Australian Policy and Legislative Requirements
Australian Communications and Media Authority
ACMA ensures media and communications work for all Australians through various legislation, regulations, standards and codes of practice. The ACMA is a converged regulator. It was created to oversee the convergence of telecommunications, broadcasting, radio communications and the internet. The ACMA covers the internet, phones, television, radio, content, spectrum and equipment compliance. It sets and manages rules about communications and media services. It also markets and licences people, organisations and products to operate in Australia. It looks into complaints or issues and takes action when rules are not being followed. It plans and manages the airwaves whilst making space for new services, like 5G.
AS EN 301 549
AS EN 301 549 (also known as Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services Product Designation: AS EN 301 549), originated in Europe. Australia formally adopted it in December 2016 and it became AS EN 301 549 in Australia.
AS EN 301 549 became a part of the federal government’s procurement policies for Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). It also serves as advice for state and local governments.
For the first time, there was a procurement standard to assess the accessibility of any acquired technology. Suppliers needed to identify how they met the procurement standard of accessibility when asked. AS EN 301 549 specified a broad range of accessibility requirements applicable to ICT products and services (software, hardware and other forms of technology a person may interact with), and applies them to the procurement.
For Accessibility needs, the standard has a series of ‘functional performance statements’ that identifies users’ access needs that must be met to conform with standards. They focus on users who: are blind, have low vision, colour-blind, deaf or hard of hearing, cannot communicate vocally, have limited hand strength or reach, experience seizures or are neurodiverse. The standard also has a long list of ‘functional accessibility requirements’ for different types of products and services. These requirements must be met in order to satisfy the procurement guidelines.
Requirements focus on the way information is presented, viewed, or interacted with. In addition to generic requirements for all ICT products and services, there are specific requirements for: hardware and software, technologies with two-way voice communication, technologies that allow videos to be played, websites, non-web documents and technologies that provide access to emergency services.
Examples of requirements include: if textual information is presented on screen, users should be able to make the text bigger, Web and software technologies should be able to interact with screen readers or have other inbuilt capabilities that allows information to be read out. If information is intended to be communicated through means other than a user’s voice (sign-language, text, lip reading), this communication can be completed through a two-way channel.
Accessibility requirements for websites and web content explicitly states WCAG 2.0 Level AA (including Level A) as the benchmark. Where appropriate, relevant WCAG criteria have been applied to other technologies, such as hardware and software. Although WCAG 2.0 Level AA is the current Australian standard, organisations are encouraged to use WCAG 2.2 Level AA when possible.
EN 301 549 is a standard that should be universally adopted by organisations it in their technology policies and procurement, just like Australia did. With the Digital Service Standard, making specific references to accessibility, inclusive design and EN 301 549, there are now several government policies and procedures that includes accessibility. Moving forward, accessibility of government websites and technologies should continue to improve. Any acquired technology should be easy to use for any users. Users should be able to complete all necessary tasks and use all functionality within it as indicated by the Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA).
DDA plays a vital role in accessibility legislation as its advisory notes makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person, in many areas of public life. This is issued by the Australian Human Rights Commission under section 67(1)(k) of the DDA. It explains how compliance with DDA can be best achieved by individuals and organisations involved in the ownership or development of web resources. The Commission and other anti-discrimination agencies can consider dealing with complaints lodged under the DDA.
DDA in Practice
Developments in standards, protocols and technologies on the internet take place rapidly. These notes are therefore not designed to be exhaustive, or to provide technical advice about current practices. In considering any complaints about access, the Commission would take into account the extent to which a service provider has attempted to utilise the best current information and advice regarding the development of accessible websites.. The current requirement as outlined in the 2014 Advisory Note is conformance to WCAG 2.0 Level AA. In 2022 a review commenced to update the 2014 guidance which includes contributions by CFA Australia.
When Does the DDA Apply?
