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Belgium lagging behind European neighbours in digital inclusiveness

A person reads information from a mobile phone (BELGA PHOTO BRUNO FAHY)
07:48 12/07/2021

Belgium is lagging behind other countries when it comes to fulfilling a recent European directive that states that all mobile applications of public organisations and companies in EU member states must be accessible to everyone, regardless of any disability. Barely 5% of mobile applications in Belgium are currently accessible to people with disabilities.

The directive, which is now part of Belgian law, has required all municipalities, federal public services, public organisations and companies to provide mobile applications that are accessible to people with disabilities, since 23 June.

However, while there has been some moves towards compliance with this law, progress has been isolated and slow. Statistics show that 15% of the Belgian population, who suffer from a visual, auditory, cognitive or motor disability, are virtually excluded in terms of digital accessibility.

"In Belgium, we notice that there are some advances,” says Rafal Naczyk of the Eqla association, which represents blind and visually impaired people in Belgium. “Some sectors of the public service sector have become aware of the extent of the problem. But at the moment, it is estimated that there are only five to 8% of websites and mobile applications that are actually accessible to people with disabilities. We are really lagging behind.

“With our association, we work and support some public services, including the Stib, which have made real efforts. But these are still exceptions,” he adds. “The real Belgian paradox is that most of the sites and mobile applications of public services are becoming illegal. Because they do not follow this European directive."

European directives must be applied in member states as soon as they have entered into force. According to the association Eqla, Belgium does not sanction public bodies and companies that do not comply. In France, in the event of non-compliance with these regulations, fines of between €2,000 and €25,000 can be imposed depending on the size of group or company failing to comply.

"Public services can be a role model in promoting digital accessibility for all,” said Naczyk. “This directive reminds them of their duties, because around 25% of Belgians find themselves discriminated by their disabilities on the web. Whether they are blind, visually impaired, with hearing, physical, motor, cognitive or mental disabilities, people with special needs are not separate citizens, but full citizens."

In collaboration with the non-profit organisation Passe-Muraille, Eqla has put a series of public websites to the test: from the search for the opening hours of a municipal service to the electronic agenda of the City of Brussels, or a registration form on the TEC transport company website, all of them have accessibility gaps that make navigation and the "simplest" administrative procedures extremely complicated, if not impossible, for disabled users.

The coronavirus shutdown periods have highlighted the difficulties faced by people with disabilities online. However, current technology offers simple and inexpensive solutions. With functions such as the magnifying glass or voice commands, smartphones have become tools that can provide daily assistance for people with visual, hearing, motor or cognitive disabilities. In theory, smartphones all have support options for users with disabilities, but this only works if the app or site is accessible.

For Eqla, it is the almost non-existent training that is the cause of Belgium's backwardness in terms of digital inclusiveness. "The real problem is that web professionals are not trained or made aware of the issues of inclusion and digital accessibility, said Naczyk.

“Today, in the Wallonia Brussels Federation, you will struggle to find the theme of digital accessibility in the courses that are given to developers, coders and web designers. The other problem is that most utilities do not even ask for digital accessibility when they order the creation of an application or website. In addition, when there is a client who asks web agencies to include these notions, the agency is completely devoid of possibilities because it does not have this expertise."

Political figures across Belgium have begun to take notice and will have to take action soon if the country is to fall foul of another European directive which will enter into force in 2025, focusing more on products and services, while extending compliance to private sector actors.

Written by Nick Amies