Global Considerations in Creating an Organizational Web Accessibility Policy

Posted on Wednesday, 16 April 2014 by David Sloan

TPG’s Accessible User Experience team recently did some work for a client exploring legislation and standards on digital accessibility in selected countries around the world, and their impact on defining an organizational accessibility policy for globally-active organizations.  In particular, since we didn’t have time to conduct an exhaustive review, we were interested in discovering how easy it was to find authoritative national digital accessibility policy information that organizations could act on.

We wrote about our findings in a paper that we presented at the Web For All (W4A) 2014 conference in Seoul.  Here’s the text of our paper, amended slightly from the original to include additional hyperlinks for ease of online reading.

Abstract

Awareness of the nature and implication of legislation and policy regarding web accessibility in different countries is important in guiding organizational web accessibility policy. Our review of published legislation and supporting documentation relating to disability rights and digital accessibility in five countries—Australia, Brazil, China, India and South Africa—reveals diversity in the nature and extent of legislation and policy, but offers some indication of trends that could inform a global web accessibility policy.

Introduction

Widespread recognition of the contribution of ICT, and the web in particular, towards promoting social inclusion and reducing discrimination of people with disabilities is reflected in legislation and policy across the world. For organizations authoring or providing web content and applications intended for international use, there is a complex challenge in defining an accessibility policy and strategy that is sensitive to the diversity of cultural, technical and legislative situations that may exist in different target markets [4]. This challenge is exacerbated when one considers the efforts required to create and maintain high-quality translated versions of content—and its accessible equivalents.

To help define a pragmatic and locally-sensitive global accessibility strategy, we argue that an essential first step is to understand the nature and diversity of the legislative situation with regard to digital accessibility, for example the extent to which guidelines such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) feature in national policy. In this paper, we describe observations of a short study of the legislative environment for digital accessibility in five selected countries, and identify some trends and implications on developing and implementing a global digital accessibility strategy.

A Global View

Before considering each territory in turn, we give an overview of key global treaties that have influenced, or are likely to influence, territory policy and legislation.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD)

For many countries, particularly those in the developing world, disability legislation and policy has been driven by the commitments made when the country ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) [8], which was adopted in 2006 and entered into force on 2008. The terms of the treaty are likely to form the basis of any new legislation and policy or changes to existing legislation relating to the rights of people with disabilities to participate in public life, including access to education, access to technology and digital content, and to copyrighted content.

Of relevance to digital accessibility in the UN CRPD is a recurring theme of a commitment to Universal Design, with further emphasis of the contribution that ICT can make in improving accessibility of information, services and experiences to people with disabilities. Article 9 (Accessibility) obliges signatories to promote access for people with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet, and to promote accessibility early and throughout the technology development lifecycle. Articles 21, 24 and 30 deal with access to web-based services, education and cultural life respectively.

UN records show 158 ratifications of the UN CRPD, as at January 2014, though notably this does not include the US. Additionally, the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies (G3ict) provide summary data on adoption with relevance to ICT accessibility, which indicates that, amongst countries surveyed, web sites and television are most common ICTs addressed [2].

The WIPO Marrakesh Treaty

A significant concern of global digital accessibility is the difficulty in access to copyrighted content by people who, for reasons of disability, are unable to access the content in its original printed format. The unavailability of accessible format content is often due to copyright limitations that make it prohibitively expensive or time-consuming—or unlawful—to create and distribute accessible formats. To address this challenge, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) published The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled on June 27, 2013 [9].

The Treaty specifically addresses the need for copyright legislation to provide necessary exceptions to facilitate creation and distribution of accessible format copies of published works. The Treaty focuses on people with print disabilities as beneficiaries, and defines this as including:

  • people who are blind;
  • people who have a visual or reading disability (including dyslexia) that prevents them from having equivalent access to printed published content;
  • people with physical impairments that make it difficult or impossible to hold a book.

The provisions of the Treaty acknowledge the advances in technology that facilitate easier creation and distribution of accessible formats. They set out a framework for enabling access to these alternative formats, while also recognizing the rights of copyright holders over distribution of their content. So, from a web accessibility perspective, the Treaty can be considered another motivating factor for preparing digital content in a manner such that it can successfully be used by people with print disabilities, including:

  • Ensuring text can be effectively presented by screen readers and other text-to-speech software, for people who are blind and for people who have difficulty reading.
  • Ensuring that the appearance of text can be customized to enhance readability, for example by changing text and background colors, text size, font, line spacing or justification.
  • Ensuring digital content is navigable when accessed using diverse alternative input devices.

