Polarised views on the EU Accessibility Act
On 13 April the European Economic and Social Committee organised a hearing on the proposal for a European Accessibility Act. Social Platform fully supports the adoption of the Accessibility Act, and it is high on the agenda of several of our members, such as the European Disability Forum, Inclusion Europe, AGE Platform Europe and the European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities.
The Accessibility Act will impact the products and services for 80 million EU citizens, explained Immaculate Placencia Porrero from the European Commission. It serves to implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and focuses on accessibility in the areas of the built environment, transport and information and communication technology. It will help to solve existing problems and prevent future ones, and ensure a well-functioning internal market. It sets accessibility requirements and adheres to pre-existing requirements set in EU law on e.g. Public Procurement and the European Structural and Investment Funds. However, it does not prescribe technical details of how to render a product or service accessible, set obligation for manufacturers and service providers, impose burdensome requirement or amend existing EU law. Furthermore, Ms Placencia Porrero noted that she has seen no evidence that adding accessibility features makes a product more costly, nor that ‘Design for All’ is problematic, as it is about maximising the accessibility of a product.
The Act addresses some key inequalities such as people with disabilities being forced to pay more because mainstream services are not accessible or fit for its purpose, said Catherine Naughton from European Disability Forum. Some cannot get a job because of a lack of accessibility of the building or technology used at the workplace. The Act would benefit all people, although Ms Naughton stressed that it is not the silver bullet that will solve all accessibility problems within the Union.
Society needs to adapt faster to a rapidly-aging Europe, warned Anne-Sophie Parent from AGE Platform Europe, highlighting that one-third of the population and active consumers are aged 50+. For AGE Platform Europe it is important that people are able to age at home and that the Accessibility Act also addresses household devices that can do more damage than good if not accessible.
Emergency services should be accessible not only for people with disabilities to seek help, but also for them to function as responsible citizens helping others in need, pointed out Mark Wheatley from the European Union of the Deaf. There is a common problem of providers finding loopholes to avoid implementing accessibility regulations; for example, a company may be required to provide sign language interpretation for its programming, but it will choose to do so only during limited hours at night when very few people are awake.
The European Economic and Social Committee is currently drafting an opinion in favor of the EU playing a leading role in regulating accessibility.
The proposal implies a blanket rule that ties businesses’ hands behind their backs, hindering them from offering a wide range of services, argued Patrick Grant. While BusinessEurope understands the need to improve accessibility, it disagrees with the proposal. The Act will force businesses to alter or change their products to conform with accessibility requirements. BusinessEurope wants to keep the market competitive and leave it to specialised companies to continue focusing on accessible products and services, explained Mr Grant.
The Act forces a one-size-fits-all approach, which is not compatible with the many different forms of disabilities that products can be designed to respond to, said Olga Corrigan from Digital Europe, who described her organisation as a frontrunner in developing information and communication technology. Instead, Digital Europe favours harmonised standards and internal market flexibility. Europe-wide accessibility of a product is important when there are health and safety risks. Overall, competition in the market benefits consumers and allows them to choose products and services to suit their needs, concluded Ms Corrigan.
Read more about the European Disability Forum’s position here.