Accessibility - From European challenge to global opportunity

13 November 2012

EU action on accessibility hasn’t got the visibility it deserves, but it’s of key importance, and the scope for EU-US cooperation on the matter is enormous, said Inmaculada Placencia-Porrero, Deputy Head of Unit for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at DG Justice in the European Commission.

“The most important areas of EU-US cooperation are those related to the global market, for example televisions, software and telecoms devices, rather than areas like building standards,” said Peter Korn, Accessibility Principal at Oracle Corporation.

“For Oracle, it’s important to see similar standards, because we sell in both markets,” he said.

“Moving towards common global standards is another area for the EU and the US to cooperate on,” he said.

“I’m not going to talk about which products and services should be within the Accessibility Act. But the common touch point of all of them is ICT,” Korn said.

“ISO counts 164 national standards organisations among its members. We produce approximately 1,200 standards per year. European members are a significant proportion of the total ISO membership, but the participation of others is growing, especially from Asia,” said Reinhard Weissinger, Secretary of the Joint Coordination Activity on Accessibility at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

“Standards can assist in meeting the accessibility needs of an increasing proportion of global society, for example as populations age. They can be sources of better design,” Weissinger argued.

If they consider accessibility, then “standards can help to mitigate the risk of litigation. They can be tools applied in procurement, both public and private,” he added.

“The UNCRPD is the starting point for people with disabilities: it’s a question of rights. The rights of persons with disabilities are defined in the UN Convention,” said Carlotta Besozzi, Director of the European Disability Forum.

“There have been many developments regarding standards, but what we have is just a minimum. There is much work still to be done. We have specific sectors but not the broader picture, and implementation is crucial. Countries must meet the obligations of the UNCRPD [United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities],” Besozzi said.

“The challenge in the EU is to make sure that we develop standards that improve the rights of people with disabilities without creating new barriers, despite good intentions. Many barriers still exist in the EU Single Market,” Besozzi said.

“There’s a global market. We must ensure that accessibility is taken into account throughout product development, including in the research phase. Procurement legislation can give obligations and ensure that standards are actually used and work in practice,” she argued.

“Standards are a very important tool for accessibility, but experiences in court can also offer input to the Accessibility Act,” said Volker Frey, General Secretary of the Litigation Association of NGOs against Discrimination, Austria.

Frey said it was important to bear the following in mind when designing the legal framework of accessibility: “you need the right to seek improvements and injunctions regarding claims, not just the right to receive damages.”

“I’ve been working on accessibility for decades but there’s still a lot to do. Translation into French is a major issue. French is supposed to be an official language of the UN but in fact we all work in English, and that leads to mistakes,” said Bruno Gaurier, political counsellor at the French Council of Disabled People for European Affairs.

“Disability is not a concept. It’s a person with a disability. My experience in France is that if it wasn’t for EU legislation, I’m not sure that we’d have seen the progress that we have made today,” Gaurier said.

“ICT is an enabling technology. We’re certainly part of the solution, and we expect to be part of Accessibility Act. Any regulatory approach should have public procurement as a vehicle and driver of the process,” said Klaus Dieter Axt, Director of Public Affairs at DIGITALEUROPE.

“Public procurement stimulates harmonisation. We must avoid national fragmentation. The more fragmented the market, the fewer opportunities there are for business – to the disadvantage of people with disabilities, because businesses have less incentive to cater for them,” Axt argued.

“Standards must be used – international or global ones whenever possible. We believe in voluntary, industry-led standards drawn up not in isolation but with the wider community,” he said.