The New Zealand government is considering new measures to reduce accessibility barriers — but some New Zealanders believe that the legislation is too limited.
The Accessibility for New Zealanders bill seeks to accelerate progress towards a “fully accessible New Zealand" through several measures:
- The Act would establish an Accessibility Committee of up to 8 members, who are tasked with identifying, preventing, and removing accessibility barriers.
- A majority of the members of the Accessibility Committee must be people with disabilities.
- At least one candidate must be nominated by a Māori nominations panel.
- The Minister of the Crown, under the authority of the Prime Minister, must arrange for an independent review of the effectiveness of the Act no later than 5 years after its enactment.
According to The Accessibility Committee, there goal would be to "provide advice to the Minister for Disability Issues and the chief executive of Whaikaha Ministry of Disabled People". However, the Act doesn’t specifically provide the committee with the power to create or enact new regulations.
The Accessibility for New Zealanders Act faces some criticism
Some disability advocates believe that the Act doesn’t go far enough. By funneling reports of discrimination to the Accessibility Committee, the bill might create new bottlenecks in addressing accessibility barriers. That issue might be addressed by providing the committee with more power and independence.
In late February, advocates delivered a petition with more than 14,500 signatures to New Zealand’s government, calling for legislation with clear standards, regulation, a barrier notification system, and a dispute resolution process.
At least 24% of New Zealand citizens identify as having some form of disability or accessibility need. Without major changes, the signers believe that the Accessibility for New Zealanders Act will not result in noticeable improvements.
“They basically took three years or more to decide to create an advisory committee,” David Lepofsky, an activist who is blind, told Stuff.co.nz. “You don't need legislation to create an advisory committee.”
Related: Nothing About Us, Without Us: Starting Digital Accessibility Conversations
New Zealand’s Accessibility Committee would address both physical and digital barriers
Currently, New Zealand has comprehensive federal laws for digital accessibility — although some government websites fail to meet the country’s standards.
To comply with the country’s Online Practice Guidelines, government websites must meet the Level AA standards of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the consensus international framework for digital accessibility.
New Zealand was the first federal government to officially incorporate WCAG Level AA checkpoints into law. The Department of Internal Affairs may request conformance reports from government agencies, and those agencies must submit a risk assessment and management plan to address non-conformance issues.
However, New Zealand’s web accessibility standard does not apply to private businesses unless those businesses provide services to government vendors. Private organizations must comply with the Human Rights Act of 1993, which is structured similarly to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
But while following WCAG can aid in compliance with the Human Rights Act, the Act does not explicitly mention WCAG.
Worldwide, many governments — including New Zealand and the United States — have recommended WCAG conformance for ensuring compliance with non-discrimination laws. Until WCAG becomes an explicit requirement, however, many private organizations will fail to provide accessible experiences.
Related: New Zealand’s Web Accessibility Laws: An Overview
For New Zealand businesses, digital accessibility provides enormous benefits
Strong accessibility laws are an essential tool for creating a more equitable society. While the Accessibility for New Zealanders Act is limited, it may be a move in the right direction: By including people with disabilities in the conversation, it may result in positive change.
But for businesses, non-profits, and government offices, legal compliance is only one of the reasons to adopt accessible practices. Nearly a quarter of New Zealanders have disabilities, and every person will encounter disabilities in their lifetimes.
Put simply, accessibility barriers pose challenges for everyone. By following WCAG, businesses can reach new potential customers. Government offices can deliver messages to more people.
Most importantly, people with disabilities can access the same services as people without disabilities — and all users, regardless of their abilities, will enjoy better experiences.
At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, our goal is to help clients create digital content that works for as many people as possible. To learn how your organization can benefit by embracing accessibility, send us a message or download our free eBook: The Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility.