Policies Relating to Information Technology Accessibility

By Joelle Carignan SAP Labs, Accessibility Competence Center – Updated: January 27, 2004

Abstract

Public and private policies are evolving towards making Information Technology (IT) accessible to people with disabilities. One of the main goals of these policies is ensuring that people with disabilities can access educational material, and perform work by accessing the same information as other employees. This review outlines the major policies in place and about to take place on the international scene regarding information technology accessibility.

You may already have heard about Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which is implemented in the United States (if not, we recommend reading our main article). Many people are now wondering if other countries are also trying to regulate the accessibility of Information Technology (IT), with good reason. While many countries have policies in place to ensure that people with disabilities can access buildings, now that technology is playing a central role in our society, it is crucial to provide accessible solutions on that front as well.

The SAP Accessibility Competence Center (ACC) has been conducting research to better understand the state of accessibility policies with regards to IT. Apart from wanting to build a strong business case, our main interest was of course to find out how the policies would be implemented: which standards would be used and how would they be enforced. We wanted to find out if the standards are similar across different countries currently engaged in the pursuit of accessibility.

Numerous accessibility standards exist. In the United States, the National Committee for Information Technology Standards (NCITS) is charged with developing national standards for Information Technology Access Interfaces, but Section 508 has its own standards. These Section 508 standards were developed by the Access Board and implemented in 2001. In addition, several U.S. states have accessibility policies and guidelines of their own. On the international scene, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) produced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0) in 1999, but these do not apply to non-Web-based applications. The International Standard Organization (ISO) is working on a draft accessibility standard for IT, which is not yet available.

So what is the best standard to adopt if we want to provide a global solution? After all, if we are going to adopt guidelines, we may as well make sure they will serve the requirements of all of our customers at once. To gain a better understanding for the global landscape, let's start by looking at the policies currently in place around the world.

 

Accessibility Policies

Several countries have developed inclusive policies to create a society where people with disabilities are taken into consideration like all other citizens. These policies typically cover areas like education, medical rehabilitation, labor and employment, and accessibility (transportation, buildings, and communications). For example, the United Kingdom and Germany have instituted policies that relate to employment issues and the provision of goods, facilities, and services.

In the 1990's, some governments began requiring IT to be accessible to people with disabilities as well-starting in 1993 with the adoption of "The United Nations Standard Rules for the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities" by European states. These rules-which are not legally binding-are intended to guide policy making in the area of equality for people with disabilities. In the area of accessibility, the rules declare, "States should recognize the overall importance of accessibility in the process of the equalization of opportunities in all spheres of society. For persons with disabilities of any kind, States should (a) introduce programmes of action to make the physical environment accessible; and (b) undertake measures to provide access to information and communication."[1]

Denmark was a pioneer when it adopted an IT Policy Action Plan in 1995, establishing that "States should ensure that new computerized information and service systems offered to the general public are either initially accessible or are adapted to be made accessible to persons with disabilities."

More recently, in December 1999, the European Commission launched the eEurope Initiative. One of the ten priority areas for action outlined in the Initiative is eParticipation for the Disabled. The eEurope action plan sets out to propose a recommendation to member states to take account of the requirements of people with disabilities in the procurement of information and communications products and services [2]. In May 2000, the European Commission adopted a communication, which now serves as a framework to determine best-practice procedures in creating policies "to achieve the goal of full-participation of disabled people in all aspects of life." By the end of 2002, the commission intends to create "Network Centers of Excellence" in each Member State to develop an EU curriculum module using "Design for All" principles to train designers and engineers. Then, the commission plans to publish standards for accessibility of IT products.

In May 2001, with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the United States became the first country to implement a national accessibility law geared towards the purchase of new IT by government agencies. It covers software, Web-based applications, and Web pages. It applies to all documentation and training as well as the software itself, and it makes the procurement of accessible solutions mandatory and legally binding.

Other countries are expected to adopt this approach. Japanese government agencies are currently circulating recommendations on how IT should be developed to provide accessibility to everyone. "After review and agreement, these recommendations will become regulations for doing business with the ministries"[3].

 

Public Websites

In addition to accommodating employees in the workplace and beyond, Australia, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, and the United States have policies to make public information accessible. As well, the European Union announced the adoption of Web content accessibility guidelines for Public Sector web sites by the end of 2001. Early adopters of a Web policy in Europe are: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Sweden.

In Asia, Thailand has recently introduced legislation that directly requires Web accessibility.

 

Standards

Now that we know about policies, the first question that comes to mind is: "What do we have to do?" In the case of software applications, up until recently industry leaders provided most guidelines. For example:

Recently, the United States provided generic guidelines for software applications and operating systems with the new Section 508 regulations. These guidelines do not cover specific technologies, but provide a basic list of requirements or criteria to evaluate accessibility. For example, they explain why keyboard access to software is required, but do not provide coding techniques. Other countries will not necessarily provide a specific set of criteria to evaluate accessibility of software solutions, but will focus on evaluating accessibility with some specific assistive technologies. For example, the Canadian government has experts conducting evaluations in their own accessibility center, using the most widely used assistive technologies (e.g., the JAWS screen reader and the MAGic screen magnifier from Freedom Scientific).

