On the 25th of April, the European Parliament’s Internal Market Committee that is responsible for the draft European Accessibility Act (EAA) has adopted its report on the Act, delivering a very disappointing result that risks to create an act without actual meaning for 80 million persons with disabilities and many more elderly persons and persons with functional limitations.
The EAA takes the form of a directive, meaning a binding European law that has to be transposed into national law creating new accessibility rules. It sets common accessibility requirements for a list of goods and services to ensure full access to all areas of life for all persons, including persons with disabilities, and to improve the functioning of the internal market by removing barriers created by divergent national accessibility legislation. This list includes digital services for example telephones, TV, emergency services and online shopping.
Unfortunately, in its report, the Internal Market Committee has ignored almost all the amendments suggested by the disability community and put the interests of businesses over the right to full and equal access of persons with disabilities, including deaf persons. It has reduced significantly the scope of the proposal of the European Commission and risks the continued exclusion of millions of persons in Europe from fundamental products and services.
Concretely, the report that was voted and that will be voted upon by the entire European Parliament:
- Limits the accessibility requirements for audio-visual services to websites and mobile applications;
- Deletes the definition of “persons with functional limitations” as well as “universal design” and limits the application of the directive to persons with disabilities only, while at the same time admitting that accessibility is important for all;
- Excludes microenterprises from the obligation to provide accessible products and services and exempts both them and Small and Medium enterprises (SME’s) from notifying the authorities if they sell a inaccessible product or service using an exemption clause
- Does not allow consumers to return a product that turns out not to be accessible;
What would this mean concretely?
With regards to audio-visual media services, this would mean that concrete requirements are only included in the draft audio-visual media services (AVMS) that it in current state would only oblige media service providers to “develop measures to ensure that (their) services are made continuously and progressively more accessible to persons with disabilities”, without any general or progressive targets at European level. EUD and EDF have been strongly advocating for setting concrete EU-level requirements within the AVMS directive and specifying how to realise these requirements functionally in the EAA. However, the current version of both draft acts would mean that every broadcaster would decide themselves, after discussions at national level with other stakeholders, such as representative groups of persons with disabilities, how their accessibility services will be provided to their audience and of what quality these will be.
Concerning the deletion of “persons with functional limitations” from the scope of the directive, EUD has pointed out repeatedly that accessibility and universal design is important for all, not only persons with disabilities, but also elderly persons and persons with functional imitations, e.g. persons with a temporary limitation, such as a broken leg or a situational one, such as carrying a stroller when taking stairs. Reducing the scope of the directive to only persons with disabilities, while ignoring the fact that it accessibility is important for all means understating the size of beneficiaries of accessible product and services. This directly leads to an underestimation of the positive impact the directive can have for market operators who can sell their accessible products and services to a bigger share of the population, increasing their benefits and reducing the costs of providing accessibility.
The exemption of microenterprises means that these companies will continue to produce inaccessible products and services, which leads to the continued exclusion of millions of Europeans as well as a lack of clarity for consumers with regards to which products and services are accessible and which are not. The same applies to the lack of obligation for SME’s to notify that they continue producing inaccessible products and services on the basis of the exemption clause within the directive that applies if a company believes that modifying the product or service to make it accessible to be too financially burdensome for it. Furthermore, it is difficult to check if the financial burden creating an accessible product or providing an accessible service would indeed be too high for such a company, allowing too great a loophole.
Finally, the draft by the European Commission foresaw that consumers could return a product if it turned out not to be accessible. The revised version by the Internal Market committee has deleted this option, which would mean that market operators would face few financial risks when continuously providing inaccessible products and services.
In summary, the Internal Market committee portrays creating a more accessible society through the provision of accessible products and services as a burden to economic operators, while understating the societal importance of accessibility for all – persons with disabilities, elderly persons whose number is increasing in a society facing demographic changes and persons with functional limitations – and thus also understating the economic benefit that companies can derive from selling their products to a much larger share of the European internal market. Furthermore, it ignores the role of the European Parliament of being a frontrunner in creating an accessible Europe and the example it should set in this regard.
What are the next steps?
Most importantly: the debate in the European Parliament will take place on Wednesday 13 September 2017, and the vote of the Parliament, will be on Thursday 14 September 2017 – not in July, as we previously anticipated.
EUD calls on all Members of the European Parliament use the input provided by the European disability community to substantially amend the draft directive and to support an ambitious Act.
Once the act has been adopted by the European Parliament, the Council – meaning the representatives of EU member state’s governments – will formally start their first reading of the act.
While these negotiations are hold behind close doors, EUD will continue its advocacy work, encouraging its member organisations to lobby their representatives in the Council, asking them to adopt a strong European Accessibility Act that has the potential to significantly improve access to all areas of live for and thus the quality of life of millions of persons in Europe.