The role of culture and place

XVII.3 May + June 2010
Page: 26
Digital Citation

Accessibility and public policy in Sweden

Jan Gulliksen, Hans von Axelson, Hans Persson, Bengt Göransson

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Principles and guidelines will become more important, due to the development of accessibility policies and the harmonization with Europe. The Convention on Human Rights strengthens this trend. If designers and technologists do not follow and make use of this development, they will not win the competition for contracts in the future.

The usability and accessibility of information and communication technologies (ICT) have received increasing attention recently, but how are the objectives achieved and implemented in practice? One of the means for promoting and managing accessibility is through public policies that are meant to direct interface development toward a more inclusive society. But how are policies received in various countries and cultures and what roles do they play? We will briefly describe the public policy related to accessibility in Sweden and place it in the context of the European community.

Public policy is the body of principles that underpin the operation of legal systems in a state, which address the social, moral, and economic values that tie a society together—values that vary across cultures and change over time. Law regulates behavior either to reinforce existing social expectations or to encourage constructive change, and laws are most likely to be effective when they are consistent with the most generally accepted societal norms and reflect the collective morality of the society. International bodies, such as the United Nations (UN), and international standardization organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), are also involved in policymaking. Since many businesses are involved in operations across different countries, these international bodies often set the standard that specific countries follow. This is the goal of harmonization—to have countries adopt policies that are in harmony with international standards, which in turn lowers transaction costs. A noticeable example is when many European countries switched to a common currency—the euro. It is important to note that public policies are used and perceived very differently in different countries. In the U.S., for example, legislation and the courts play a much greater role than they do in the European countries, particularly Sweden.

back to top  Current Accessibility Policies

Accessibility policies often start at the international level. The UN has set up an international convention promoting the rights of disabled people ( It is a law that sets out the duty of countries to protect human rights and is legally binding for any country that has adopted it. The U.S. and European Commission (EC) have both signed the convention, which means a commitment to ratify. Due to the convention, governments must promote accessibility and usability for all (universal design) in the development of standards and guidelines. Most likely this will strengthen an ongoing global trend to harmonize accessibility requirements to be used in development and procurement. Ratified by Sweden in January 2009, the law is the framework for future Swedish disability policies.

Many countries currently have different regulations for interface accessibility. But there are signs that harmonization is starting to occur. For instance, the EC has been involved with the Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee (TEITAC), the group working on updating the Section 508 accessibility guidelines in the U.S. [1]. Individuals from the Web Accessibility Initiative, another international organization, were also involved in the TEITAC effort, while they themselves were updating their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

The relationship between the EC and TEITAC is fitting in light of European Commission Mandate 376 to create a solution for common requirements and conformance assessment related to accessibility [2]. The mandate is one of the EC policy measures to strengthen the responsibilities for accessibility among the member states. The development is ongoing, but it is coming closer and closer to binding legislation. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 will be one of the guiding standards in the development of the legislation [3]. Again, harmonization.

back to top  Activities in Sweden

There are approximately 1,000 public-administration websites in Sweden, and they should be accessible. Aside from the EC's efforts described above, Sweden has developed its own set of requirements and guidelines related to interface accessibility. One of the organizations behind this was Verva—the Swedish Administrative Development Agency. Verva created the "Swedish National Guidelines for Public Sector Websites" [4]. Because those responsible for public administration websites would be involved in the implementation of the guidelines, they were included throughout the development process. The purpose of the guidelines was to support the procurement, development, and maintenance of a website by a public administration so that it offers equal-opportunity usage for all citizens. The first version of the guidelines was published in 2002, and an updated version was published in 2006. The former was based on WCAG 1.0, and the latter was based on circulating drafts of the WCAG 2.0, before it was adopted. Swedish public-administration websites are regularly evaluated for accessibility using automated tools. A 2007 survey found that 90 percent of individuals responsible for public-administration websites are familiar with the guidelines [4].

Verva, the agency supervising the accessibility efforts, was shut down in December 2008 as part of a major change in the policy for e-Government. To strengthen the development of e-Government and create good opportunities for interagency coordination, a delegation for e-Government is being established. This delegation is tasked with the responsibility to revise the "Guidelines for Public Sector Websites" in relation to WCAG 2.0.

Sweden's oldest public authority, the Legal, Financial, and Administrative Services Agency, is responsible for public procurement and will be involved in implementing EU mandate 376 [5]. The EU mandate described here on how to procure accessible could be one important tool to achieve increased accessibility. A standard is not mandatory in an EC country. However, it is possible to link EC legislation to existing standards. The most common opinion is that the new standard from the mandate has to be developed before requirements for accessibility can be mandatory in Europe. Non-mandatory guidelines have been a part of both the e-Government and disability policies in Sweden, in contrast to the approaches taken in many other countries.

back to top  How Can We Evaluate Accessibility?

The U.S. and Germany, for example, are very law-abiding countries, and they aim for sanctions for those who do not follow the guidelines. From the Swedish perspective, the legal way to achieve accessibility may seem far too complex and cumbersome. What we probably need is both legislation and a process that emphasizes usability and accessibility as general quality criteria. Particularly for the industry, the quality aspects must be introduced. We need to follow up and measure to what extent the quality criteria have been met. The Swedish focus has been on regular evaluation and transparency, rather than meeting legal requirements.

