A clear EU accessibility law proposed? At what cost?

Early this month the European Commission issued a proposal for a directive on “Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites” (link opens a PDF).

This will require twelve categories of EU public-sector websites that provide ‘essential public services to EU citizens’ to comply with W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 at the AA level.

EC Commission LogoThe proposal also makes clear that this level of accessibility support is desirable for all public sector websites.

The directive arises from the European Digital Agenda and the European Disability Strategy 2010-20, which themselves build on the EU and most of its Member States (including the UK) having ratified the United-Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which states that:

persons with disabilities have the rights to access the digital environment to the same extent as anyone else.

The directive could establish a law centred around a clearer definition of ‘the objective set of criteria for determining what an accessible website looks like‘ that many accessibility advocates have been wanting for years.

So what does this proposed directive mean for developers, disabled & older people, and website owners in the UK?

Is it going to get disabled and older people the benefits they want, without burdening website owners with unreasonable costs that prevent them implementing it?

The laudable intentions of the directive

The Commission’s intention – to speed up progress towards accessibility of all digital sites and services across Europe – is a good one.

I’m also delighted that the directive also mentions benefits for the IT industry as a whole, and not just for disabled and older people. The directive mentions a number of different categories of audience who will benefit from it:

  1. the 80 million citizens with disabilities, and the 87 million Europeans aged over 65, who would have better accessibility to sites
  2. developers, who could offer products and services across the entire European Union “without extra adaptation costs and complications”

Let’s look at the second of these first.

Will web developers benefit from the directive?

It is definitely true that the developers of website creation tools and content management systems will benefit from being able to sell the one set of tools as fit for purpose to create accessible websites and content throughout Europe, which is a good thing (although why the directive doesn’t mention ATAG 2.0 – W3C’s accessibility guidelines for authoring tools – is a bit of a mystery). Quite rightly Adobe and Microsoft have already welcomed this.

Developers of websites and content (and the people who train them) will also benefit from Europe agreeing on one set of technical standards that they should gain competency in. However, most of these developers will be left wondering why WCAG 2.0 doesn’t really cover the accessibility of mobile app development, which is quickly becoming a key competency their clients are requesting.

It’s also worth noting the two other essential components the European Disability Forum and Microsoft – who met to discuss it in early December – proposed as being part of a wider solution to speed up progress in accessibility:

  1. a discussion forum where both users and ICT companies can discuss accessibility issues; and
  2. a professional society related to accessibility that could define necessary skills and provide a network for exchanging best practice and knowledge.

In general, this proposed directive will clarify accessibility matters for developers, and establish a ‘level-playing field’ across Europe, which is a good thing.

Will disabled & older people benefit from the directive?

Disabled and older people across Europe will also be encouraged that the EU have proposed this directive. The European Disability Forum have already welcomed it.

However, they may be frustrated that the Commission has restricted the scope of the directive to apply solely to public-sector websites.

This is a pragmatic move on the Commission’s part. Getting public-sector sites to respond to EC directives is always going to be easier than getting private-sector sites to comply, especially as the UK is the only EU member state I know of whose existing disability discrimination legislation applies to private-sector websites as well as public-sector ones.

And the move is necessary – the Commission is right in describing the current situation of only one-third of Europe’s 761,000 public-sector and government websites being accessible as “dire”.

So, looking at public-sector sites is a sensible place to start, with the Commission no-doubt hoping that the up-skilling required of website developers to make compliant sites for the public-sector will spill over into their work for the private-sector.

However, the Commission should keep aware that disabled and elderly people, like everyone else, spend more of their time on private-sector sites (those of their banks, utility providers, retailers, entertainment suppliers etc.) than public-sector sites (those for benefits, taxes, health, education or car registration).

Private-sector websites are the ones disabled and older people would most like to be accessible, and this directive does not address this at all.

And there is another lingering question that needs consideration: will getting public sector websites up to WCAG 2.0 level AA give those 167 million disabled and older Europeans the websites they want?

I’m afraid the answer is unfortunately no.

As I’ve previously written, disabled and elderly people want what everyone else wants – to have a usable experience of websites, not an accessible one.

And WCAG 2.0 level AA unfortunately doesn’t ensure this.

Earlier this year Christopher Power and a group of researchers at the University of York caused controversy in the web accessibility community by publishing a research paper which questions WCAG 2.0’s place as being a great way of predicting potential accessibility problems on websites. While the research in the paper was only done with blind users, and so any conclusions based on its findings must take that into account, the following statement should cause concern for the usefulness of the proposed directive:

‘results showed that only 50.4% of the problems encountered by users were covered by Success Criteria in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0)’

This isn’t the first such paper to question WCAG 2.0’s value when separated from usability and task-based user-testing of products with disabled people. Dagfinn Rømen and Dag Svanæs’ paper Validating WCAG 1.0 and WCAG 2.0 through Usability Testing with Disabled Users asked similar questions back in 2010.

