COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE, AND THE COMMITTEE OF REGIONS
eEurope 2002: Accessibility of Public Web Sites and their Content. Brussels, 25th september, 2001
The eEurope Action Plan 2002, adopted by the Feira European Council in June 2000, is a wide-ranging initiative designed to speed up and extend the use of the Internet to all sectors of European society. The action plan seeks to bring European citizens on-line in all aspects of their lives, allowing them to participate in and benefit from the possibilities offered by digital technologies. This increased use of the Internet will, in turn, fuel the development of the new, knowledge-based economy. These actions comply with the principle of non-discrimination set up in the Treaty on the European Union.
One of the action plan’s specific targets is to improve access to the Web for people with disabilities: this is the subject of this Communication and its recommendations.
People with disabilities and older persons face a wide range of technical barriers in terms of their capacity to access the Internet. The accessibility challenges faced by these and other users of the Internet can to a large extent be solved by means of appropriate coding when constructing Web sites and content, and the application of some simple rules of layout and structure when designing Web pages. These techniques are, however, not widely known or applied by the majority of Web site designers and Web content providers.
Indeed, accessing Internet Web pages and their content presents a variety of problems for persons with physical, sensory or cognitive impairments. Many of the 37 million European citizens with a disability may be unable to access the information and services they require when using the new media. With the development of governmental on-line services, there is a serious risk of social exclusion of a large percentage of the population.
Other users, such as older persons, who may not be familiar with Web browsers or with how to navigate a Web site, may be confused and discouraged by sites which present complex, highly detailed information, do not have a consistent design or navigation options, or which use flashing or moving images. Given the demographic shift towards an ageing population, this group of users will increase significantly in the coming years.
2. The Web Accessibility Guidelines
The European approach to ensuring the availability of accessible information on public Web sites is encapsulated in the eEurope Action Plan 2002 agreed by the Feira Council in June 2000. The action plan emphasises that, "…Public sector web sites and their content in Member States and in the European institutions must be designed to be accessible to ensure that citizens with disabilities can access information".
This action is to be executed by the European Institutions and the 15 European Union Member States through:
Adoption of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Guidelines for public Web sites by the end of 2001.
2.1. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)
This initiative is one of the five domains of the World Wide Web Consortium (also known as the W3C), which is made up of over 500 member organisations. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has developed a number of guidelines, with the participation of industry, research, governments, and disability organisations.
Web accessibility guidelines have been developed with the financial support of the European Commission in the Fourth Framework Programme Telematics Applications Programme (TAP), various governments, and other organisations.
The Guidelines are recognised as a de facto global standard for the design of accessible Web sites. Within the short deadline implied by the eEurope Action Plan 2002, the Member States and European institutions have been encouraged to act quickly and decisively. The purpose of swift action is clear. By adopting the Guidelines, it is also possible to make a major impact on accessibility across the other target areas of eEurope. For instance, applications for eHealth, eGovernment and eLearning based on public Web sites will have to address accessibility issues by making sure that their services are designed for all citizens. This will contribute to enabling people with disabilities to use the same on-line services as any other citizen.
In order to support the adoption and implementation of the Guidelines by Member States and the European institutions, the Commission has prepared this Communication. It outlines the relevant policy frameworks; the technical aspects covered by the Guidelines; a range of strategies for implementing the guidelines and for monitoring the accessibility of public Web sites based on the experiences of the World Wide Web Consortium/Web Accessibility Initiative and on best practices identified within the Member States, the European Commission, Australia, Canada, and the United States; and a set of conclusions and recommendations.
2.2. The Guidelines as a policy instrument
Information managers, Web designers and developers are therefore able to streamline the process of putting accessible information into the public domain. With some training and experience, Web designers and developers can be sure that the key factors for assuring accessibility are taken into account at relevant points in the work-chain.
