European Union: Access All Areas: EU Takes Measures To Make Tech Products And Services More Accessible

Last Updated: February 27 2019
Article by Edward Turtle and Carol Roberts

Introduction

At the end of last year, the EU Council's Permanent Representatives Committee approved a provisional agreement on the text of the proposed Directive on Accessibility Requirements for Products and Services (also known as the European Accessibility Act ("EAA")). The EAA is now being sent to the European Parliament for adoption in the plenary and final adoption in the Council is expected to take place later this year.

The EAA is aimed at improving accessibility of products and services for people with disabilities or other functional impairments (such as the elderly). It forms part of the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020, with accessibility listed as the first of eight "priority areas". The EAA will introduce accessibility requirements for specific products and services, including:

  • phones, computers, tablets and e-books;
  • payment terminals or self-service terminals for buying passenger transport tickets;
  • consumer banking services;
  • audio-visual media services; and
  • e-commerce services.

Requirements

The EAA will set out common accessibility requirements relating to user interface, functionality and design of products and also services, including apps and webpages. For example, the EAA requires that consumer products:

  • can be operated by persons with disabilities, including by multiple sensory channels or alternative ways of interacting with them; and
  • have packaging, installation instructions and other product information that is accessible (for example, provided by more than one sensory channel).

Manufacturers of products must demonstrate compliance with the applicable accessibility requirements by drawing up an EU declaration of conformity and affixing a CE mark.

Services must comply with similar requirements: websites and apps must be easily perceivable, operable and understandable for persons with disabilities and include accessibility information (which must be made available by more than one sensory channel, presented in an easily understandable and perceivable way). Support services (e.g. call centres and technical support) must provide information on the accessibility of the service and its compatibility with assistive technologies.

The EAA's framework of accessibility requirements will be implemented by Member States at a national level and supplemented by harmonised technical standards. Where harmonised standards are not developed, the EAA gives the Commission powers to adopt implementing acts establishing technical specifications to achieve the same aim.

There are two notable exceptions to the EAA accessibility requirements, which will only apply to the extent that they:

  1. 'do not introduce a significant change in a product or service that results in the fundamental alteration of its basic nature'; and
  2. 'do not impose a disproportionate burden on the economic operators concerned'.

This means that if either of these two points apply to a product or service, they will be exempt from the accessibility requirements. The EAA annexes factors that should be considered in assessing whether there is a disproportionate burden. One of these factors is 'the ratio between the costs of compliance and the economic operator's net turnover'. Whilst this may be useful for some SMEs, it is likely to make it difficult for many large businesses to rely on this exception.

The EAA is drafted to ensure that interested parties (individuals and consumer groups) are able to obtain information about economic operators' compliance with accessibility requirements, and to take action where they fail to meet them. We anticipate that this approach could lead to some consumer activism when it comes to enforcement.

As drafted, the EAA will apply to products and services that come on the market six years after its entry into force (with an additional transition period for some service providers).

Comment

The EAA will have a noticeable impact on economic operators who have products, or provide services, within scope. The long transition period gives some breathing space, but businesses would be well advised to start considering the accessibility requirements at the design stage of pipeline products and services, and wider a review of compliance should be carried out in due course.

The EAA still has a number of unclear and ambiguous provisions – particularly around scope, the economic operators it targets and how the exemptions work. It is unlikely that these will be resolved before adoption, but the EAA is drafted so that harmonised standards (and, to a lesser extent, technical specifications) will play an important part in its practical consequences. This, coupled with the long transition period, provides a good opportunity for industry input in order to ensure that standards are developed to promote clear, practical, methods for compliance, without being overly burdensome.

Further information on the European Accessibility Act can be found here:

Further information on the European Disability Strategy can be found here:

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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