A bump in the road to the EU Accessibility Act

It would be unheard of for us to get through a month without some sort of accessibility drama, and who am I to let you down?

This month’s episode concerns the EU Accessibility Act. This is a draft law aimed at improving the accessibility standards in hardware and equipment, ranging from smartphones to ATMs. You can read my longread briefing on the Act at the Powermapper blog.

European disability rights groups were aghast at plans, announced earlier in July, to exempt audiovisual services (meaning television broadcasting) and e-books from the draft EU Accessibility Act. The European Disability Forum was particularly scathing (pdf), calling the move “clear discrimination, social exclusion and an infringement of the [UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)].”

Strong stuff. But what’s really happening here?

Meet the AVMS

Well, it’s about another piece of EU legislation called the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMS). This law, essentially, deals with television. The AVMS is currently undergoing a modernisation and revision process because TV has obviously changed beyond all recognition since 2007. Issues of TV broadcasting now involve things like international copyright, geoblocking, mobile devices, and yes, accessibility.

In their meeting minutes, the EU Culture and Education committee provided a fairly plausible explanation for removing TV and ebooks from the EU Accessibility Act:

Deleting the Audio-Visual Media Services (AVMS) sector from the scope of this Directive is not a disapproval of enhanced accessibility. The AVMS Directive is, as sector specific legislation, a much better framework for introducing adequate accessibility obligations.

In other words, they removed TV accessibility from the EU Accessibility Act because it is better dealt with in the AVMS.

Therein lies the problem.

The latest draft of the AVMS revision notes:

Article 7 [the passage dealing with TV accessibility] of the current Directive is deleted given that the proposed European Accessibility Act already sets stricter common accessibility requirements for media service providers.

So we have a bit of a mess here. A committee has deleted a small portion of accessibility legislation from two different drafts which reference each other.

Surely they’re not that daft, are they?

Of course they’re not.

Kindling an argument?

Let’s turn to the question of why e-book software accessibility has been deleted from the draft EAA and lumped in with television. The EU Accessibility Act’s passages on the topic pertain to e-book hardware accessibility – in other words, e-book readers. Those passages have been preserved. The passages on the accessibility requirements for the e-book data files themselves have been deleted from the draft AVMS.

Could it be that because certain e-book content providers also produce e-book hardware, and TV shows, and TV streaming services, and TV hardware like dongles?

Is this a roundabout way of clipping the wings of certain multinationals who are trying to fly a bit too high?

Committees are sometimes a lot more clever than we give them credit for.

So what’s the truth?

We can look at this in one of two ways. Deleting the passages on TV and e-book accessibility from one piece of legislation on the grounds that they are better dealt with in another – even though the equivalent passages have also been deleted from that legislation – may be steps in a wider tactical process. If that’s the case, the virulent reaction to the move by civil society groups may have been over the top.

Alternatively, the deletion of the passages on audiovisual and e-books might not be realpolitik. It might simply be the everyday, depressing, and hopeless lack of joined-up thinking the accessibility community has come to accept as normal. If that’s the case, the virulent reaction to the move by civil society groups hasn’t gone far enough.

About the author
Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.