For example, in Sweden, an assessment of Web-authoring tools was conducted by Verva. Due to the fact that the authorities paid great attention to these studies in their development and procurement, the companies that developed the tools actually modified their tools to meet the Verva criteria in a better way. The driving force should be to not do wrong, rather than being the best. Similarly, the European Internet Accessibility Observatory (EIAO) will be evaluating website accessibility across Europe and reporting the results on a regular basis. The basic idea was that regular and frequently updated assessments of accessibility indicators published online would help to raise awareness, fuelling the efforts for better solutions.

As an example of the importance of regular evaluation and reporting, Handisam, the Swedish Agency for Disability Policy Coordination, and Funka Nu, a major private company that supports Swedish organizations and authorities, conducted an accessibility evaluation of government and parliament websites across EU member states [6]. The study verified if those websites conformed to the WCAG. Sweden was ranked first in terms of accessibility compliance.

In Sweden the transparency of the public sector is one of the foundations of democracy and the development of an accessible society and is manifested by a duty to publish and promote openness. However, with the increasing degree of electronic information, transparency in the public sector is severely challenged. For example, currently a civilian can demand only paper copies of a public document. A person with vision impairment, however, might have difficulty with such a method, if he or she does not have access to assistive technology that can scan paper documents.

In May 2009 Handisam was commissioned by the Swedish government to submit a proposal for an action plan on e-Inclusion. The overall aim is to ensure that e-Inclusion permeates society and that this action plan makes e-Government in Sweden as usable and accessible as possible. In the introductory chapter (political priorities and coordination), there is a description of how the plan should be run, how the coordination should be conducted, and how the responsibilities should be divided. Then a number of efforts are proposed within these subject areas: accessible ICT, digital competence, access to ICT, and research and development. The process is ongoing. In the beginning of 2010, two of the proposed actions were implemented—revision of the Guidelines for Public Sector Websites and the responsibility for procurement at the Legal, Financial, and Administrative Services Agency. These actions are in the proposed strategy for the delegation for e-Government [6].

On a related note, the Swedish Work Environment Authority is the public authority for questions relating to the work environments, both public and private. Its goal is to reduce the risks of workplace illness and accidents and to improve the working environment, with a holistic perspective. It acts to support the public-policy objective of a good and developmental working environment for all. Unfortunately, this authority does very little when it comes to ICT and accessibility in private workplaces, as its main focus is by tradition on ergonomics. It focuses on physically accessible workplaces, but not accessible technology. When it comes to accessible intranets at work, Sweden has in theory a regulating law [7] but does not actively use it [8], A much more active effort from the Swedish Work Environment Authority, in cooperation with the strong unions in Sweden, could increase the focus on usability and accessibility in relation to work.

back to top  Conclusion

According to the Swedish National Institute of Public Health, close to 1.5 million people (23 percent) between the ages of 16 and 84 have some sort of disability [9]. So, improved accessibility for all, not just for the "average person," is very important. It increases the quality of people's lives and work and makes interaction more efficient. It can reduce costs and bring more people into working life. Additionally, an inclusive society is something from which everybody can benefit. Usability and accessibility professionals are often mediators for these issues. Involving groups with impairments may not only provide increased accessibility but also increase innovation. Public policy and legislation play an important role in contributing to increased accessibility, but only partly so. Changing attitudes and values and showing good examples of the benefits of increased accessibility are also an important part of changing the focus and goal of the development and use of IT.

Sweden is a country of negotiation and transparency, not binding legislation. Frequent evaluations of website accessibility for Swedish public administrations have been helpful to bring attention to the topic. However, in Sweden we need a more coherent accessibility policy, and perhaps the proposed action plan for e-inclusion within government will lead to that goal.

back to top  References

1. Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee (TEITAC);

2. European Commission. "EC Mandate 376 to ESOs for Common Requirements and Conformance Assessment." December 2005.

3. European Commission. "Towards an Accessible Information Society." December 2008.

4. Verva. "Swedish National Guidelines for Public Sector Websites." 2006.

5. The eGoverment Delegation. "Summary of SOU 2009:86," Section 3.

6. Handisam. "Do the EU member States Comply with Accessibility Guidelines?" November 2007.

7. Swedish Code of Statues. "Discrimination Act." Chapter 2, Section 1/

8. Web Service Award.

9. Swedish Nationa Institute of Public Health.

back to top  Authors

Jan Gulliksen is a professor of human computer interaction at KTH in Stockholm, Sweden. He is the Swedish expert in ISO standardization on accessibility and human-centered design.

Hans von Axelson is a lawyer working at Handisam, the Swedish Agency for Disability Policy Coordination. He is the chairman of standardization in eAccessibility within SIS, Swedish Institute for Standardization and a member of SSR consumer board.

Hans Persson works at the Institute of Humane Technology in Bollnäs, Sweden. IHT contributes to the creation of general solutions from knowledge about the needs and conditions of vulnerable groups in the community.

Bengt Göransson is a usability designer and consultant at Frontwalker. He holds a PhD in human computer interaction.

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back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Interior of the Swedish Parliament building.

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