DDA and its advisory notes does not imply that web resources be restricted to plain black and white text. If a feature does not provide equal accessibility, an effective accessible alternative must be provided, unless the methods are unreasonable. The provision of information and online services through the web is a service covered by the DDA. Equal access for people with a disability is required by the DDA when it can be reasonably provided. This requirement applies to anyone developing a website or web resource in Australia, or placing or maintaining a web resource on an Australian server. This includes web pages and other resources developed or maintained for purposes related to employment; education; provision of services including professional services, banking, insurance or financial services, entertainment or recreation, telecommunications services, public transport services, or government services; sale or rental of real estate; sport; activities of voluntary associations; or administration of Commonwealth laws and programs. All these are areas specifically covered by the DDA.
How to Comply with DDA?
In addition to above areas, provision of any other information or other goods, services or facilities through the internet is a service. As such, discrimination in the provision of this service is covered by the DDA. The DDA applies to services provided for payment or not. Therefore, organisations who publish documents only in PDF form risk complaints through the DDA, unless their content is simultaneously available in another additional accessible format that distributes the meaning of the document structure, its design and content to mobile users. Web designers should assume that majority of users with disability will not have access to the latest version of software or lack knowledge of its advanced features. Thus, they must consider and incorporate this in their initial design.
Australian Government’s Digital Transformation Agency (DTA)
Digital accessibility compliance for federal government agencies is guided and provided by the DTA in the form of its Digital Service Standards (DSS). With the DTA’s release of version 2.0 of its DSS at the end of 2023, federal government agencies are now required to use the most recent version of WCAG as the DSS no longer makes reference to any specific WCAG version. Not only does this change ensure that the DSS will always follow WCAG updates, but also, in terms of transition, version 2.0 of the DSS establishes WCAG 2.2 as the version that must be incorporated. It is important to note that minimum conformance levels have not been clearly stated in the DSS version 2.0, which may lead to some ambiguity. In line with this, CFA Australia continues to recommend the use of Level AA as a conformance target.
Accessibility Challenges in Australia for People with Disability
One of the issues within Australian accessibility policy is that the DDA has no explicit reference to ICT at all (no mention of computers) – despite it being mentioned in the advisory note. This is because it was created in 1992, and technology was not as advanced. This lack of explicit reference to ICT within the DDA is an issue in contemporary society, as technology and computers are now used daily as an important tool for completing work. Therefore this lack of reference fails to acknowledge requirements regarding technology advancement and sufficient accessibility for Australians with disability.
Another issue within Australian accessibility policy revolves around reasons why people might not undertake accessibility. This is because of the unjustifiable hardship clause, due to Section 11 of the DDA. For example, if an organisation must undergo a relatively large expenditure to make these changes, they are exempt from doing so. This provides companies with an escape route if they don’t wish to comply with the accessibility requirements. A successful challenge to this was the Bruce Maguire Vs Socog Case. This case revolved around the Sydney Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (SOCOG) failing to make the Olympics website accessible, as they argued under section 24 that they were not obligated to do so. However, the Human Rights Commission determined that SOCOG had breached the DDA, and ordered it to make its website accessible by a certain date.
Impact of International Policies on Australian Accessibility Regulation
The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) is relevant to the Australian context as it led to higher levels of captioning on Australian video streaming services. The ways Australians with a disability access television is heavily influenced by legislation and activism from abroad. Subscription Video on Demand (VOD) services have caused a major shift in the way television is used and consumed in Australia. Internationally, audio description is increasingly available on VOD than it was on broadcast television, thereby allowing people with disability access to television.
National regulations are influenced by international legislation. The presence and success of advocacy groups to agitate for change has improved the way accessibility is viewed and defined in Australia. The Accessible Netflix Project, in conjunction with the CVAA in the US, despite having no jurisdiction in Australia, has improved caption availability. This happened because captioning created by Netflix for the American market has also been included on Netflix’s Australian service.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal agencies to make their ICT such as technology, online training and websites accessible for everyone. This impacted on Australian requirements, because anything used within the US government had to work for people with disability.
WCAG was implemented in the US government, which had implications for Australia. This is because hardware and software that was sold in the US had to adhere to US accessibility requirements. Thus, these all became part of the built-in features when sold within Australia. An example of this is the built-in voice reader. This accessibility feature was built into the device because in 1998, it was implemented within the legislation. Therefore, the US could not sell devices that did not possess accessibility features, as that would mean they did not comply with the accessibility requirements. This is why Australia’s products now have these accessibility features built in.