All future public sector websites and apps must be built with accessibility in mind, under a EU directive agreed last week.

As part of a provisional deal struck by Parliament and Council negotiators, the new rules will ensure that all public sector sites and apps offer a unified experience to those with disabilities and special educational needs.

The directive is intended to outline a common approach for ensuring accessibility standards, as well as supporting the EU’s Digital Single Market plan by making services readily available.

Public sector organisations will have to provide and regularly update a “detailed, comprehensive and clear statement” on the compliance of their sites and apps with this directive, including an explanation concerning content that is not accessible, and the reasons for that inaccessibility.

The statement will also have to explain how to request an accessible version of non-accessible content, and provide a hyperlink to a “feedback mechanism” that will enable users to notify any failures to comply with the requirements.

The changes will also require existing websites to be updated, whilst older content such as archived videos or word-processing documents are to be made available on demand.

Certain types of older content will be excluded, but only if they are not needed for administrative procedures, such as file formats, pre-recorded time-based media and archives.

The European Council noted that 80 million people in the European Union are affected by a disability, with the figure expected to rise to 120 million by 2020.

The European Parliament’s lead negotiator, Dita Charanzová said: “We live in a digital age, where most of us can hardly imagine life without access to the internet, whether online on a computer or via a smartphone. Yet even today, a number of EU citizens do not have this possibility – and I do not mean for entertainment, but rather to access information provided by public institutions. All citizens should be treated equally both offline and online.

“This is a great victory. I think it is a disgrace that many persons with disabilities are, in the 21st century, still cut off from information. Inaccessibility belongs in digital prehistory, not in today’s world.”

Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, Andrus Ansip welcomed the agreement, adding: “Internet access should be a reality for everyone. Leaving millions behind is not an option. This agreement is an important step towards a Digital Single Market, which is about removing barriers so that we can all get the best from the digital world.”

The deal still needs to be confirmed by the Council Committee of Permanent Representatives and by the European Parliament. Once approved, member states will have 21 months to transpose the directive into national law. The new rules would be applicable to new websites 12 months after transposition, to all websites 24 months after transposition and to mobile apps 33 months after transposition.

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