Since the use of any guideline is in principle voluntary, it is essential that the Guidelines themselves are developed and updated within the community of interest which they seek to serve. Through the World Wide Web Consortium, the relevance and acceptance of guidelines is continually tested and re-affirmed by users in industry, universities and public administrations. It is widely acknowledged that the Guidelines represent best practice in universal design for the Internet, and their acceptance is spreading through a broad sector of involvement in the World Wide Web Consortium/Web Accessibility Initiative’s activities. They provide a harmonised set of technologically-based rules which also meet the usability requirements of the broadest possible range of Internet users.
The Guidelines aim to be compatible both with earlier technologies and Web design tools and also with new technologies and tools, for example, with new types of Web browsers such as digital assistants and WAP telephones. With this open-ended approach, the Guidelines represent a dynamic and evolving set of rules which seek to keep pace with and anticipate the latest technological developments.
The Guidelines provide technical guidance that is readily available on-line, and give considerable assistance in overcoming barriers to access of the Internet for people with disabilities. By using the Guidelines, it is technically feasible to make Web sites accessible to disabled users and thereby contribute to their full participation in the Information Society.
3. Implementation Plans and Mechanisms inside The European Union
The eEurope Action Plan 2002 proposes adoption of the Guidelines as an initial step towards making European public Web sites and their content accessible to people with disabilities. By adopting the Guidelines, the Member States and European institutions will give the target of Web accessibility broad recognition and support, through the use of the global de facto Web accessibility standard which the work of the Web Accessibility Initiative represents.
3.1.Review of progress in the Member States
In connection with the implementation of the eEurope Action Plan 2002 in the area of "Participation for all in the knowledge-based society", the High Level Group on Employment and the Social Dimension of the Information Society (ESDIS), which is composed of representatives from all the Member States, was mandated to monitor these developments. An eAccessibility expert group was set up to support the work of the High Level Group.
3.2. Web accessibility in the European institutions
The European Union recognises the importance of Web accessibility for people with disabilities. For many years, the European Union has been keen to tackle the inaccessibility of Web sites, notably through the 1994-1998 Telematics Applications Research and Development Programme (TAP) and a supporting action project called the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). This aim has continued in the Fifth Framework Programme Information Society Technologies programme.
Guidelines for accessibility have also been developed in 1998 by the ACCENT project within the SPRITE-S2 initiative.
In the last few years, the Commission and its departments have successfully introduced Web technologies as the fastest and most efficient tool to interact with and deliver multilingual information to the public. EUROPA, and the European Commission’s site in particular, has grown into one of the largest, most popular, and most referenced public Web sites in the world. Making EUROPA accessible is a major challenge; steps in this direction are, however, already underway.
The European Commission and its Office for Official Publications of the European Communities (OPOCE) have also started programmes to upgrade the accessibility of their Web sites and to provide accessible Web-based information, following the Guidelines.
3.2.1. The EUROPA Web site
The EUROPA Web site is the main communication platform for on-line information about the activities of the European institutions. It provides information to citizens and acts as the interface for contacts between the European Union, organisations, and citizens around the world. In connection with the planned upgrading of the Commission’s Internet-based services, it is envisaged that the so-called EUROPA II will be implemented in the period 2001-2004.
The implementation plan includes a number of new eservices and the full migration of EUROPA towards a thematic and service-oriented Web site by the end of 2004. In support of this transition, an Information Providers’ Guide has been operational since June 2001. The Guide will contain ten rules with detailed specifications for Web content creation. Rule seven concerns accessibility through adoption of the Guidelines, and it states that the Web sites must be accessible to the greatest number of users. Within this context, the accessibility of the Web sites of the European institutions is currently under revision, so as to respect the target of adoption of the Guidelines by the end of the year 2001. The activity will be based on the encouraging experiences of those institutional Web sites which have made progress to date.
