Web Accessibility Status/Policy in Ireland
Revised: 8th December 2004
This is a very brief, informal, review of the current status of web accessibility policy and initiatives in Ireland, prepared as part of the EU funded project Support-EAM.
General public policy on the Information Society is administered by the Information Society Policy Unit (ISPU) in the Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), with advice from the Information Society Commission.
The national Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, agreed by the social partners in February 2000, contains the following explicit commitments (Framework III, Section 3.12):
19. Each Government Department will ensure that reasonable steps are taken to make its services and those of agencies under its remit accessible to people with disabilities. To facilitate effective action and acceptable standards in this regard, the National Disability Authority will issue guidelines in accordance with international norms and will award an accessibility symbol to compliant public offices. Government Departments and agencies will take all reasonable action to qualify within five years .
20. Adequate resources will be provided to the National Disability Authority and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to monitor, guide and audit progress towards the achievement of this commitment.
In the document New Connections - A Strategy to realise the potential of the Information Society, published in March 2002, the following commitment is also noted:
7.2.7 Accessibility - Under the eEurope Action Plan, all public sector websites are required to be WAI (level 2) [sic] compliant by end-2001.
However, I cannot identify a clear statement of actual progress against this particular aspiration.
National responsibility specifically in relation to disability policy rests with the National Disability Authority (NDA). This implicitly includes responsibility for Web accessibility. NDA have published national guidelines on accessibility of IT products and services. In the specific case of web accessibility, they essentially adopted or incorporated W3C WCAG 1.0 without substantive change.
However, these "guidelines" are not binding in themselves, and are not explicitly referred to in any current legislation. It is possible that existing laws on "Employment Equality" and "Equal Status" could be interpreted to involve requirements for web accessibility in various situations, but, as far as I know, there is no case law to date dealing with this. Complaints under these acts are dealt with (in the first instance) by the Equality Tribunal.
The Irish Government has recently published a new Disability Bill [note 1]; this is proposed legislation dealing with a range of issues in relation to disability. However, it makes only very minimal reference to anything relating to web accessibility:
Section 26, subsection 2: Where a public body communicates in electronic form with one or more persons, the head of the body shall ensure, that as far as practicable, that the contents of the communication are accessible to persons with a visual impairment to whom adaptive technology is available.
This is extremely vague, limited, and refers to only one form of disability. There may be some opportunity to clarify or strengthen this before the bill passes into law...
Concerning "norms" or "standards" for web accessibility in public sector organisations, the NDA has recently published Draft Guidelines on Improving Accessibility of Public Services to People with Disabilities" (18 August 2004).
This is just a discussion document so far. It is concerned with setting out standards specifically for public bodies in relation to all aspects of how they deal with people with disabilities. In relation to web accessibility, they currently simply say that web sites should be subject to "independent audit" of accessibility (based on WCAG-AA). They do not prescribe any specific methodology for this. They do envisage that, when these overall guidelines are finalised, this could lead to a national accessibility "mark" or "award", presumably administered/certified by the NDA; but note that this would be for overall accessibility (e.g., including physical accessibility etc.) not just web accessibility. There is clearly scope for complementary working between Support-EAM and this general initiative.
[Note 1] : An official version of the Disability Bill 2004 is available from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; but with typically unconscious irony, it is currently available in purely presentational PDF and RTF formats only. I should note my understanding that both that Department, and the Office of the Attorney General (responsible for technical draughting and publishing of legislation) are aware of this anomaly. In any case, XML Workshop Limited have kindly made available an unofficial, but fully accessible version.