Legislation and Policy Review

We considered five territories in conducting this review:  Australia, Brazil, China, India and South Africa. The latter four countries were selected for study as each is an emerging economy where economic growth is globally significant, but the legislative framework for disability equality and digital accessibility can be considered to be still evolving. We note that coverage of the situation in the US and the EU is comprehensive, so, for contrast, we chose Australia as a country with a mature and stable disability rights legal situation, including web accessibility case law, and a prominent and active digital accessibility movement.

We conducted a review of publicly available legislation and policy documentation regarding disability rights and digital accessibility, including of copyrighted content, for each of the selected territories during December 2013. Some information gathered was based on third party accounts and automated translations of content not provided in English. Some potentially useful material that is not provided in English may exist but was not found during this research. Nevertheless, the conclusions that follow are based on a principle of diminishing returns—if, after a period of searching, only relatively limited information on digital accessibility and disability equality in a territory, it was concluded that:

  1. There is no such information available, or;
  2. There is information available, but it is sufficiently difficult to find by affected organizations that it is at present of relatively limited real-world impact.

Patterns and Trends

Based on our findings, we can make some observations on patterns and trends emerging from the policy and legislative situation in the territories reviewed.

Disability rights legislation and web accessibility

Existence of disability rights legislation: All territories have legislation intended to protect the rights of people with disabilities. However, despite each territory’s ratification of the UN CRPD, there is significant diversity in the extent, detail and maturity of disability legislation across the territories studied. Definitions of disability and the legal rights of people with disabilities vary across the territories reviewed, but generally focuses on rights to access basic public information and services.

Status and evolution of disability rights legislation and supporting documentation: Through its Human Rights Commission (HRC), Australia provides details supporting guidance documentation to help organizations meet their obligations under the relevant legislation, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1992. Brazil has enacted a number of laws and decrees to gradually extend and provide more detail to the rights expressed in its original piece of legislation, Law No. 7853 (1989), protecting the rights of people with disabilities. These include Decree 6949 (2009), which adopts the full terms of the UN CRPD.

China modified its disability rights legislation, the Law on Protection of Disabled People, in 2008, after signing of the UN CRPD. The terms of this legislation appear to be aspirational rather than providing details of rights and obligations. India’s disability rights legislation is the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Right and Full Participation) Act 1995, which predates the UN CRPD. There is no clear detail of plans exist to update it to better reflect the terms of the UN CRPD.

South Africa does not have a specific item of legislation protecting the rights of people with disabilities; these rights are bound in a more general equality act, the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 2000. However, the government indicated in 2011 that it plans to draft a disability-specific law, although progress towards fuller adoption of the terms of the UN CRPD is unclear.

Reference to technology in disability rights: Each territory formally recognizes the value of technology in reducing inequality for people with disabilities, in legislation or supporting documentation. However, territories differ in the level of definition of the rights of people with disabilities to be able to successfully access and use digital content, products and services; with no obvious mention made in China’s disability rights legislation or in South Africa’s equality legislation.

Reference to minimum standards for web accessibility: No territory provides direct reference to technical requirements in legislation for digital accessibility. However, Australia, Brazil and India do provide guidance on a recommended standard for accessibility either by direct reference to WCAG 2.0 or by publication of national web accessibility guidelines. The nature and scope of these standards varies—all cover government web sites, but only Australia provides details of a required standard to be met by non-government web sites. In Brazil, eMAG 3.0 deviates from WCAG 2.0 Level AA by requiring an accessibility toolbar and specific skip navigation to be present on each page, and by omitting some Level AA Success Criteria [5].

Table 1: Web accessibility standards in selected territories
Territory Standard Scope Notes
Australia WCAG 2.0 Level AA Government and non-government web sites Specified in guidance provided by the Human Rights Commission on meeting DDA obligations.
Brazil eMAG 3.0 Government web sites eMAG 3.0 closely follows WCAG 2.0 Level AA, but with some differences.
China None n/a No evidence found of a national standard for web accessibility (but see Note at the end of the paper for an update).
India Guidelines for Indian Government Web sites Government web sites Guideline conformance ensures meeting WCAG 2.0 Level A, but also extend beyond accessibility requirements.
South Africa None n/a No evidence found of a national standard for web accessibility.

