APR 13 2012

Guidelines and directives on accessibility

by in General, Government 2.0 Leave a comment

Let me start by limiting the scope of my topic. This first paragraph actually elaborates and explains the headline which, apparently, should not go on forever.

1. This article deals exclusively with the accessibility of software programmes and web services.

2. Furthermore, it is restricted to legal requirements and compulsory directives in Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

History and development

Everything started in the USA, back in the 1960s, with Europe following suit in the 1970s. Inspired by the civil rights movement, the disabled people’s movement was created, demanding:

  • The right to a self-determined life,
  • The right to equal treatment as so-called non-disabled persons (persons whose disability is not immediately evident),
  • A ban on discrimination based of disabilities, and much more.

Naturally, the organizers and implementers of the fight for the rights of disabled people were themselves disabled. The next 20-30 years were characterized by public protests, occupations of government buildings and street demonstrations. In addition, experts were continuously working on the formulation of new proposals for legislation.

The major breakthrough took place in 1990, when the first equal treatment act for people with disabilities, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),
was passed in the USA.

Soon thereafter – in 1995 – Great Britain passed the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). The Act was revised in 2010.

In addition to disability activists and organizations, the European Commission, through manifold initiatives, also applies continuous pressure on its member states. Nearly all EU member states passed their own equal treatment act for people with disabilities within the first decade of the 21st century, whereby important parts and/or even separate laws regulate accessibility within the new information and communication technologies. The regulations primarily apply to web services and applications in the areas of

  • Public information
  • eGovernment.

In Germany, the equal treatment act for people with disabilities was included to substantiate the equal treatment for people with disabilities incorporated in the federal legislation in 2002. In Switzerland this took place in 2004 and in Austria in 2005.

Guidelines for accessibility

Disabled persons have from the beginning been among the users of software programmes and web applications. Users with only slight disabilities are just about able to work by adjusting the available software options accordingly. Many others cannot manage, however, without special hard and software – so-called assistive technology – such as screen readers, screen magnifiers etc.

Software/web content with either of these access modes must not be difficult to access for disabled persons – with or without assistive technology. Access difficulties are for instance

  • Too small a font which cannot be enlarged
  • Insufficient colour contrast between foreground and background
  • Buttons with no alternative explanatory text, etc.

In the 90s the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created an open global platform for accessibility experts. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) group of W3C was born, giving rise to the most important technical specifications on how to create accessible software and contents. There are guidelines for the development of authors’ tools, web browsers, web applications etc. However, the most important are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Germany
All web content by the Federal Administration, both Internet and Intranet (when available to the public), must, as a matter of principle, be accessible. This is ensured by a federal regulation which is an extension of the equality act: the Barrierefreie Informationstechnik-Verordnung (BITV). This regulation neither affects the lender’s public pages nor commercial or private web services.

The first  version of the regulation was published in 2002; the most recent version in 2011.

The new regulation is based on the  Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) sub group W3C. In a mode similar to the old regulation, the new regulation defines two own test criteria instead of three. It also contains some minor amendments.

General requirements largely correspond to conformity in accordance with WCAG2.0 AA. However, it would go beyond the scope of this blog to elaborate on the technical details.

Switzerland
In Switzerland, an additional regulation (BehiV) relates to the accessibility of web services. This regulation was published together with the Behindertengleichstellungsgesetz (BehiG) (Act on equal treatment for people with disabilities) in 2004. Accessibility for people with disabilities is ensured for all public web services at the federal, cantonal and council level. This also applies to the services of companies which collaborate with the authorities.

For this purpose, a special standard for Switzerland – P028 Richtlinien des Bundes für die Gestaltung von barrierefreien Internetangeboten – was created. The most recent 2011 version of these guidelines calls for conformity with priority AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

Additionally, accessibility of all incorporated .pdf documents is an express demand.

Austria
The national objectives, which are part of the federal constitution, such as

  • Equal rights for the disabled
  • A ban on discrimination
  • Integration into society and the working world

were stated more precisely by the Austrian state in 2005 in several laws, known as the Behindertengleichstellungspaket. § 6 Section 5 of the Federal Act on the Elimination of Discrimination against People with Disabilities defines that (…) technical appliances, information processing systems and areas of life are accessible when they can be used by disabled persons in the customary fashion, without any particular difficulties and without the need for assistance. The WAI guidelines are used as criteria for Internet services, without specifying the version or the conformity demanded with a specified level of priority. On the one hand, this simplifies work for the legislator as any revised version of the guidelines is automatically taken into account. On the other hand the interpretation is problematic, as those responsible may always assume the lowest level of conformity (priority A).

The law states expressly that all authority web services available to the public must be accessible. This also applies implicitly to all sites providing relevant information and services. However, as any doubts are resolved on an individual basis, this remains something of a problem

The legal consequence of discrimination is damages to the injured party in accordance with § 9 BGStG. A lawsuit is preceded by an arbitration process. (Read more on the Platform Digital Austria).

Accessibility of eGovernment sites in Austria is regulated by the eGovernment Act.

“In implementing this federal law it must be ensured that public websites providing information or electronic processing support are designed in such a way as to meet international standards on web accessibility also as regards accessibility for disabled persons.”

Parliamentary documents refer to the WAI guidelines by W3C as international standards.

Many thanks to Ms Edith Vosta, academic expert on accessible web design, for the following message:

“The Federal Chancellery, Federal Press Office and eGovernment recommend the usage of the current standard WCAG2.0, priority level AA to evaluate website and web application accessibility. My department VII/5 in the Federal Chancellery –  Internet Koordination und Redaktion, uses WCAG2.0 level AA as standard.”

Conclusion

  • Based on these three neighbouring countries we can conclude the following:
  • Legislative demands are converging towards WCAG2.0, level AA
  • However, the level of priority demanded for web services and parts thereof varies
  • The ratification of updated guideline versions is very slow
  • Important parts of the contents, such as pdf documents, are not always taken into consideration
  • Legislation is mostly vague, thus a certificate based on adherence to set standards is not possible.

The shortcomings listed above apply to all EU member states.

From Fabasoft’s perspective, wishing eventually to market its eGovernment and Cloud products across Europe, EU-wide uniform legislation regulating the accessibility of software and web content would be ideal. For developers, the current differences result in an enormous additional amount of work and expenses. From the user’s point of view, these differences are incomprehensible and senseless; accessibility is exactly the same for a blind Austrian user as it is for a blind user residing in Germany or Switzerland.

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