Development of European Policy on Accessibility

By Rodolfo Cattani

To include persons with disabilities within the information society:
an ethical, social, political and economic imperative.

It is common knowledge that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) now represent a fundamental aspect of life in today's society. It is also known that these contribute remarkably inBlue imprint of a hand on a wall making our social and professional life more satisfying and pleasant. However in Europe, and even more so in developing countries, millions of people not only cannot access or benefit from these advantages, they are largely excluded from the use of such technologies. This situation is particulary true for persons with disabilities who constitute 15% of the population in industrialized countries and an even higher percentage in developing countries.
In Europe, no less than 37 millions of persons with disabilities face daily barriers which exclude them from using goods and services to which they are fully entitled, but are inaccessible because of how they are designed and because of their functional specifications. The relationship between disability and the ageing population is growing closer. The demographic evolution in Europe will create a considerable increase of the older population in the coming years: in 1990, 18% of the population was older than 70 years of age, in 2030 this percentage will increase to 30%. Not only that, but 60% of the population over 50 in Europe believe that they are being left out by the designers of mobile phones, computers, online programs and services.
Furthermore, 60% of the adult population of working age admits to be having difficulty using ICT because of a light disability.
Keeping all of this in mind, we can say that manufacturers do not seem prepared to respond to the requirements of all these users since they are not solving their problems, giving up an important market. It seems obvious therefore that taking advantage of ICT by a growing number of users is not only a right, but also an ethical, social and political imperative.
The European Commission has been for a while involved in promoting an information society accessible to all and the breaking down of excluding barriers. To this end, the Commission is working on a communication outline to explore a few strategies in order to encourage accessibility of the information society, eliminating barriers, which exist because of the inadequacy at conception, and standardize, at the European level, technical specifications for public contracting procedures, such as certification and legislation, favouring a volunteer approach, but not excluding regulations.
The concept of e-Accessibility, which corresponds to the idea of e-Inclusion,Blue fluorescent map of the world has the objective of removing technological obstacles which tend to exclude persons with disabilities, but not only them, from the information society. This principle has already been asserted on many occasions and in numerous documents (communications and directives) from the European Union, but has also been put into practice with concrete actions within the framework of community programs such as eEurope 2002 and eEurope 2005. Moreover, there has been declarations and resolutions by the Ministers' Council, and the action plan of October 2003 by the European Commission following up on the European Year of Persons with disabilities which lists, among four activity sectors, access to technologies and their use. There is an awareness that technology should not subsequently evolve without adequate planning in order to reduce factors of exclusion. We are referring particularly to digital television, third generation cellular telephony and broadband communication. This relates to various issues which can be dealt with and resolved in different ways. However, the more promising approaches are the law for the assignment of public contracts, certification and legislation.
Numerous problems can be resolved through simple technological solutions, but these do not emerge in the market reality in a well-timed and useful manner. Therefore, the better adapted instrument to stimulate change seems to be legislation and the European Union has the possibility to produce standards to influence the market, just like the USA did with its well-known Section 208 of the Rehabilitation Act.
However, since Europe is not a federal state like the USA, but the union of sovereign states, this solution does not seem to be applicable to the European reality. Other solutions were deemed more adequate to the European market, that is the use of public contracting and a certification of accessibility.
To implement this process, it is essential to have information, the commitment of state members, pilot actions, research projects and normalization. It is now time to go ahead with coordinated actions towards a market of technologies and information products without borders.
The procedures for the assignment of public contracting, based on standards, defined by European legislation and international commercial agreements, can be a highly efficient instrument to facilitate policies of inclusion in numerous sectors. The recent directives emanated from the European Union concerning the purchase of goods, services and works by governments and public agencies are modifying the existing law and are expected to introduce universal access and accessibility requirements in the technical specifications for the assignment of contracts. This inclusive policy facilitates the production of goods and services to a larger number of users, encourages the industry to consider accessibility as an essential prerequisite for products and as a way to widen the market noticeably.
The certification, which has already been proposed by the European Social Council in 2003, could reduce drastically the fragmentation of the market and improve the quality of products. It requires of course the determination of criteria and methods for evaluating the organizations appointed for issuing a mechanism of certification. In regards to the accessibility of products and services, this is already the scope of three European projects funded by the Commission.
The study group INCOM (Inclusive Communications) has prepared for the Commission a report which offers an overview of the issues in relation to accessibility of telecommunications by persons with disabilities, from which there appears the necessity for coordinated actions at the European and national levels.
In conclusion, it seems clear that the foundation on which to build a more accessible information society in Europe has been laid. It is now necessary to go ahead in a coordinated manner to create a European market of accessible goods and services. The communication of the Commission, and the stages of consultation which will precede it, will certainly constitute an important impulse for the European Union as well as for the state members to develop coordinated initiatives to guarantee accessibility, encouraging the industry in making their products and services more accessible, and offering users with disabilities an efficient instrument for advocacy in order not to be excluded from the advantages offered by the information society. This will not be a path without obstacles, but what it represents is too meaningful not to accept the challenge.