New Dutch accessibility law

On 1 September last year the new Dutch law on the quality of government websites went into effect. At the time I read a short note on a Dutch blog that the new law made accessibility mandatory, nodded sagely, decided it was about time, and went on with my work without actually looking at the new law.

It was only last Friday that I studied it in detail, and to say that I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. The law's stated purpose is to make sure that every Dutch government website is accessible by following the guidelines as formulated by W3C. In order to do so, a corpus of 125 guidelines has been created to define best practices for creating accessible sites. These guidelines go way beyond WCAG; they also embrace modern, standards-compliant web development as a whole.

A few examples will show you where Dutch government accessibility is heading. As of 1 September last year, every website built for a government agency is required by law to use:

Furthermore:

New government websites must comply with these guidelines. Existing government websites must be converted to the new guidelines before 2011.

Sounds good, doesn't it? The Dutch accessibility law has been created by people who know quite a bit about accessibility.

In fact, last Tuesday I had a meeting with two members of this committee to discuss slight changes in the Site Survey script that's treated in chapter 6 of the book. The committee members impressed me with their factual and detailed knowledge of modern, standards-compliant web development. It was perfectly possible to discuss accessibility, usability, JavaScript use and popups on a level that wouldn't be out of place on an international Web conference.

The guidelines' one slight accessibility problem in an international context is the lack of translations. Currently they are only available in Dutch.

A pleasant secondary effect of this law will be the gradual removal of New Amateurs from the circle of web companies that work for the government. Fourteen months ago I discussed ways and means of converting the new amateurs, and proposed:

Could we arrange for economic pressure, for instance by lobbying for all government sites to require the use of CSS?

It seems the Dutch government has done exactly this. Thank you!

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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1 Posted by Stefan on 15 January 2007 | Permalink

With all due respect to those people that actually know their facts, the dutch government has been working on this for a while. The project http://www.drempelsweg.nl/ has been in effect for a long time, and a lot of government and commercial organizations signed a "statement of intention" to be accessible years ago. I was involved back when this project started. Little of those organizations actually did what they intended, including a lot of government organizations.

In the meantime, new projects were also started within the government and still I encounter a lot of bad government websites. So I'll believe it when I see it.

2 Posted by Dean Edwards on 15 January 2007 | Permalink

Wow!

3 Posted by trovster on 15 January 2007 | Permalink

I agree with Dean. This is great news. Know I just hope other governments take heed of this.

4 Posted by Arjan Eising on 15 January 2007 | Permalink

It is a good development, but it was greater for Internet costumers, if also large companies should have a website made in this way. In that case also other web development/design companies will have to apply these rules in a way, and get used to build a web site using these 'rules'. Just a good collar response.
Also it are still guidelines... What will happen if a government website doesn't follow these guidelines/'rules'?

5 Posted by waldemar on 15 January 2007 | Permalink

I am happy to see that other countries followed Germany's example. There the law is from 2002, and December 2005 was the deadline for the transition. Public awareness is slowly rising and website contests in this area get more and more popular. -> Wishful thinking that the industry will follow.

6 Posted by Marco on 15 January 2007 | Permalink

Encouraging to say the least. Any word on when this would be available in English? I'd be very interested in looking this over.

7 Posted by Mikael Gueck on 15 January 2007 | Permalink

Is there a English version of the material available somewhere?

8 Posted by waldemar on 15 January 2007 | Permalink

There is no translation of the local documents, but the W3C issued some comparable WCAG guidelines long time ago already.
http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/wcag.php
e.g. http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10-HTML-TECHS/

9 Posted by Gerben on 15 January 2007 | Permalink

A good read. Thanks for pointing me to it. I read a few things I didn't know yet.

A few guidelines are a bit strange though. Like the one that disallows technical measures against spam-bots. Also I missed a rule for linking label-elements with their corresponding input-element.

You're however still allowed to use just one table element for layout :-)

The guidelines seem well thought out.

10 Posted by pauldwaite on 15 January 2007 | Permalink

Go Denmark!

11 Posted by Mark Schenk on 15 January 2007 | Permalink

For those who read Dutch, here is a clearer overview of the guidelines:

http://webrichtlijnen.overheid.nl/eisen-richtlijnen/richtlijnen/per-hoofdstuk/

12 Posted by Carl Camera on 15 January 2007 | Permalink

My question is, "Or Else...What?" If valid markup is required by law, what happens if someone forgets to close their BODY element? Fine? Imprisonment? Three strikes and you're locked in a room with no tables for a weekend?

Furthermore, what is the litmus test for semantic markup? Is there a Board Of Semantic Review or are they just saying "semantic markup is required" and they don't define it? One person's trash is another person's art.

