Web-accessibility in the European Union

This article was published in The Pirate Times (an international news service for Pirate Parties) under the title ‘Why Pirates Should Care About Accessibility on the Web’ on 5 February 2013.

Accessibility of Public Sector Websites

Government information and services are increasingly provided online. Basically a good thing, but if these services are not provided in an accessible way, some groups of people may have a problem because they can’t take part (any more) in these processes.

If a parliamentary debate has a video stream, but it’s in Silverlight, a lot of people can not see it. They should use open software. And if there is no textual equivalent (live or later on) people with hearing difficulties cannot access this information.
If a deaf person wants to fill in a form for social security regulations, and the only alternative to an inaccessible online form is to call the agency, he or she gets stuck.

So information should not only be basically available (provided by the government) to the public, but also accessible to groups of people with disabilities. You may think that these numbers aren’t that big, but in Europe we are talking about an estimated number of citizens with functional limitations or disabilities of 15% of the EU working age population, or 80 million people. And this will probably increase significantly as the Union’s population ages. The estimated percentage of websites that are accessible is less than 10%. [1].

Legislation: proposal from the European Commission for harmonization

In the Netherlands, like many other countries, there is a set of rules for government websites. But it’s a big problem that only a small part of these websites are actually accessible. There is no real sanction, and most people working on these sites are not aware of the problem in the first place, or think it’s not that important. Also, it often doesn’t apply to semi-public services like schools and health care institutions, where it may be even more important to be accessible for everyone.

In December 2012 the European Commission came with a proposal to harmonise the legislation for web-accessibility in the EU member states. (The Dutch ministry of internal affairs stated in reaction to this that they ‘don’t need’ EU-wide legislation, because there is already a Dutch set of rules. Which obviously has had too little effect so far.) [2]

Stated in the proposal harmonisation will lead to better market conditions, more jobs, cheaper web-accessibility and more accessible websites: a triple win for governments, businesses and citizens. The EC not only requires governmental websites (as a sector) to be accessible, but focuses on a list of use cases and tasks that are most important, like tax declarations, employment services, social security applications, police declarations, and registering at public libraries, universities and health services. From there the requirements can be extended to other websites.

Worldwide standards and resources: everything is available

The international standard for web-accessibility is issued by the W3C, called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). The difference on national level is which level of WCAG is required, for which websites, how it is evaluated and monitored and if and how it is sanctioned when there is no compliance.

I think it’s a good thing that the EC pays attention to web-accessibility. But at this moment, for the citizens, what does it matter if a site conforms to the American, British, Dutch or EU official standards? We should include as many people as possible, and with the help of the WCAG guidelines and online shared knowledge on web-accessibility best practises, every web-developer and -manager can contribute to this right now.

For the Pirate Party I think it’s important to stress that every citizen should be able to take part in democracy and make informed decisions. We should at first look at the websites which are most important for this purpose, like (local) government sites, websites of the educational system, scientific and journalistic online resources. And Pirates can stimulate other organizations to do this as well, to have a better informed society all together.


[1] Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites
[2] Reaction of the Dutch ministry of Internal Affairs to the EC proposal (in Dutch)
http://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten-en-publicaties/kamerstukken/2013/01/11/aanbiedingsbrief-met-informatie-over-nieuwe-commissievoorstellen.html (offline in 2019)

See also:
[3] CRPD 2012 ICT Accessibility Progress Report (worldwide)
[4] UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

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