While WCAG 2.0 is a great set of guidelines for guiding website developing in producing accessible websites, its levels A, AA and AAA are fundamentally flawed as metrics for measuring how easy it is for disabled and older people to use websites in practice.

So, while WCAG 2.0 level AA is a tempting, clear metric to use to mandate accessibility, it’s not reliable enough to bear the weight of what’s being expected of it, without a usability and task-based user-testing framework around it.

But maybe that’s a reasonable price to pay if the directive finally gives website owners a clear requirement for what they have to do…

Will website owners benefit from the directive?

Unfortunately, while WCAG 2.0 AA provides clarity, it’s very questionable if it is consistently implementable for website owners in the real world.

Certainly the Dutch government don’t think so.

A useful article on webwereld.nl (in Dutch – use google translate or chrome to get this in English) details the clash between Dutch Minister Plasterk and the Commission on this issue.

The essence of Minister Plasterk’s objections are that:

  1. too many departments of government are making too many different websites for them all to comply;
  2. new web technologies & techniques are making it increasingly difficult to meet accessibility requirements;
  3. the rules aren’t pragmatic enough, and so a “comply or explain” principle needs to be allowed.

These objections are not new. Most accessibility consultants will have heard them time and again in early meetings with organisations going on the journey to accessibility.

But Minister Plasterk’s concerns are valid.

If the ‘rules’ are to change, they need to be pragmatic and implementable for public-sector website owners.

And, unfortunately, I cannot find evidence that the directive that the European Commission wants to replace National guidelines like those already existing in Holland properly addresses any of his objections.

So let’s look at them one by one.

The ‘too many sites’ objection

While this concern seems about the cost of implementation, my experience tells me it’s more to do with the cost of embedding and governing accessibility across all sectors of government, all teams in each department, all projects (both internally and externally developed) in each year’s budget.

Nothing in WCAG 2.0 or the EC directive addresses this concern, but it’s the number one worry of any large organisation.

Thankfully, BS 8878 – the UK Accessibility Guidelines that provide a framework around WCAG 2.0 – provides a model for doing this embedding and governance as you can see in my BS 8878 Implementation Case Studies slideshare.

The EC would do well to reference BS8878 as an implementation mechanism for their directive.

The ‘new web technologies & techniques are making accessibility increasingly difficult’ objection

Minister Plasterk is right – accessibility is getting harder and harder to achieve as websites become more interactive and include more rich media. While accessibility techniques like WAI-ARIA and mechanisms to provide captions or audio-description are trying to keep pace, they are not simple or cheap to implement.

The EC would do well to consider whether using static guidelines like WCAG 2.0 in legislation will quickly make that legislation outdated and unhelpful.

The issue of whether the rules are pragmatic compared with Holland’s “comply or explain” principle

While it would delight accessibility advocates (especially those in Holland) if it was never reasonable to “explain” why it wasn’t pragmatic to make a site WCAG 2.0 level AA accessible, it’s not difficult to find places where complying with WCAG 2.0 AA isn’t pragmatic, most noticeably around its lack of sensible cost-benefits thinking in its recommendations on video accessibility.

The cost-benefit profile of accessibility solutions changes with every new technology introduction. At present, high-cost checkpoints like audio-description become quickly unreasonable where lots of video content is included, but technological breakthroughs could change that situation.

Static guidelines like WCAG 2.0 can never handle this changing pragmatic landscape on their own. They weren’t designed to. See my blog The future of WCAG – maximising its strengths not its weaknesses.

So to center accessibility legislation on a blanket WCAG 2.0 AA requirement without including an exception process based on whether the requirement places reasonable cost-benefits on any particular website is bad legislation.

How BS 8878 could help bring pragmatism to this situation

A middle way between the Commission and Minister Plasterk’s views is needed – clarity alongside pragmatism.

So I’d therefore suggest that:

  • the EC avoids using WCAG 2.0 as the sole basis for their directive;
  • they include metrics that encourage justifiable pragmatism in accessibility decision making;
  • they include metrics that bring together usability and accessibility to assure that the 167 million people they intend to benefit from this directive can use (not just access) the sites the directive applies to; and
  • they suggest an implementation framework to enable public-sector organisations to embed accessibility within their structures, policies and processes.

In short, as John Knight’s tweet response to TechCrunch’s article on the directive said “@TechCrunch @riptari That should be BS 8878:2010 Web Accessibility Code of Practice then @jonhassell

BS 8878 can provide much of what is missing in the proposed directive so far.

