Update about the negotiations regarding the draft proposal of the European Commission concerning the European Accessibility Act


In December 2015 the European Commission released the European Accessibility Act: formal title Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States as regards the accessibility requirements for products and services. This directive was long awaited by the disability movement and key players like the European Disability Forum and EBU have undergone years lasting negotiations, until the proposal was finally drafted and launched. EU institutions and its member states have made great efforts in creating an accessible Europe which allows free circulation of goods and services as well as greater flexibility in travelling and working abroad, access to all these promising and natural opportunities for disabled citizens is still very limited. Buying reasonable priced travel equipment at your favourite online retailer, finding and choosing the most cost effective travel option on the web or via a mobile APP, easy check-in online or at a self-service-terminal, withdrawing some cash quickly, total control and confidence where to hop off the bus, comfortable payment via debit or credit card and an entertaining movie in your cosy holiday apartment, are activities non-disabled persons take for granted.

For those among us who are blind, partially sighted or have any other sensory or physical impairment, the enjoyment of these activities often turns into a daunting and frustrating experience. An inaccessible retailer's website makes it difficult to find equipment, check and selection boxes are poorly labelled, so that selecting the best price remains impossible. Buying a ticket via self-service-terminal (ticketing machine) is almost impossible, since the majority of terminals are equipped with flat touchscreens without a spoken menu as a guide to what is shown on the screen. Payments via payment terminals or cash withdrawal again an impregnable challenge, due to a lack of terminals using vocal screen readers or magnifying software. On top of that the unpleasant experience of getting off at the wrong stop, as the bus or train does not provide vocal announcements of the stops, is a problem all blind and partially sighted people have faced. Even watching a movie on TV as a deserved reward for all your trouble often leads to frustration and anger. The TV has no distinguishable buttons and the remote control is flat and plain which does not allow you to choose your favourite channel. Electronic program guides are not equipped with a spoken menu explaining how to navigate on the screen. If you were fortunate enough to accidentally select a movie, you may not have a clue of the story, since it does not provide audio description. The technology and knowledge to remove these barriers already exists. The fact that some ATMs, phones, computers, TVS etc., are already accessible to blind and partially sighted people proves that point. Most of these devices are still not accessible, however. Unless the law requires their inclusive design, most of these products will continue to be out of bounds for blind and partially sighted people.

The legislative proposal for a wide reaching “European accessibility act (EAA), which addresses accessibility as an overarching requirement in various sectors and establishes mandatory accessibility functional requirements could be a European mile stone for disabled European citizens in accessing daily goods and services. Former legislation has mainly focused on a specific single sector like the mandate for public authorities to make their websites accessible, or directives to encourage public service providers to procure accessible products to render accessible services etc. Some accessibility requirements are already included in EU rules, but there is no one single, coherent set of rules. The European accessibility act pursues a horizontal approach that comprises a wide range of products and services in different sectors and seeks to bridge gaps in other legislative acts, which would fill the term accessibility with life and concrete meaning.

The EAA proposal covers computer hardware and operating systems, ATMs, ticketing machines, check-in machines, phones and smartphones, tablets, TVs, online shopping, banking services, e-books and websites of transport companies as well as related infrastructure for bus, train and waterborne transport. A range of products and services which receive EU funding need to comply with the criteria of the European Accessibility act.

EBU welcomes the commission's proposal suggesting a broader and more ambitious scope of the act. Nevertheless we feel that the act has some crucial omissions concerning accessibility which would be vital for the everyday lives and independence of blind and partially sighted Europeans. Find here EBU's initial position paper, commenting on the legislative draft of the European Commission.

Currently the Commission's EAA proposal is being negotiated in the European parliament and the council. For more than 18 months both institutions have been trying to come up with proposals which may change the proposal to the better or on the contrary downgrade its actual ambitions to vague and weak legislation. The lead committee IMCO (Internal market and consumer protection) of the European parliament has tabled a very disappointing final report, proposing amendments which favour business demands over the rights of disabled and older persons. The report waters down the European Commission's proposal to such an extent that there is a risk that the Accessibility Act may be meaningless for millions of people in Europe. On 13 TH September the plenary of the European parliament has the chance to adopt IMCO's position as its first reading position. Besides all members of the European parliament are entitled to propose further amendments, which embark the opportunity to uplift the potential of the act and to strive for clearer and binding requirements, which can improve this legislative proposal.

What follows is a brief outline of the key counter-productive amendments the IMCO has tabled, despite strong advocacy efforts from EDF and EBU and assurances given by IMCO members to fight for a strong and robust accessibility act:

  • Exclusion of Micro enterprises: If adopted this exclusion would result in a great loss of accessible EBooks and the enjoyment of online purchases for blind and partially sighted persons, since the majority of online retailers and EBook publishers are small enterprises.
  • The act greatly Limits the link to public procurement and European Union (EU) Structural Funds: It will be possible that EU funding and taxpayer's money are used to fund a school building or library which are not accessible, as there are still no binding accessibility requirements. Entering a school or using the features of this library will, thus, continue to be impossible for many children or readers with disabilities in Europe. Further the right for consumers or disability organizations, who represent the interests of disabled consumers to claim their right to accessibility by court or any other complaint mechanism, is greatly restricted, when it comes to public procurement. Consequently it will be difficult for consumers and disability organizations to file legal complaints if a public building, product or service is inaccessible.
  • Exempts both Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and micro enterprises from the notification obligation to the authorities: A “small” company of up to 250 employees can continue making inaccessible products without having to notify the authorities, if they consider that making their products and services accessible would be too much of a burden for them. In practice, it will therefore be difficult to check if they are applying the accessibility requirements correctly. Additionally it will be the responsibility of the consumer, to notify market surveillance authorities, who are responsible to monitor and verify accessibility or grant exemptions, if a product or service of these companies is not in line with the accessibility requirements of the European Accessibility Act.
  •  The accessibility Act lacks a clear and binding obligation for service providers to create an accessible build environment, which would ensure that the user can reach and access the services and products of the Act's scope with ease and confidence. EBU feels that it is of outmost importance to transform the weak and inconsistent proposed IMCO provision into a mandatory and consistent one, to ensure that the built environment surrounding the goods and services of this directive is constructed in an accessible way by applying the same EU wide accessibility requirements. There is a clear benefit of harmonizing minimum accessibility requirements for buildings, which will also be beneficial for architects working in different EU member states. Removing the built environment from the scope of the Act will make all requirements on product accessibility and rendering accessible services ineffective, if our constituency is not able to use these services due to an inaccessible built environment. An inaccessible built environment will harm consumers and providers/manufacturers of goods and services likewise, since the access to these goods/services will be greatly restricted, resulting in unprofitable investments and a violation of consumers rights (disabled persons and persons with functional limitations). Without a mandate for service providers to ensure that the built environment is constructed in an accessible way, the Act will fail its purpose and potential and will violate the principles of accessibility of article 9 of the UN Convention On the rights Of Persons with disabilities (UNCRPD).

Looking at these rather gloomy prospects we have to fight all the more for an ambitious act, which is urgently needed to transform Europe into an accessible Europe for all. National governments, parliamentary members and key industrial players need to understand that investing in accessibility will be a future-proof investment, benefiting society at large, fostering growth and technical innovation and paving the way to a more inclusive and equal society for disabled persons.

The EBU proposed amendments for the EP Plenary on the European Accessibility Act are available as pdf and word files