If they're requiring all these things, then they'll need to provide the tools and resources for developers, define these terms, and provide a process for complaints as well as penalties for offenders.

Without tools, processes, and definitions, and penalties, this "Law" becomes a Nice Unenforceable Suggestion.

13 Posted by Tino Zijdel on 16 January 2007 | Permalink

Carl: when the DTD is HTML there is no such thing as forgetting to close the BODY element since the closetag (as well as the starttag) is optional ;)

I'm a bit disappointed to see that although the guidelines advise to use HTML and only use XHTML when appropriate ( http://webrichtlijnen.overheid.nl/handleiding/ontwikkeling/productie/webstandaarden/xhtml1-0/ ) this site itself is marked-up using faux XHTML...

14 Posted by Rijk on 16 January 2007 | Permalink

@Carl:

Actually it is not a 'law' but a 'Ministerial Decision', something the Minister can proclaim without needing to get approval from the legislators (but in this case made because the legislators called for it a few months earlier). No punishment is included.

The 'Toelichting' (Explanatory Notes) contains two nice items:
* mentioning the need for both an automated technical check (online tool is available) and a 'manual check' performed by independent third parties
* the idea to use these guidelines as a way of being a 'good customer', thereby improving the quality of the procurement

About an English translation: the short list should be easy enough, but all items are referring to a page of explanation :)

15 Posted by Rijk on 16 January 2007 | Permalink

@Tino:

The main site suffers a bit from DIVitis, but apart from that, they manage to produce something that is sidewide valid XHTML 1.0 Strict and full of sematic markup. The Minsterial Decision PPK links to is pedantically correct in marking up foreign words with language attributes and using CITE etc, and is mercifully devoid of class attributes. So I'm not going to begrudge them the unnecessary complication of using XML syntax :)

16 Posted by Jan Haker on 16 January 2007 | Permalink

This is certainly an important development, but I too would like to know in which way this law is being enforced.

And, as I understand (but I could be wrong, it's late already) this law applies just to websites that belong to the highest ("rijks-")governement, not for example websites from the provincial or cummunal governments, or other public institutions that work for the government. It would be logical to include these websites in the scope of this measure.

17 Posted by Jan Haker on 16 January 2007 | Permalink

Rijk posted while I was writing... thanks for clearing that up – no punishment.

18 Posted by Richard Rutter on 16 January 2007 | Permalink

I agree that this is certainly an extremely positive step in the right direction. It does concern me however that technical solutions to accessibility issues are mandated by law. What happens in 5 or 10 years time? Will the law continue to be updated in accordance with technical progress?

The UK Disability Discrimination Act - which can affect all websites which provide a service - simply states that a website must not discriminate against those with disabilities. The unstated implication is that the website should be accessible. It doesn't define what accessible means or how to achieve that, which in theory I believe to be a good thing. However the upshot currently is that many people do nothing (through ignorance or avarice).

19 Posted by Marc van den Dobbelsteen on 16 January 2007 | Permalink

Hi Peter Paul,

Currently i'm involved in advicing some governement site's and dealing with the guidelines. Did some impact analysis. We are now rebuilding. Some additional stuff, check out:

http://stijlgids.overheid.nl

http://advies.overheid.nl/metadata/

20 Posted by Channy on 16 January 2007 | Permalink

Incredible! It's difficult to be required by law. In Korea, the govenment guided web standards to all web sites of govenmental organizations in 2005. But it's not the law but guideline.
http://webstandard.or.kr/en/2005/05/17/korea-government-guided-to-support-web-standard/

21 Posted by Ross on 16 January 2007 | Permalink

How does this impact web applications that have heavy use of Ajax?

If using "scripts as the only means of getting certain information is prohibited", does this kill government Ajax web apps?

22 Posted by goetsu on 17 January 2007 | Permalink

i don't know if you have seen it but there is a testing tools aviable with the guideline.
http://webrichtlijnen.overheid.nl/toetsen/

23 Posted by Raph de Rooij on 17 January 2007 | Permalink

First of all, it's great to see that most replies are positive. Three years ago, the information provided by www.webstandards.org was of great help to us when we were developing the Web Guidelines.

The legislation that came around in 2006 is 'just' one of the aspects that was put into place and that is where the aproach chosen in the Netherlands differs frommost other countries. The starting point was, that all citizens in the Netherlands (should) have the right to be able to access information and services that the government makes available online. In our opinion, WCAG is not the solution, but an important component.

(due to the maximum amount of characters allowed I can't post all that I wanted to say. It is available on http://www.webstandards.org/2007/01/15/the-dutch-embrace-web-standards/)

24 Posted by Barry van Oven on 17 January 2007 | Permalink

Hi all.