In addition to the Guidelines for Indian Government Web sites, the Indian Government approved the National Policy on Electronic Accessibility (PDF) in October 2013 [6]. The Policy sets out objectives for improving accessibility of public and private web sites, and proposes that accessibility standards will be “formulated or adapted from” existing standards, with specific reference is made to W3C accessibility guidelines, including WCAG 2.0, along with the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG).

Treatment of non-HTML digital formats: Web accessibility standards and guidance of Australia, Brazil and India all make reference to a preference to providing web content in accessible HTML over other formats. Additionally, there are signs that choosing to rely on PDF as a digital content format will be problematic in some territories. Australia warns against relying on PDF as a document format, while Brazil requires downloadable documents to be available in ODF. This may be evidence of a trend to avoid recommending reliance on proprietary file formats in favor of open formats; there are also known accessibility limitations of PDF in terms of supporting people with some print disabilities in customizing the appearance of text [3].

Advocacy and outreach: Australia has a mature and active community, including private enterprises, academia and the non-profit sector. Elsewhere, the presence of a digital accessibility community is less visible, but there are examples of progress. W3C is active in promoting web accessibility and adoption of W3C standards though regional offices in Australia, Brazil, India and South Africa, and through a Community Group on Accessibility in China. The Techshare India conference, and Brazil’s All@Web, a web accessibility “recognition program” coordinated by the W3C and the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee, are examples of awareness-raising initiatives that may help to raise the profile of web accessibility.

Rights to Accessible Copyrighted Content

Marrakesh Treaty: Australia, Brazil and China have signed the Marrakesh Treaty.

Status and evolution of copyright legislation supporting access to alternative formats: All territories had some form of copyright law, but legal definition of the rights of people with disabilities to receive copyrighted content in accessible format varied across different territories. Australia’s Copyright Amendment Act 2006 updated prior legislation to include provisions for the rights of people with disabilities to receive copyrighted content in alternative formats; the Australian Government has indicated that only minor revisions would be necessary to enable Australia to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty. However, information was scarce on plans to revise existing legislation in Brazil, China, India and South Africa to enable ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty.

Brazil’s Copyright Law of 1998 provides some rights for people with visual impairments to reproduce copyrighted content in accessible format.  The Copyright Law of the People’s Republic of China (amended 2010) grants no specific rights for people with disabilities to receive or produce copyrighted content in accessible format. China’s Law on Protection of Disabled People (2008) grants basic rights of people with disabilities to access books, but does not give more specific detail on rights to alternative formats. India’s Copyright Amendment Act (2012) amended the Copyright Act (1957) to give some basic provisions for people with disabilities to access copyrighted content in alternative formats. South Africa has a Copyright Act of 1978, but gives no specific rights for people with disabilities to access copyrighted content in alternative formats [7]. However, in representations made to the process of finalizing the Marrakesh Treaty, South Africa indicated that it is reviewing its copyright legislation in advance of signing the Marrakesh Treaty.

Implications for an Organizational Global Accessibility Policy

Based on the findings of this study, we present some implications on organizations wishing to define and implement a global digital accessibility policy.

Slow convergence: Disability equality legislation and policy, particularly with respect to digital content and services and access to copyrighted content, may evolve slowly in individual territories, but is likely to converge over time as territories recognize and formalize their obligations as adopters of the UN CRPD and the Marrakesh Treaty.

Focus on print disability: Legal definitions of disability may vary across different territories, but the definition of print disability defined in the Marrakesh Treaty may cause legal definitions of disability to be revised as part of the process of ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty, and this definition should be accommodated in global policy. Organizational policy should extend digital accessibility obligations beyond accommodating visual impairment through ensuring logical and comprehensible audio output of content to include reading difficulties relating to cognitive and motor impairment. This should include a focus on supporting flexibility of text customization, compatibility with different reading and input devices, and minimizing physical effort in interaction.

Prominence of WCAG 2.0: Whilst not ubiquitous in national legislation or standards, signs are that providing web content that meets WCAG 2.0 Level AA will ensure the content also meets standards for web accessibility across different territories. Therefore, organizational policy that references WCAG 2.0 as its measure of web content accessibility is likely to be more globally relevant.

Limitations of PDF accessibility: The review identified instances where reliance on the provision of content in proprietary data formats, particularly PDF, is likely to be problematic from a standards or legal compliance perspective. This is, of course, a small sample, but should be considered a sign of a relationship between global digital accessibility standards and access to open source formats, particularly in territories where economic conditions may encourage adoption of open source solutions. Organizations that use PDF should develop a policy for acquiring, generating and publishing accessible PDF content, and also ensuring accessible alternatives are available. Looking forward, it would be prudent to reduce reliance on PDF by establishing a policy that all new content in presented in an open source format, such as accessible HTML.

Capacity for monitoring global developments: Disability rights legislation and policy around the world is dynamic; and the connections between disability rights and the role technology can play in reducing (or exacerbating) inequality can sometimes be misunderstood or underestimated. Organizations should develop internal capacity through dedicated staff to scope, document and monitor the legislative and policy situation in other key territories, and share this knowledge strategically in order to anticipate and meet relevant obligations it is likely to be placed under; and take advantage of market opportunities in terms of the provision of accessible digital content, services and experiences that such a situation may offer.

Conclusion

In this study of the situation in key global markets we have presented a perspective from an accessibility consultancy rather than a forensic examination by a corporate legal team. Nevertheless we offer a viewpoint that we believe will help a multi-nationally active organization looking to understand and act on the global digital accessibility legal landscape. As expected, the situation in Australia is the most detailed in terms of publicly available requirements for delivering digital accessibility; though there is significant activity in Brazil and India.

Our findings indicate that, for organizations looking to define a global digital accessibility policy, there are some signs of convergence of legal and technical requirements, particularly in regard to definition of the rights of people with disabilities, and in terms of WCAG 2.0 conformance. However, progress towards a mature and consistent global definition and recognition of web accessibility—and, even, disability itself—still appears to be some way off; and further detail of progress in these and other territories is needed in order to provide a more detailed understanding of the situation. That said, restricting digital accessibility strategy to achieving technical compliance within a specific country is unlikely to lead to a sufficiently positive experience for people with disabilities, given the focus of legislation on equal access to information and basic services. Balancing designing for accessibility out-of-the-box with flexibility of customization is a key underpinning requirement of a forward looking organizational accessibility strategy.

Acknowledgement

We thank Pearson Global for their support in funding this research study.

Note

During the question and answer session following the presentation at W4A, we learned of work in China to develop a national web accessibility standard, which is based on WCAG 2.0; but material in English on this standard is at the time of writing seems to be scarce. If and when we find any, we’ll provide a link to it.

References

  1. Australian Human Rights Commission 2010. World Wide Web Access: DDA Guidance Notes Version 4.0.
  2. G3ict 2013. CRPD 2013 ICT Accessibility Progress Report.
  3. Henry, S. 2012. Developing Text Customisation Functionality Requirements of PDF Reader and Other User Agents. Proceedings of Computers Helping People with Special Needs. Vol. Part I. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, 602–609.
  4. Kelly, B., Lewthwaite, S. and Sloan, D. 2010. Developing Countries, Developing Experiences: Approaches to Accessibility for the Real World. Proceedings of 2010 International Cross Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility (Raleigh, USA, 26-27 April 2010). ACM, New York, NY.
  5. Modelo de Accessibilidade em Governo Eletrônico (e-MAG) version 3.0.
  6. National Policy on Digital Accessibility (India) (PDF).
  7. Nicholson, D. 2012. Accommodating persons with sensory disabilities in South African copyright law. Master of Laws. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand.
  8. United Nations 2007. UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
  9. World Intellectual Property Organization 2013. Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled.

 

 


About David Sloan

David Sloan is an Accessible User Experience Engineer with The Paciello Group. He joined TPG in May 2013, after nearly 14 years researching, teaching and providing consultancy on accessibility and inclusive design at the University of Dundee in Scotland. He is a member of the W3C WAI Research and Development Working Group (RDWG) and a Steering Committee member of the annual W4A Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility.

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