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New European Standard on Accessibility Requirements in the Field of Information and Communications Technology

The three European Standardization Organizations (CEN, CENELEC and ETSI) have recently published a new European standard on accessibility requirements for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) products and services. Hong Kong traders of electronic goods should be alerted to this development, as the new standard, EN 301 549, is the first European standard for so-called “accessible” ICT.

The standard was developed to assist with the harmonization of public procurement practices in Europe by establishing a standard that specifies the functional accessibility requirements for publicly procured ICT products and services. It is important to note that although the new standard is primarily intended for use in public procurement, it can also be applied in other contexts, such as procurement in the private sector.

The new standard is currently the most up-to-date standard on ICT accessibility. It was developed in response to the request from the European Commission in 2005, through a process led by the three European Standardization Organizations in close cooperation with various stakeholders, including representatives of the ICT industry, consumer organizations and organizations representing people with disabilities.

The new standard is accompanied by a series of three Technical Reports, which together set out accessibility requirements that can be applied to a wide range of products and services, including computers, smartphones, ticketing machines, ATMs, websites or e-mails. The main aim of the new requirements is to ensure that ICT products and services are accessible either directly or through compatibility with assistive technologies, such as text-to-speech, for people with various types of disabilities.

It is important to note that EN 301 549 is a voluntary standard which should be read together with the relevant EU rules on public procurement. In that respect, Hong Kong traders should note that three new procurement directives were adopted one year ago, in February 2014. Notably, the new Directive 2014/24/EU on public procurement, which must be implemented by the 28 EU Member States as from 18 April 2016, strengthens the importance of accessibility requirements in public tenders. More specifically, it introduces a mandatory approach concerning the use of accessibility criteria for the benefit of persons with disabilities.

Pursuant to Directive 2014/24/EU, the contracting authorities of the Member States will have to use technical specifications in their calls for tender which take into account accessibility criteria for persons with disabilities or design for all users. The technical specifications shall be formulated either in terms of performance or functional requirements, or by reference to technical specifications (i.e. standards). It follows that the contracting authorities may specify the accessibility requirements by referring to technical specifications such as EN 301 549. In fact, the use of EN 301 549 as a reference in public calls for tender is all the more likely since, from the beginning, this standard was intended to be used for public procurement purposes.

Although, the use of the European Accessibility Standard is not mandatory, in case public authorities decide to refer explicitly to EN 301 549 in their calls for tender, they may require various types of conformity assessment with that standard. In that respect, Hong Kong traders should note that one of the three Technical Reports, namely TR 101 552, provides templates of various declarations of conformity and clarifies what information should be included in such declarations, including specific templates for declarations of conformity with EN 301 549.

It should also be noted that the European Commission is currently working on a proposal for a European Accessibility Act (“EAA”) establishing harmonised rules at EU level for ensuring that goods and services, including certain ICT products, which are marketed in the EU, meet certain accessibility requirements. It is not yet clear whether the future EAA will explicitly refer to the standard EN 301 549 as a means of complying with the accessibility requirements established by that future act. It has been pointed out that since the scope of EN 301 549 is very broad, it could be problematic to use this standard for a presumption of conformity with the accessibility requirements of the EAA.

In light of the above, Hong Kong traders involved in the export of ICT products and/or services are encouraged to monitor the future developments of the European accessibility requirements. Please click on the following link for a draft of the European Standard: EN 301 549.

In addition, Hong Kong traders may also wish to consult the Accessible ICT Procurement Toolkit, which explains different ways in which suppliers may declare conformity with EN 301 549. Please click the following link to access the Toolkit.

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