Without that, wiping out National Guidelines that understand pragmatism to replace them with EU Directives that don’t may backfire and only set-back the progress the Commission quite rightly wanted to accelerate.

Let’s hope the Commission are listening…

Want more?

If this blog has been useful, please sign-up for the Hassell Inclusion newsletter to get more insights like this in your email every other week.


Detlev Fischer says

Hi Jonathan,
I think it is valid to point out the benefits of the process-oriented approach followed in BS 8878. I would certainly like to see a similar holistic approach elsewhere, also on EU level.

I do not agree, however, that the York study you reference provides evidence to support the view that WCAG 2.0 is “fundamentally flawed as metrics for measuring how easy it is for disabled and older people to use websites in practice.”
I have looked at the York study closely, and it is, I’m sorry to say, a shoddy piece of work.
Here is the link to an article where I tried to debunk it:

Jonathan Hassell says

Hi Detlev,

Thanks for your comment, and the link to your article questioning the validity of the methodologies used in the York paper.

Glad you agree that a holistic, process-oriented approach would be useful at an EU level.

I am aware of the discussion around the validity of the York paper, having spoken to Christopher Power and the research group earlier in the year – and I’d be interested to know if you feel they answer some of your criticsm in their published FAQ on “Guidelines are Only Half of the Story”.

While I agree that the York paper’s methodology is not perfect – and I’ll be publishing my thoughts on that, and the real value of WCAG in a blog next week – this quote from your article itself gives weight to my point that WCAG is flawed for measuring how easy it is for disabled and older people to use websites in practice:

As other commentators have noted: the fact that only a part of users’ problems could be mapped to WCAG criteria is no surprise. While WCAG 2.0 does cover more usability issues than WCAG 1.0 (such as error handling) it doesn’t cover all of them.

So we agree that WCAG 2.0 doesn’t cover all problems disabled and elderly people have.

And I agree with your point that extending WCAG 2.0 to cover a broader range problems

…would make WCAG 2.0 even more complex and the success of its criteria even harder to measure.

But deciding not to make WCAG 2.0 more complex also means that compliance with WCAG 2.0 is in itself insufficient to cover the full range of problems disabled and elderly people may have.

That’s my argument – while most experts in the accessibility community understand the limitations of WCAG 2.0, as well as its value, the Commission do not seem to reflect those limitations in their directive.

And that makes the directive less able to deliver on its promise to help the 167 million people the Commission use to give the directive relevance and importance.

Overselling the benefits of WCAG 2.0 may just end up disappointing the people it was created to help.

Jonathan Hassell says

You can now find my promised thoughts on the real value of WCAG at The future of WCAG – maximising its strengths not its weaknesses.

I’d love to know what you think of them.

François Junique says

Interesting old debate on compliance against arbitrary-WCAG versus real-accessibility for really-everybody dream but then what? I agree web technologies become very rich and therefore complex and therefore accessibility possibilities also richer but also more and more complex to master… So we need more research on Integrated e-Accessibility (across services / applications&data / devices incl. AT) and on future integrated WCAG+ATAG+UAAG… But for the time-being WCAG2.0AA seems a reasonable international harmonisation for industry to support efforts with better tools?

Regarding process supporting rules/methods, indeed it is common-sense for professional deployment, but is there a need to enforce harmonised ones in EU versus subsidiarity? Nevertheelss the proposed directive encourages exchanges of such practices between Member States (Article 6.3-4) and then later maybe an EN or ISO (in the serie on QA) could be developed?

Jonathan Hassell says

Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog, François.

I agree that we need more research into integrated e-Accessibility, and that WCAG 2.0 AA is the best set of technical Standards we can use for harmonisation at the moment.

However, I believe that WCAG 2.0 AA (as I discuss in my blog on its strengths and weaknesses) is too crude for use in legislation without that legislation including the idea of an exception mechanism to be used for circumstances when it is plainly unreasonable for a site to be required to comply with WCAG 2.0 due to the limitations of the Standard. This seems an important omission in the current directive.

I’m glad that Article 6.3-4 encourages exchange of supporting methods between Member States and am already investigating how BS 8878 could be further developed into an EN or ISO, prompted by international interest. While that internationalisation work proceeds, is there an established best mechanism for exchange of supporting methods between Member States that I could use to promote BS 8878?

François Junique says

Regarding your last question, have you been in contact with the eAccess+ network supposed to currently facilitate such exchanges of practices and resources with web owners and authorities?

