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…

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