3.2.2. Office for Official Publications of the European Communities (OPOCE)
The Commission has initiated a pilot demonstration project within OPOCE for making accessible on-line the documents of the Treaties to people with visual impairments. To begin, the work was done with the French version of the re-compilation of the Treaties on-line on the EUR-Lex site. The site and content were adopted following the Guidelines. Accessible versions will be available during the year 2001. A report with recommendations, based on this experience, has been discussed and the recommendations have been taken into account in the next generation of the EUROPA Web site.
3.2.3. European Union Fourth and Fifth Framework Programme research projects
The Commission also sponsors other projects such as IRIS, ViSiCAST, and WWAAC.
IRIS is enhancing and evaluating Internet services in fields such as electronic commerce, teleworking/online learning with several groups of users with special needs. ViSiCAST is oriented largely towards the needs of deaf persons who use signing. It is developing virtual human and language processing technologies to be deployed, in broadcast television, in face-to-face retail transactions and in Web-based and multimedia interactions. WWAAC supports a series of activities that will make Internet-based activities accessible to persons with cognitive difficulties, particularly symbol system users, and to elderly people with language disorders.
4. Developments outside The European Union
Actions that correspond to those undertaken within the framework of the eEurope action plan 2002 are also promoted and implemented in other regions of the world, with the Guidelines as a significant element. Web accessibility is an integral part of public information policies, for example, in Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Finally, the European ministerial conference held in Warsaw in May 2000 underlined the importance of complementing European Union political commitments by creating an eEurope-like action plan (eEurope+) by and for the candidate
countries seeking membership of the European Union.
5. Conclusions and next steps
During the past decade, increasing world-wide and European recognition has been given to the existence of barriers - social, environmental, cultural, technical and others - that hinder the full participation of people with disabilities in society. In Europe, it is now clearly established that actions must be taken to identify and remove such barriers in order to secure an inclusive society with equality of opportunity for all.
This Communication on the accessibility of public Web sites and their content is but one example of the concerted effort which is required to remove access barriers and to ensure that future technologies and information systems do not create new, additional difficulties for people with disabilities.
The following conclusions can be drawn from the experiences to date of adopting the existing Web Accessibility Guidelines for public Web sites in the Member States and the European institutions.
1. The Member States and the European institutions are on a dynamic path to achieving adoption of these Guidelines for all public Web sites before the end of the year 2001;
2. National administrations should seek constantly to improve the accessibility of their Web pages and explore new and better ways to deliver Web content and services as new technologies and new versions of these Guidelines are developed. Adoption and implementation of these Guidelines for public Web sites may thus be seen as a first, decisive mechanism towards ensuring an increasingly inclusive Information Society;
3. The Commission will propose to the other European institutions the establishment of an inter-institutional group to promote and ensure the adoption, implementation, and regular updating - following the World Wide Web Consortium/Web Accessibility Initiative developments - of these Guidelines within the European institutions;
4. The resulting accessibility of public Web sites should be monitored and best practices identified. The Commission will compile and disseminate the results of this action. Under the auspices of the High-Level Group on Employment and the Social Dimension of the Information Society (ESDIS), assisted by the eAccessibility expert group, the Member States and the European Institutions have agreed to exchange information and to benchmark their progress to be based on mutually agreed criteria in the areas of adoption and implementation of these Guidelines;
5. The eEurope Web site will present the progress towards adoption and implementation of these Guidelines by the European institutions and the Member States;
6. Measures for awareness-raising, dissemination, education, and especially training in Web accessibility should be promoted in both the European institutions and the Member States;
7. Organisations receiving public funding from the European institutions or the Member States should be encouraged to make their Web sites accessible;
8. Within the framework of the eEurope action plan, the Member States could encourage not only national public Web sites but also local and regional public Web sites to comply with the Guidelines;
9. There should be a major initiative devoted to achieving overall accessibility of both public and private Web sites during the year 2003, the European Year of Disabled People;
10. The Member States and European institutions should develop an ongoing dialogue with persons with disabilities and their representatives in order to ensure regular and consistent feedback on these issues.