Regarding your other point, I am not in any position to discuss any specific legislative exceptions here 😉
Your blog post on WCAG Str&Wk is interesting but agregates many things that might need to be untangled, eg what is required from an important public service to what is croud-sourced; also I believe that the usual discussion of conformance with all criteria for each item of each page is (due perhaps to the way the WCAG are unfortunately written) a bit caricatural as people should keep in mind what is the real information in a page versus what is “decorative”(in a wide sense) [the work done in WAI-ACT regarding assessment methodology and [realistic] metrics might help in this respect]. So we should be careful with dialectical shortcuts but indeed look at all constructive improvement possibilities (“exceptions” being probably the least positive – even if often easier 😉

Jonathan Hassell says

I am aware of the eAccess+ network, François, having supported proposals for the network’s creation years ago. Unfortunately, other than David Sloan’s usual great contributions, their work is not that visible at the moment – certainly not in the discussions that I have with the accessibility community in the UK. I’ll engage with them further.

I’d be happy to untangle the issues in my WCAG strengths and weaknesses blog for you whenever you’d like 🙂

I completely agree that different accessibility requirements could and should be expected from sites with different purposes (public service cf. crowd-sourced), although my local council has just added a crowd-sourced element to its website so even public service sites are moving towards the web 2.0 agenda…

The assessment methodology and metrics work of WAI-ACT is looking like it may be useful, but I’m concerned that improving WCAG 2.0 by adding ‘addendum documents’ may just make the WCAG guidelines even harder for your average website creator to fathom.

Detlev Fischer says

Hi Jonathan,
I take your point that WCAG is not a catch-all recommendation. Still, it covers a lot of ground. If an EU directive would lead to more sites making serious efforts to meet WCAG, the net effect would be an improvement of accessibility. The advantage of WCAG is that it is out there as a recognised international standard, ready to assess a site’s status regarding many vital a11y requirements, and ready to inform many significant improvements. Good usability is much more context-dependent and harder pin down, so compliance to an augmented set of guidelines would be much harder to impose and measure in the way that WCAG 2.0 level AA conformance might be imposed and checked. I guess the same is true for more process oriented approaches like BS 8878 – but correct me if I’m wrong…

Jonathan Hassell says

Great discussion, Detlev – really enjoying our exchanges!

Yes, the EU directive could lead to many more sites improving their accessibility – the worry is that WCAG 2.0’s flaws and inflexibility are going to make each case where WCAG 2.0 AA compliance is unreasonable into a shouting match that may give accessibility a bad name.

I’d also agree that compliance to an augmented set of guidelines would be harder to impose and check. But I think imposing and checking against any set of site creation guidelines slightly misses the point. It’s the results of following the guidelines that are important, not the following of them itself. Put it this way – you wouldn’t assess the usability of a website by assessing the guidelines the design and build team used to create the site; you’d measure the usability of the site itself, in terms of effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction defined by ISO 9421-12. So the only reason that assessing usability for disabled people should be any different is if the cost of doing such usability measurement is unreasonable itself.

Conformance with BS 8878 comes from a very different place, and is all about having a trail of the decisions made in the process of creating the website, including the decision of what sort of testing/measurement the site creation team chose to do to assess how well their accessibility & inclusion intentions, and use of guidelines, resulted in a product that everyone – including disabled and elderly people – can use. In the end, different types of testing/measurement methodologies have different cost-benefit dynamics, and so the site owner themselves should define the amount of money they think is reasonable to give them the level of confidence they need that their site has achieved its inclusion goals.

Paul Timmers says

“…Let’s hope the Commission are listening…”: certainly, this is an interesting and relevant debate, and looking forward to more insights and advice.

A few comments already: the legislative action is very important and needs a concrete basis (ic WCAG) in order to be feasible. To enhance its effectiveness it includes an open data approach (a.o.).

There is a long history of action in this field, but overall not sufficiently effective, therefore now time to come with a legislative measure at European level.

Still we all know that this is a (key) element in a larger framework, of market and civil society initiatives and action, of publicity and debate to raise the level of awareness and commitment, of accessibility monitoring/reporting, of technology watch and standardization, etc. Therefore also important to discuss how those actions work best together.

Paul Timmers, EC DG-CONNECT

Jonathan Hassell says

Many thanks for your comments on my blog, Paul. Delighted that you took the time to engage in the discussion.

Yes, I agree that legislative measures are necessary for accessibility to be given the status that it really should have, alongside other essential aspects of website quality like usability, information security and data protection. And I agree that legislative action needs a concrete basis.

However, I believe process Standards for the practical implementation of accessibility (like BS 8878) are just as important as technical Standards for accessibility (like WCAG 2.0). And many across the world are started to agree with me (see Australia and America).

I think EU legislative action should reference both technical and process Standards for accessibility.

Has the Commission looked at process Standards for accessibility like BS 8878 at all?

Reply to this thread

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.