Seema Malhotra MP: The digital revolution must be accessible for everyone

Posted On: 
20th June 2018

Co-chair of the APPG on Assistive Technology, Seema Malhotra MP, says the EU Web Accessibility Directive may be one of the last pieces of human rights legislation to come to us from the EU. 

Credit: 
PA

Today in Parliament I am hosting a round table on Digital accessibility in Education as part of work of the APPG on Assistive Technology which will be publishing a report on this issue. The roundtable is set to bring together representatives from learning and technology teams from universities, charities and technology companies to look at how the education sector should respond and what the Government needs to do to promote awareness. This forms part of a wider inquiry by the APPG on what steps can be taken to close the disability employment gap.

Disabled students have long struggled with inaccessible university and college websites. Using a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is now essential to most courses: these websites are often the only means to get information on the parameters for an assignment, read study materials, register for modules, and hand in work. When students can’t use a VLE, they can’t access their course. A lack of awareness and digital skills is preventing universities and colleges from adopting this inclusive practice.

The new EU Web Accessibility Directive (2016/2102) sets standards for public sector websites (which includes websites where the organisation is governed by public law) so that the UK can meet our obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Cabinet Office has already published a draft of the UK regulations based on the Directive, to be finalised before 23rd September 2018. This process has the potential to spark an accessibility revolution in further and higher education: universities and colleges will dramatically improve their online resources if they adopt the standards in the Directive, and the skills and institutional awareness resulting from this effort can take the sector beyond mere compliance, making accessibility a core component of teaching in the digital age.

But the problem of Web accessibility goes even deeper.

The internet has transformed all of our lives. Many aspects of our everyday life are now spent online, from work to shopping even to finding love. It also has become an important arm to engaging with our friends, families and neighbours. We have taken it for granted that the world is at our fingertips. Yet many persons with disabilities are being excluded from the ever expanding digital sphere. According to the ONS, 20% of disabled adults had never used the internet in 2018 in comparison to 1 in 10 adults across the UK. This figure is alarming.

The EU Web Accessibility Directive aims to reduce such exclusion and bring the maximum benefits that are available, where essential public and consumer services are delivered online, on phones, can be a major step forward for disabled people.

It is also a part of the EU’s push for a digital single market, which the Government appears to have ruled out the UK joining. The Directive sets standards with the aim of making the websites and mobile apps of public sector bodies in the EU more accessible. It requires, for instance, that images be accompanied by text, and that websites be accessible without a mouse, which can be difficult to use for some people with disabilities. The need for websites and apps to be easy to use and accessible is only becoming more pressing as the population ages, and older people rightly expect to be able to use internet independently. 44% of adults over State Pension age identify as disabled, but something as simple as not being able to adjust the font size on a website can make the site usable. Having the same standards also makes it easier for a web service designer for example in the UK to design services which would meet the standards for web accessibility in any country across the EU.

If technology isn’t designed, or legislatively aligned across the EU, correctly it can lock disabled people out. And, as more services become ‘digital by default’, websites and apps are now central to core functions of government, from tax returns, to passport applications, and even the courts. This digitisation can have tremendous benefits, including for disabled people, if it goes hand in hand with accessible design. The European Disability Strategy addresses this by putting accessibility at the heart of the ‘digital single market’. This includes the development of two major pieces of legislation: the Web Accessibility Directive for the public sector and the European Accessibility Act, which covers both public and private.

But while the first set of regulations has come in just under the wire - they will be UK law in September - the European Accessibility Act is still in negotiation and may come too late to be automatically adopted by the UK.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have made a manifesto commitment to halving the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people. But that’s not going to happen while disabled people get, in effect, second class access to the internet. And it’s not just disabled people that benefit from accessibility, the principles of accessible design – that content must be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust – make websites and apps more usable for everyone. And whether someone is using their phone with their hand in a cast or filling in a form on a laptop while holding a baby with the other hand, so-called ‘situational’ and ‘temporary’ disability affects us all.

The UK has a proud tradition of legislating for the rights of disabled people: the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act (1970) is the world’s first piece of legislation to recognise and give rights to disabled people. The UK was also at the forefront of the European Disability Strategy (2010-2020) in response to the 2008 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, of which we are a signatory. Being part of the EU has given us the means to influence more widely and turn our values into outcomes for disabled people across Europe. We must not renege on our leadership globally to help bridge the employment and accessibility gap for persons with disabilities.