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New European Directive Adds Impetus to International Efforts to Promote Accessibility

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June 2020

By Catherine Saez, freelance writer

The Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) is a public-private partnership led by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). It includes organizations that represent people with print disabilities such as the World Blind Union (WBU); libraries for the blind; standards bodies; and organizations representing authors, publishers and collective management organizations.

The European Accessibility Act complements the WIPO-administered Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled. Its objective is to ensure that when e-books are created, the associated files include accessibility features, such as structured text and image descriptions, and that consumers with disabilities are informed about such features when they buy an e-book. (Photo: BSIP SA / Alamy Stock Photo)

The goal of the ABC is to increase the number of books worldwide in accessible formats – such as braille, audio, e-text, large print – and to make them available to people who are blind, have low vision or are otherwise print disabled.

In particular the ABC promotes the production of “born accessible” publications that are fully accessible to all readers, the overall aim being to make the same product usable by everyone.

The aims of ABC are very much in line with the 2019 European Union (EU) Directive, also known as the European Accessibility Act. Inmaculada Placencia Porrero, Senior Expert on Disability and Inclusion in the European Commission’s Department for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, discusses the main aims of the Directive from the perspective of inclusive publishing for persons with disabilities, including for visually impaired and blind people.

The Directive will ensure that persons with disabilities (as well as many older persons) will benefit from a greater supply of accessible products and services, and will thus be able to participate more actively in society and the economy.

What is the main aim of the European Accessibility Act?

The main purpose of the Act is to make certain products and services that are manufactured and provided in the EU market accessible to persons with disabilities. The main products covered are computers and operating systems, self-service terminals such as payment terminals, ATMs and some ticketing and check-in machines, as well as interactive self-service terminals that provide information. It also includes smart phones, TV sets and set-top boxes and e-readers. Services covered include most telecommunication services, the European emergency number “112”, access to audio-visual media services, some elements of transport services, consumer banking services, e-commerce, e-books and dedicated software.

Video: European Accessibility Act: Better access for the disabled

The Directive will ensure that persons with disabilities (as well as many older persons) will benefit from a greater supply of accessible products and services, and will thus be able to participate more actively in society and the economy. The Directive also contributes to the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, an EU-wide drive to deliver new and more effective rights for citizens – and in particular, inclusion of people with disabilities (Principle 17 of the Pillar). In addition, manufacturers and service providers will be able to sell and distribute their products and services across the EU without having to adapt them to divergent national provisions. Imported products and services will also have to comply with these requirements.

What is the timeline for the Directive’s implementation?

From the date of its publication on June 28, 2019, EU member states will have three years (i.e. up to June 28, 2022), to transpose the provisions of the Directive into national law, and a further three years (i.e. up to June 28, 2025), to apply those provisions.

A number of transitional measures have been introduced. For example, products that are already in use, and service contracts concluded prior to June 28, 2025, may enjoy an additional five years (up to June 28, 2030), before compliance is required. And for Self Service Terminals, the transitional period is 20 years after their entry into use. However, in most cases, compliance with the Directive will be required from June 2025.

On October 1, 2018, the European Union signed up to the Marrakesh Treaty. From the right: Ms. Claire Bury, Deputy Director General, Directorate-General Communications Networks, Content and Technology of the European Commission; Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, Permanent Representative of Austria to the United Nations in Geneva and representative of the 28-member European Union (EU); WIPO Director General, Francis Gurry; and Ambassador Walter Stevens, Head of the EU Delegation to the United Nations Office and other International Organizations in Geneva. (Photo: WIPO / E. Berrod)

What will change for manufacturers and publishers?

From June 28, 2025, businesses, including manufactures and publishers will only be able to supply the European market with products and services that comply with the Directive’s accessibility requirements. In doing so, they will get access to the internal market as a whole. Businesses will also have to comply with certain reporting obligations. For example, they will have to inform consumers about the accessibility features of their products and services.

How does the European Accessibility Act relate to the WIPO-administered Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled?

The Act complements the Marrakesh Treaty. Its objective is to ensure that from their creation, new electronic books (e-books) are accessible. It is not about retrofitting non-accessible books; it is about ensuring that when e-books are created, the associated files include accessibility features, such as structured text and image descriptions. The Act also requires that information about the accessibility features of these e-books is available so that customers with disabilities know what they are buying.

Beyond EU manufacturers and publishers, are other economic actors, such as distributors and importers, concerned by the Directive?

The Directive is relevant to all economic operators in the publishing supply chain – manufacturers, service providers, importers, distributors, authorized representatives and consumers. The Directive also suggests that with respect to e-books, the concept of a service provider could include publishers and other businesses involved in their distribution.

Which e-book formats or features are foreseen?

The Directive does not specify any particular format, rather it outlines functional accessibility requirements that could be fulfilled using several formats. However, the Directive does include a process whereby the Commission may identify standards and adopt technical specifications, which would provide a presumption of conformity with the Directive’s accessibility requirements.

Once the Directive is implemented, how many books will be available in accessible format in the EU?

It’s difficult to say, because it will depend on how many books are published after June 28, 2025, the date from which the Directive will apply. In principle, the Directive covers all new books. We also hope that the Directive will support the adoption of best practice in terms of making e-books accessible beyond what is required by law.

Can you tell us more about the exemptions or exceptions that are included in the Directive?

There are, indeed, a number of exceptions under the Directive. For example, micro-companies are not obliged to comply. Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) remain under an obligation to publish accessible books but may enjoy some relief in terms of reporting requirements. A number of other safeguards from which businesses may also benefit have also been built into the Directive. For example, the implementation of accessibility requirements is compulsory only to the extent that it does not impose a disproportionate burden or does not result in the fundamental alteration of the product or service. Moreover, the Directive requires an e-book publisher to provide accessible e-books but does not require the publisher to produce paper versions of books in Braille.

How will the Directive be enforced?

Enforcement of the Directive is a process. First, businesses will have to declare compliance, then market surveillance authorities and those authorities responsible for compliance of services will check that everything is in order. Ultimately, consumers will be able to take action under national law before the courts.

Each member state will be responsible for establishing its own market surveillance authority and the authorities responsible for compliance of services. It’s still too early to say who they will be and how they will be organized, but member states will be duty bound to inform the public about these authorities, their responsibilities and the decisions they take when they become operational.

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