transpose the Act.

In reaction Ms Placencia-Porrero continued to highlight the steps and conditions needed to ensure success of the Act. She emphasised the need for training and skill building, to have professional experts in accessibility. She also noted the great importance public procurement can play in driving accessibility, but also that awareness needs to be raised among companies and that the process of developing accessible services and products should be made as easy and intuitive as possible. She mentioned the planned AccessibleEU, an initiative within the European Disability Rights Strategy, and that it will play an important role in supporting implementation of the Accessibility Act.

Ms Raszkowska followed by highlighting the importance of EU support to implementing accessibility nationally, namely mentioning the EU funds as key driver for new projects and initiatives by supporting and incentivising businesses. She also noted the importance of knowledge sharing among industry and broader awareness raising by DPOs.

Mr Machicado then answered how to ensure that all stakeholders and right-holders get involved in the development of the harmonised standards. He noted the importance of being involved both at European-level by European networks such as EDF, and national level, through national standardisation bodies to ensure that standardisation outcomes are a result of inclusive participation.

As representative of industry Mr Keetelaar agreed with the importance of knowledge sharing among companies and mentioned the teachaccess.org initiative by Facebook where they raise awareness for developers and users of digital services to build in accessibility right from the start, so that it becomes part of the DNA for instance of software developers. These types of initiatives are something which big, resourced companies can take the lead in and benefit smaller companies becoming part of that broader ecosystem, he mentioned.

A final comment from the panel was from Mr Moledo emphasising that the European Accessibility Act should become a reference point for new EU legislation where accessibility is important. He mentioned for example the recent flagship EU legislative initiatives on digital services and platforms (Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act) and artificial intelligence (AI Regulation) where proposals by the European Commission completely neglect accessibility. On the contrary, the new digital green pass (aka Covid passport) will be accessible to persons with disabilities thanks to the successful cooperation of persons with disabilities with the European Parliament and reference to the European Accessibility Act. Mr Moledo noted that this is one of the roles that DPOs see for the AccessibleEU platform – to support mainstreaming and harmonisation of accessibility in EU legislation across the board.

The conference was closed by Mr Alex Agius Saliba, Member of the European Parliament. He reinstated that the Act grants the opportunity of significant progress towards ensuring equal access to services and products by persons with disabilities, but we also warned of likely challenges during enforcement and monitoring, to be prepared to mitigate any risks. He complemented the European Commission for the initiatives under the Disability Rights Strategy which will support advancement of accessibility. He also expressed strong support to Mr Moledo’s comments about ensuring mainstreaming of accessibility in other EU laws and policies such as those on digital services and artificial intelligence, and his readiness to support improvement of the proposed legislative texts to ensure accessibility for persons with disabilities. Lastly, he noted that as public bodies, EU institutions should lead by example, ensuring equal and accessible participation for EU citizens in public decision-making.

Contact: Mher Hakobyan, EDF Accessibility Officer, mher.hakobyan@edf-feph.org.