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Rationale for public procurement policies incorporating ICT accessibility mandates

Rationale for public procurement policies incorporating ICT accessibility mandates

Edited by Cynthia D. Waddell, Juris Doctor, International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI)

Accessibility and Non-Discrimination
The rationale for public procurement policies that incorporate ICT accessibility mandates is grounded in the principles of accessibility and non-discrimination. Accessibility and non-discrimination play a key role in ICT accessibility mandates for government procurement. In general, the principal of accessibility requires the removal of barriers that prevent the enjoyment of rights by persons with disabilities. These barriers not only prevent physical access to the environment, but also prevent access to print information, communications, technologies such as the Internet, and economic and social life.

Today it is important to appreciate the modern “disability” perspective. From a public policy point of view, a paradigm shift is underway from viewing a person with a disability from the medical model perspective of diagnosis and inability to a focus on ability, integration and the problem of incompatibility between people and the environment. This view is reflected in the CRPD at the Preamble and Article 1:

Preamble: Disability is an evolving concept and results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.
Article 1: Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others [1].
In other words, disability is viewed as the result of the interaction between a non-inclusive society and individuals. For example, a person using a wheelchair might have difficulty gaining employment not because of the wheelchair, but because of environmental barriers such as inaccessible buses or staircases that impede access. Or, a person who is blind might have difficulties gaining employment not because of blindness, but because the work site computer did not have screen reader software or the work site website content was not designed to be accessible. 

Reconciling Social and Economic Approaches to Public Procurement
It can be debated as to the extent governments should use their spending power in buying goods and services to bring about social change. Yet historically in North American and European Union countries, public procurement has been used as a tool to address important social policies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even modern procurement practices have considered fair wages, unemployment and workers with disabilities [2].

Although some believe that a robust and efficient marketplace determines consumer needs, others point to the gap in accessible ICT products and services and the barriers created by inaccessible ICT. The CRPD seeks to narrow this gap and remove barriers to citizen participation. This includes the promotion of ICT Universal Design [3] and the Article 9 obligation to identify and remove ICT barriers, including barriers found in electronic and emergency services. The CRPD points out that the accessible design of ICT is least expensive when addressed at the earliest stage of design, development, production and distribution. Given that ICT will continue to evolve and be impacted by convergence, it will be important for governments to plan for the procurement and development  of accessible design solutions as they move forward to maintain their ICT architecture and replace legacy systems.

Leveraging the Market Power of Public Authorities as an Incentive to Create Critical Mass of Competent Producers of Accessible ICTs
There are at least nine alternative mechanisms that public authorities can use to promote critical mass as they leverage leverage the power of the purse [4]:

1.  Specify the accessible ICT requirements for the product and/or service to be purchased;
2.  Specify the processes by which the contract must be delivered;
3.  Regulate who can tender for the contract;
4.  Influence the supply chain by including provisions on sub-contractors;
5.  Deny the ability to tender as a sanction for breach of social law;
6.  Include social and ethical issues as considerations to be taken into account at the award stage, such as providing more “points” for accessibility features;
7.  Grant price preferences to selected tenderers;
8.  Enable selected tenderers to match lowest offers; and
9.  Impose conditions to regulate post-award delivery of the contract.

As further discussed below in Part III, by requiring specific accessible ICT technical design standards of functionality, a procurement policy can create a marketplace incentive to design accessibly. It also enables the procurement authority to evaluate the accessibility features of products and services being tendered.

Supporting Technical Innovations and Service Capabilities for Accessible ICT Product and Service Vendors
In developing public procurement policies, attention should be paid to the support of technical innovations for accessibility that might not readily fall into current ICT specifications. This is one of the challenges of government procurement when the power of the purse is applied in the marketplace. Careful attention must be paid to procurement practices so that they do not have the negative effect of stifling innovation. It is in the best interest of both government and society to be able to benefit from technology advancements. In other words, if the government design standard for procurement is too restrictive and not focused on functionality to meet the needs of persons with disabilities, then the ICT industry will not be sustained and the needs of persons with disabilities will not be met.

For these reasons, ICT industry participation in the development of accessible design standards and procurement policies is necessary for a successful outcome. The same is true for consumers with disabilities since a key factor for success is stakeholder engagement and the mainstreaming of the disability perspective [5].


[1] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, sixty-first session, resolution A/RES/61/106, December 6, 2006 at Hereinafter referred to as CRPD. 
[2] See McCrudden, Christopher. Buying Social JusticeOxford University Press: New York, 2007, p. 13.
[3] CRPD, Article 2 defines “Universal design” as “the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. ‘Universal design’ shall not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of persons with disabilities where this is needed.”
[4] See McCrudden, Procurement and Disability presentation June 2007 for First International Conference on Technology for Participation & Accessible eGovernment Services (T4P’07) in Krisitiansand, Norway.  
[5] See Waddell, Cynthia D. Meeting ICT Access and Service Needs for Persons with Disabilities: Major Issues for Development and Implementation of Successful Policies and Strategies, ITU Regional Workshop on ICT Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities for the Africa Region, Lusaka, Zambia, July 2008, at Hereinafter referred to as Meeting ICT Access and Service Needs.