Representatives from 34 European countries have endorsed a new initiative intended to make the Internet more inclusive. The European Union’s ambitious plan calls for the expansion of broadband availability and public web site accessibility.
Despite a 2002 resolution issued by the European Parliament to ensure that all government web sites adhere to W3C accessibility standards by 2003, poor accessibility support still largely precludes the use of public web sites by disabled Europeans. A recent study that examined 436 European public sector and governmental web sites determined that only three percent were in compliance with the W3C’s minimum level accessibility standard. With the new “e-inclusion” initiative, the governments of Europe are reaffirming their dedication to achieving accessibility standards compliance, this time by 2010. European governments are also keen on expanding the availability of broadband Internet service and ensuring that coverage is available to at least 90 percent of the region within the same time frame.
Other issues addressed by the e-Inclusion initiative include the implementation of computer literacy and technical skills programs targeted at the "digitally disadvantaged," as well as ongoing evaluation and review of electronic accessibility regulatory issues.
In evaluating the feasibility of the ambitious e-Inclusion program, one must recognize that these plans do not constitute legislation. Individual governments that do not comply will not receive punishment or censure, and there don’t appear to be any compelling incentives to actively promote compliance at this time. In light of the lofty accessibility promises issued by well-meaning politicians in the 2002 resolution, it is hard to take the e-Inclusion initiative seriously. Talk is cheap, but the extensive reconstruction of critical web services infrastructure is costly and difficult. In an interview with Out-Law.com, European Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr discusses the 2002 resolution and the absence of penalties for noncompliance:
Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr told OUT-LAW today that there would be no penalty for Member States that fail to act. “There is only the moral sanction of being last in class,” he said, pointing out that peer pressure can be an effective motivator within the EU.
The Resolution of 2002 was “a political signal to say that something must be done,” he explained. “We’re doing this. Parliament has asked; now states have agreed.”
The W3C’s web accessibility guidelines primarily address the needs of disabled individuals, like blind users that require screen reader technologies, or users with cognitive impairments that can’t process visual media fast enough to interact with animated page elements. Accessibility standards compliance should ultimately be ubiquitous, but the deficiencies of web development technologies and incompatibilities between browsers make it difficult to properly accommodate the needs of disabled users.
The concept of web accessibility encapsulates a lot of different ideas and principles and it also extends beyond the scope of impairment and disability concerns. The W3C accessibility standards also include recommendations on how to make web content viewable in browsers that do not support graphics or color, and on devices with small screens. As mechanisms for Internet access become less homogeneous, and users begin to depend on other kinds of interfaces and technologies, developers and site operators will have to better accomodate those users. By further separating content from presentation, web content producers can facilitate more sophisticated automation and make it possible for content to be viewed on a wide range of devices that can’t simulate the desktop computing experience.
In the long run, the need to provide content in a mutable and display-neutral format will probably lead to ubiquitous accessibility compliance to an extent that just isn’t realistic now. Despite the challenges associated with improving the accessibility of current web sites, the EU’s efforts will undoubtedly raise awareness of this important issue and provide companies and government agencies with a reason to keep accessibility in mind when building new Internet service infrastructure.