After years of effort, my friend Sergio finally achieved his dream of passing the public competition and securing a job within the Spanish Justice Administration. But for Sergio, this is not the end of the story. This is because Sergio is one of over 30 million blind and partially sighted persons in Europe, and the IT software used by the Courts is inaccessible to him. The software is simply not designed to be used with assistive technologies, such as screen readers. Having finally accomplished his dream, Sergio may not be able to carry out his tasks due to inaccessible IT software. When ICT accessibility is not considered by public sector entities in the procurement phase, it reduces the employment possibilities for persons with disabilities like Sergio.
Sergio’s story is by no means the only one. Every day in Europe, over 100 million persons with disabilities face barriers in accessing technologies owned by their public authorities. Inaccessible technologies such as websites, mobile apps, online services, and self-service terminals, purchased with taxpayers’ money, make persons with disabilities, like Sergio and I, feel like second class citizens.
We, persons with disabilities, are early adopters of new technology. When technology is available, affordable, and accessible, we use it to overcome the physical barriers that we encounter in our everyday lives. Accessible technology is a crucial tool to empower persons with disabilities and to ensure equal opportunities in society. There are accessible solutions, but in many cases public authorities do not prioritize accessibility in the same way they do for other important matters like privacy and security.
When the public sector applies accessibility requirements during the procurement process, it increases the usability of information and communication technology (ICT) systems for all users. It’s not about making “special solutions” for “special people”. It’s about acknowledging diversity among citizens. It’s about the public sector making wise decisions and purchasing accessible technologies.
What is the legal ground supporting this?
- The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), ratified by the EU itself, and by all Member States, recognises access to ICT as a fundamental right for persons with disabilities.
- Article 42 of the 2014 Public Procurement Directive obliges public procurers to include accessibility in the technical specifications of public contracts, and, additionally, they can use accessibility as an award criterion to select the most accessible solution.
- The 2019 European Accessibility Act complements the Public Procurement Directive by providing a set of accessibility requirements for a broad list of ICT products and services.
- The European Standard EN 301 549 on accessibility requirements for ICT products and services is currently the most comprehensive technical accessibility standard in the world. This standard was developed so procurers could refer to it in tenders. This technologically neutral standard, used by the main tech companies like Microsoft, is also referred to for public procurement of ICT in non-EU countries such as Canada, Mexico, and Australia, and it is aligned with the US procurement rules, thus underpinning the uptake of accessibility globally.
What is being done about it?
Despite the above-mentioned legal obligations, the public sector is not taking advantage of the full potential of accessible technologies. This is why my organisation, the European Disability Forum (EDF), joined forces with the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs (G3ICT) and Microsoft, to start a campaign to raise awareness among policymakers, public procurers and disability organisations about the importance of accessible ICT in public procurement.
EDF and G3ICT recently ran a survey among disability organisations. The survey showed that these organisations want to work hand in hand with industry partners, like Microsoft, in advocating for greater public procurement of accessible digital technologies.
We held an international roundtable discussion in which we presented the results of the survey. We heard from international accessibility experts, government officials and disability advocates. G3ICT and Microsoft, in partnership with disability organisations throughout Europe, have since held similar roundtable discussions. These discussions have promoted the purchase of more inclusive and smart technologies by national public administrations.
We expect that positive discussions in Spain, Austria, and Sweden, and some upcoming ones in other EU countries, will increase the use of provisions under the Public Procurement Directive, as well as the use of the EN 301 549 standard, among technology developers and public procurers. We hope that these discussions lead to an ambitious transposition of the European Accessibility Act into national legislation, and that the proposed European harmonised online form for public procurement will, by default, include “accessibility” as one of the parameters to be always checked by purchasing public authorities.
What are the next steps?
The recently launched European Disability Rights Strategy 2021-2030 commits the European Commission to providing practical guidance to Member States by the end of 2021, supporting the implementation of accessibility obligations under the public procurement Directives. It also promotes training for public procurers to purchase accessible. The Commission will also launch a resource center called AccessibleEU, which should be open to all relevant stakeholders, in support of the implementation of European accessibility legislation.
Together, we support these activities, continuing to raise awareness in order to change the “mindset of the public sector”, so public procurers make wiser choices when buying technology.