Recently, the United States provided generic guidelines for software applications and operating systems with the new Section 508 regulations. These guidelines do not cover specific technologies, but provide a basic list of requirements or criteria to evaluate accessibility. For example, they explain why keyboard access to software is required, but do not provide coding techniques. Other countries will not necessarily provide a specific set of criteria to evaluate accessibility of software solutions, but will focus on evaluating accessibility with some specific assistive technologies. For example, the Canadian government has experts conducting evaluations in their own accessibility center, using the most widely used assistive technologies (e.g., the JAWS screen reader and the MAGic screen magnifier from Freedom Scientific).

In the case of Web sites, accessibility standards are clearly defined: the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) adopted the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0) in 1999 and recently proposed a working draft of WCAG 2.0 which deals with new technologies and plug-ins. In WCAG 1.0, each checkpoint has a priority level based on the checkpoint's impact on accessibility.

  • A Priority 1 checkpoint must be implemented. If not, one or more groups will find it impossible to access information in the document. This level is mandatory for Australia and the European Union government web sites.
  • A Priority 2 checkpoint should be implemented. A developer should satisfy this checkpoint, otherwise, one or more groups will find it difficult to access information in the document. This level is mandatory for Canadian government web sites.
  • A Priority 3 checkpoint may be addressed. Satisfying this checkpoint will improve the speed with which users can get the information and will help them understand the meaning of Web documents.

New Zealand and the United States have their own Web guidelines. The United States Web standards in Section 508 were developed based on WCAG 1.0. In Section 508, all the standards are required for a web site to be deemed accessible.

Additional resources on the Web:

 

Implementing accessible solutions

While many designers and developers are now racing to provide accessible solutions to meet the Section 508 regulation, people are trying to find ways to benchmark progress and compliance. The question now facing project managers is: "What percentage of compliance do my solutions currently meet?" There is a strong possibility that government agencies will compare the accessibility levels of different solutions in terms of percentages met, regardless of how many tasks a disabled user will be able to complete. In our opinion, the percentage is useful to compare globally how much progress has been made, but it is not the answer to evaluating accessibility.

As a matter of fact, the ISO standards are planning on recognizing accessibility as "the usability of a product" [4]. Measuring accessibility in terms of usability benchmarks is the ultimate goal behind the ISO accessibility definition, but no policy actually recommends doing this. As mentioned earlier, Section 508 regulations provide a set of guidelines, and outside the United States many policies are recommending the use of Bobby - a free automated tool to test Web pages accessibility.

While it is necessary to follow guidelines to know how to provide accessible content, it is important not to forget the essence of accessibility policies, which is about providing "access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by Federal employees who are not individuals with disabilities." [5] This really means that in some cases designers and developers have to use their judgment on what is required. In the case of non-standard Web pages such as complex Web applications not generating standard HTML, it also becomes important to test if solutions are working with common assistive technologies. This kind of testing may reveal barriers to accessibility that no guideline has predicted, which could prevent disabled users from completing a task and from working independently.

 

Conclusion

This review establishes that several countries are taking steps towards accessibility in the public sector, such as Australia, Canada, Denmark, Japan, Thailand, and the United States, as well as the European Union. Some policies specify that federal agencies must provide information technologies adapted to the particular needs of federal employee, while other policies mandate that all new IT procured must be accessible.

The review does not cover private policies, though some important corporations that are SAP customers such as IBM have also adopted accessibility policies internally, thus voluntarily recognizing that people with disability can contribute to their success.

While Section 508 standards are mandatory for the US public sector, there is currently a global movement in Web-based applications and content towards the adoption of WCAG 1.0 priority 1 checkpoints, and in some case priority 2 checkpoints. While several policies recommend the use of the Bobby automated tool for evaluating accessibility, in the case of complex Web applications, it is highly recommended that an accessibility evaluation be conducted with assistive technologies on tasks samples to ensure accessibility.

The report should not be construed as legal advice or opinion on specific facts, since particular legal questions can best be answered by seeking the advice of counsel. If you hear of new information on this subject, please write to the author.

 

Notes

  1. United Nations Standard Rules for the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities
  2. eEurope Initiative Action Plan
  3. IBM Accessibility Center
  4. Gulliksen, J. Lutsch, C., Harker, S., Accessibility Towards Standardization, Universal Access in C. Stephadinis (Ed.), HCI, volume 3, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Pub., London, 2001, p.581-584.
  5. The Rehabilitation Act Amendments (Section 508)

Acknowledgment

The author would like to thank Brett Hamner, Ben Tomsky, and Audrey Weinland for reviewing this article.

 

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