From September to December last year I wrote all of the code for the Dutch Bank's website (dnb.nl). It is fully compliant with Webrichtlijnen Overheid, all of the accessibility guidelines (AAA), semantic XHTML 1.0 Strict, unobtrusive JavaScript, etc.

The requirements for this project startled me at first, but I soon came to understand that DNB wanted to assume a leading role in implementing the new law. Most companies create requirements like this, then quickly back off once they realize the costs in time, people and budget. Not DNB though! They actually had someone who monitored the entire process like a mother's hen. I can't begin to explain how refreshing this was, someone who actually committed to requirements like this and stood by them no matter what anyone said.

Anyway, like I said, the website is supposed to be compliant with everything the new law requires; this despite an antiquated (actually buggy and inaccessible) content management system. I'd appreciate it if anyone could find the time to have a look and possibly provide some constructive criticism; it was a first time for me using requirements like this for so large and prestigious a website. I no longer work at DNB (project-based) but I still keep in touch so I can pass on anything that might endanger the level of compliancy they aim for.

25 Posted by Ron on 17 January 2007 | Permalink

@Ross: I don't think that this kills Ajax applications. If you built your app with degradability in mind, it should also work without JS support.

26 Posted by Wilfred Nas on 17 January 2007 | Permalink

Last year I started as lead front end developer for 'internet aangifte' for the dutch police. A site where the dutch can report small crimes online.

I am happy to say that we succesfully incorperated ajax in a unobtrusive way. A no js browser doesn't know any ajax is there. So this is possible in a real life situation, where you try to create rich but accesible sites.

We started to build the whole site for a non js browser and added the ajax and domscripting validation stuff later on. In my opinion, this is the way to go.

27 Posted by Stephen Hay on 17 January 2007 | Permalink

I'm also glad to see most reactions are positive. There seem to be many smart developers out there who see that the guidelines don't necessarily have to limit designers or developers in any way. Most likely because they know code, not a specific IDE or authoring tool. As for the others... well, they're probably complaining instead of working.

28 Posted by Marco on 17 January 2007 | Permalink

@goetsu

Thank you for the link to the testing tool. From the results I've seen so far (with me stumbling through a Dutch to English translator), it looks quite thorough and informative.

A quick question to my Dutch-speaking friends: In regards to the testing tool URI provided:

http://webrichtlijnen.overheid.nl/toetsen/

I want to confirm about the checkbox below the textarea input for URIs.

Does this checkbox's label indicate that your site will be retested (assuming you've tested it previously) and that the items that needed a manual check before will now be checked, according to the 'Waarmerk drempelvrij.nl' standards? If so, I think that will be very helpful for individuals who need to verify that any changes they made (based on these standards) are going in the right direction.

29 Posted by M. Schopman on 17 January 2007 | Permalink

The guidelines describe the use of HTML 4.01 or XHTML. The guidelines also describe sending files with the correct mimetype.

The XHTML specifications describe that you need to send XHTML with the xml/application mimetype. This is still not supported by IE.

This effectively leaves you with two options. Ignore IE, or stick to HTML 4.01

30 Posted by Tino Zijdel on 18 January 2007 | Permalink

@M.Schopman: your conclusion is correct: HTML is the way to go and not (faux) XHTML. XHTML as a business solution is an absolute failure, luckily W3C is starting to realize that: authoring documents brings a need for error-correction, not draconical error-handling. Accessibility is more important than (recoverable) errors in mark-up.

31 Posted by Paul on 18 January 2007 | Permalink

Just a quick point, this page doesn't work on IE6, in fact you can't use this form!

32 Posted by Saeid on 19 January 2007 | Permalink

Does anyone have a link to the German web accessibility law that was passed in 2002?

33 Posted by Raph de Rooij on 21 January 2007 | Permalink

@Saeid (#32):
The URL is http://www.einfach-fuer-alle.de/artikel/bitv/

The guidelines in BITV are, as far as I know, the German transpation of W3C's WCAG 1.0.

Waldemar (#5) wrote that the Dutch followed Germany's example. This is not correct: In the Dutch Web Guidelines, WCAG 1.0 plays an important role, but the Web Guidelines go further. One problem with WCAG 1.0 is that it is not always clearly defined what must and must NOT be done when developing a website.

When the main principles of the Web Guidelines are followed, it's much easier to accomplish accessibility:
[a] Keep structure and design separate as much as possible,
[b] Build websites according to the ‘layered construction’ principle,
[c] Do not make the function of the website dependent on optional technology such as CSS and client-side script,
[d] Build according to web standards,
[e] Use descriptive markup, and
[f] Don't use frames.

