Why web accessibility for people with disabilities is a critical test for digital diplomacy?

The Economist’s recent coverage of the web-accessibility for people with disabilities brings the following case:

Bill Denglers trying to become an Italian citizen. He has all the documents ready to go. But Mr Dengler, an American software engineer who was born fully blind, cannot make an appointment with the Italian consulate in San Francisco. Its booking system uses a colour-based calendar, which is not legible to his screen reader, a device that delivers a website’s content in audio form. And, perhaps because slots fill rapidly, rules prohibit him from hiring someone to make the appointment on his behalf.

What are Mr Dengler’s options? This being America, he could, of course, sue. 

He cannot sue the Italian consulate due to the jurisdictional immunities of consular and diplomatic missions. The Economist’s article analyses the legal possibilities for Bill Denglers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to Usable NET, over 16,700 digital-accessibility lawsuits have been filed in state and federal courts since 2018. As you can read at Digital Watch, there are serious doubts if legal litigation is the right way to improve web accessibility for people with disabilities.

The Italian consulate in San Francisco failed the web-accessibility test with a score of only 53%. Yet, it features better than many other diplomatic websites, according to Diplo’s research on digital diplomacy and inclusion of people with disabilities, which will be published in December this year.

Although consular and diplomatic missions are protected from litigation by jurisdictional immunities granted by the Vienna Conventions, they should not be ‘immune’ from supporting the inclusivity of people with disabilities online. Their inclusivity is among the public goods outlined in the 2030 Agenda and many human rights conventions. In the digital era, the inclusivity of people with disabilities is about accessibility to websites, social media, and other online resources.

As digital diplomacy aims for cutting-edge metaverse and AI technologies, it should always keep in mind the central promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: ‘Leave no one behind’. Unfortunately, people with disabilities are often among the first to be left behind by fast tech developments.