Disability Legislation:
Response to Draft Proposals

Dr. Barry McMullin
Research Institute for Networks and
Communications Engineering (RINCE)
Dublin City University

30 October 2002
[Document also available in PDF Format.]


Contents



Introduction

Following the withdrawal of the Disability Bill, 2001, an extensive consultation process on new disability legislation was initiated. This is a response to the Draft Proposed Core Elements of Disability Law (October 2002), developed in that process.

The Consultation Process

I strongly welcome the open and inclusive consultation process that has now been initiated. This is likely to lead to legislation with much more widespread support, which addresses the priority concerns of those with disabilities, their carers, and representative groups.

My own background and expertise is confined to a relatively narrow element of the potential scope of such legislation--namely the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in facilitating inclusive products and services for those with disabilities. Accordingly, my comments below will be largely confined to those aspects of the draft proposals.

WARP: Web Accessibility Reporting Project

I have just completed supervising the first phase of a project concerned with the accessibility of Irish Web sites for those with disabilities. Summary results are available as McMullin (2002a); a more detailed technical presentation is provided in McMullin (2002b).

The summary report presents a number of recommendations for action. The following are particularly relevant to the current consultation:

These recommendations will be elaborated in more detail below in the specific context of the draft proposals.

Definitions

Reasonable Accommodation

The draft proposals rightly note that any new disability legislation should be properly and effectively integrated with existing provisions, including the Equal Status Act, 2000.

Specifically, attention is drawn to the definition there of "reasonable accommodation"; and it is proposed that, in new legislation, this definition should not contain a limitation referring to "nominal cost".

I welcome that, but would further comment:

Service

There is a proposal to expand the definition of "service" to "... include non-traditional services such as internet providers". The principle here of an expansive interpretation of service is surely a good one; but the specific example of "internet providers" is, at best, ambiguous.

If what is meant is "Internet service provider (ISP)" then it is unclear to me why this might need separate enumeration from, say, "telephone service provider", or "postal service provider".

However, I hope that the intention was rather to clearly include arbitrary services delivered via the Internet. In that case, I suggest that the phrase "internet provider" be avoided. Indeed, I would suggest instead that the wording be deliberately "open"; for example, stating that the scope of the legislation is not to be restricted to particular service modes or media--as currently existing, or as may be invented in the future.

Disability Awareness Training

The current proposals here relate only to general awareness of issues relating to disability. This is useful, but there is clearly a need for certain categories of person to have more detailed or technical knowledge. In particular, those charged with the design of products or services need to have the technical knowledge to make such products or services as accessible as possible. It may therefore be appropriate to make some more specific reference to requirements for certain kinds of professional qualification (engineering, architecture, etc.).

Accessibility of Public [?] Services

In the current proposals there is an inconsistency between the initial statement that "... [B]road parameters for accessibility should be contained in disability legislation and further details developed through guidelines developed by the National Disability Authority and/or regulations made by the relevant Ministers" and the subsequent very detailed proposal that "Government department websites, and websites of publicly funded organisations should meet the Web Access Initiative Guidelines [sic] issued by the World Wide Web consortium [W3C]".

This reference to "Web Access Initiative Guidelines" of the W3C is, at best, very ambiguous: W3C has issued a range of distinct guidelines relating to different technologies; these guidelines have varying potential levels of compliance; and are, in any case, subject to revision on an ongoing basis. It would therefore not seem appropriate to enshrine an explicit reference to such guidelines in primary legislation; rather, that should be addressed--as indeed envisaged earlier in the proposals--by regulation instead.

The existing NDA IT Accessibility Guidelines (Irish National Disability Authority, 2002) provide an excellent potential starting point for such regulation. However: they would require some significant further work before being employed in that way. In particular, the provisions relating to compliance levels would have to be completely revisited; and procedures for change control would have to be formalised.

Nonetheless, I should emphasise that I do strongly welcome and endorse the idea that--directly or indirectly--new legislation should provide for explicit, comprehensive, and legally enforceable standards for accessibility of all ICT based products and services to users with disabilities. I am not a lawyer, and cannot comment on the most appropriate statutory mechanisms; but such regulations should have at least as much force as regulations relating to the built environment.

As a separate--and fundamentally more important point--the proposals, as currently framed, might appear to be limited to "services provided by public bodies". While I have no problem with reference to explicit requirements on such bodies, I would presume that the generic requirements (and regulations) must apply to the accessibility of all services provided "to the public", regardless of whether the provider is a "public" or "private" body? This could certainly be clarified.

In relation to copyright, it may be appropriate to incorporate accessible media requirements into the provisions for lodgment of materials in the state's official copyright libraries.

Matters outside [?] Disability Legislation

Centre for Excellence in Universal Design

I would endorse the recognition of the excellent work of the Institute for Design and Disability; however, I would also emphasise that there are many other individuals, groups, and organisations in the state actively interested in, and contributing to the discipline of universal design.

In any case, I am simply baffled by the statement that the previously proposed Centre for Excellence in Universal Design "... would not be central to the rights of people with disabilities". Of course, such a Centre could play only one specialised part in the complex jigsaw of meeting the needs of disabled people; nonetheless, it seems to me that it is an essential, and indispensable, part. "Rights" must surely not be merely aspirational: we must want to actually vindicate them, in the form of accessible products, services, and supports?

The current document appears to assume that we can simply rely on the good will and interest of individuals to ensure that knowledge about universal design is developed and disseminated in Ireland. To put it mildly, this seems to me a high risk strategy, which does a significant disservice both to the community of people with disabilities, and the wider community at large - insofar as universal design is generally better design for all.

I strongly encourage much more substantive engagement by the DLCG with this question.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I re-iterate my support for this consultation process. I look forward to further developments, and hope that the comments above may contribute to the overall success of this very important legislative initiative.

Bibliography

Irish National Disability Authority (2002),
`IT Accessibility Guidelines'.
(Accessed: 17 October 2002)
McMullin, B. (2002a),
Digital Democracy for All? Web Accessibility in Ireland, 2002, Technical Report warp-2002-01, Research Institute in Networks and Communications Engineering (RINCE), Dublin, Ireland.
(Accessed: 30 October 2002)
McMullin, B. (2002b),
WARP (Web Accessibility Reporting Project) Ireland 2002 Baseline Study, Technical Report warp-2002-00, Research Institute in Networks and Communications Engineering (RINCE), Dublin, Ireland.
(Accessed: 17 October 2002)

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