Best of all: it actually works. Some best practice examples are http://www.minvws.nl and http://www.regels-stadskanaal.nl.

An archived version of the Web Guidelines is available at http://webrichtlijnen.overheid.nl/archive/version1.1/english/
Hopefully, a translation of the current version, 1.2, will become available soon.

34 Posted by Raph de Rooij on 22 January 2007 | Permalink

@Marco (#28):

The checkbox below the input area for URLs can be ticked when your website conforms to the priority 1 checkpoints of WCAG 1.0. The Quality Mark drempelvrij.nl is a certified manual inspection for WCAG 1.0 priority 1 compliance. Testing for accessibility cannot be done 100% automatically; the results are not reliable enough.

By integrating the results of such a certified manual inspection into the automated test, the Web Guidelines Test Tool has become a very powerful hybrid instrument; one that doesn't compete or conflicts with manual inspection.

It is up to the owner of a website to have an inspection performed that conforms to the Quality Mark drempelvrij.nl (see http://www.accessibility.nl/toetsing/waarmerkdrempelvrij for more information in English). Without it, the maximum score in the Web Guidelines Test is 80%.

35 Posted by Jukka K. Korpela on 24 January 2007 | Permalink

The Dutch rules look really impressive and well thought-of in general, though perhaps a bit too extremistic (like disallowing all deprecated markup). It is modern in the sense of promoting accessibility as understood nowadays, as opposite to the stagnated (and partly misguided) W3C WAI rules.

The crucial question is how this will be enforced. Without sanctions or rewards, it's just a wish list (though a very good one).

The BabelFish (Systran) translation from Dutch to English, using
http://babelfish.altavista.digital.com/babelfish/tr
is not too bad, especially if you can guess the meanings of some untranslated Dutch words and mistranslations (e.g. "left" for "links"). But of course I hope a real English translation will be provided.

36 Posted by Raph de Rooij on 24 January 2007 | Permalink

@Jukka K. Korpela (#35):

Quote: "But of course I hope a real English translation will be provided."

An archived version of the Web Guidelines is available at http://webrichtlijnen.overheid.nl/archive/version1.1/english/
Hopefully, a translation of the current version 1.2 will follow soon. The major differences between version 1.1 and 1.2 are indicated on the home page.

37 Posted by Laura on 29 January 2007 | Permalink

Hi.
Excuse me for my English but i'm italian and I dont speak English very well.
In Italy was approved a law in 2004 (the "Stanca's law") that imposes to the Web site of government to join the guide of reference of accessibility. http://www.pubbliaccesso.gov.it/normative/legge_20040109_n4.htm

38 Posted by Aukcje on 6 February 2007 | Permalink

Thanks for this very good article ... Can i translate this and insert on my site in Poland? ... Thanks and Greetings

39 Posted by Duncan Wilcox on 13 February 2007 | Permalink

The english translation of the technical requirements associated with the italian accessibility law:

http://www.pubbliaccesso.it/biblioteca/documentazione/guidelines_study/

40 Posted by Kris on 14 February 2007 | Permalink

This just makes my day! Back at Cinnamon.nl I was part of the group that created these guidelines and seeing the warm reception it gets here makes me realize once more it was the right thing to do.

I also hope it gets even better over the years.

41 Posted by Kris on 14 February 2007 | Permalink

The guidelines should be updated all the time and certainly things like single page interfaces are a subject for which some good rules should exist. Perhaps PPK feels interested in shedding his light on this?

42 Posted by Gerben on 16 February 2007 | Permalink

I've translated the law/decree into English. It can be found at;
http://algemeenbekend.nl/misc/dutch-accessibility-decree.html
I hope someone finds it useful.

43 Posted by Rahul on 19 February 2007 | Permalink

One may note that working within these strict regulations isn't necessarily an improvement. More often than not, we've seen that web developers without the correct experience in accessibility will create a "validating" website but not an accessible one. Similarly, working with government clients that want things that aren't in line with common sense accessibility will force developers to craft a "validating" site that is equally inaccessible. So our conclusions thus far have been that these regulations may be intended in earnest, but as with most bureaucratic regulations imposed to force a hand, they aren't effective unless all sides play along. In other words, this was largely a waste of time and didn't really do much to improve the state of things other than to introduce a lot of extra costs and time on most projects.

44 Posted by Diona Kidd on 13 April 2007 | Permalink

Thanks for the post! I somehow missed this and wouldn't have known without your post. I heard about it on boagworld.com's podcast but I've been following your work since the late '90's.

Thanks for all your hardwork and your recent book. It's been a great addition to my library!

Regards,

dionak