Inclusive Society

by Rodolfo Cattani

Participating in the information society: a promising avenue.

The importance of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the life of European citizens keeps growing, particularly for all those people who do not have immediate access to them, persons with disabilities being first.
As a matter of fact, ICTs are a development factor in accessing work and information, in social participation, but also in taking advantage of services relating to education, health, government, electronic commerce and communication.
In the actual stagnation phase or even economic recession, it is expected that ICTs will provide a boost for productivity and market, which are the main purposes of the Lisbon strategy which has difficulty getting forward.
What is known as e-Inclusion, the instrument to implement a fully inclusive, equal and developed information society, is an essential element for such a strategy aimed at economic and social progress through the initiative "2010 - A European Information Society for Growth and Employment" promoted by the European Commission in 2006. E-Inclusion can be defined as the driving force of the initiative requiring the involvement of European institutions, of state members, of the industry and organizations of users and consumers which collaborate to implement a shared and effective strategy.
At the end of the ministerial conference on e-Inclusion in Riga (Lettonia) in 2006, ministers have approved what is known as the Riga Ministerial Declaration "ICT for an inclusive information society", whose targets include halving the gap in Internet usage, and putting in place actions in the field of digital literacy and accessibility to ICTs by 2010.
However, reaching the objectives of the Riga Declaration has turned out to be rather arduous and the digital gap that is risking to make fruitless the project of social cohesion and economic prosperity seems today more tangible than yesterday. To make up for this negative situation, it is necessary to have a greater commitment from all, so that technologies be truly more accessible and economically affordable, user skills enhanced and ICT services delivered for effectiveness and accessibility to all.
The European Commission has published in November 2007 the Communication COM(2007)694 European 2010 Initiative on e-Inclusion "To be part of the information society" which aims to reintroduce the strengthening process of appropriation and skills development relating to ICT by users.
Proposed initiatives for 2008 are an awareness campaign "e-Inclusion, be part of it" which will generate various activities and end with a ministerial conference to share progress and enhance commitments, and serve as well as a strategic plan of action to get ahead with the realization of the Riga Declaration's objectives: to guarantee conditions so that everyone can access the information society, significantly reduce disparities in access across the EU, increase the availability of broadband (coverage) in under-served locations, tackle the gaps relating to skills development, accelerate the effective participation of groups at risk of exclusion, integrate actions in favour of e-Inclusion to maximize long-term impacts. These objectives will not be easily reached at the European level as a whole since there are prominent differences in the use of ICTs which in some cases are even getting more pronounced. This concerns the objective of the use of Internet, where it does not seem possible to close the gap between average EU population and older adults, women, people with a lower level of instruction, unemployed persons and regions with a slower development. It also concerns the objective of closing the digital literacy gap among the average EU population and some groups at risk of exclusion, where there remain considerable gaps for persons over 65 years old, those who are inactive on the work market and those who have a lower level of instruction; and the objective on accessibility of public websites of which only a small portion is accessible to persons with disabilities by respecting the WAICAG guidelines. ICTs allowed many people to realize significant progress, but the accessible ICT offer is still insufficient, there still are gaps in terms of digital skills and some categories of users do not succeed in keeping pace with evolution. If still 50% of the EU population does not use the Internet regularly, we should not be surprised that the level of exclusion is still high and the voice of users still weak. The ICT sector is also a provider of services that, without the solution to the problems indicated above, cannot be used by users who are disadvantaged.

ICT solutions accessible to all are still insufficient and fragmented, affordable solutions adapted to people's special needs also remains insufficient. Initiatives for e-Inclusion tend to fill the gap of availability, accessibility, reasonableness of costs and digital competence. Some actions are particularly urgent: organizations and service providers need to improve their broadband connection where accessibility is not yet guaranteed, reduce the differences in price, improve the accessibility of websites, guarantee accessibility and availability of accessible programs and services of digital television, facilitate the access to emergency telephone services and to the modality of global conversation, as well as public information terminal. Products and services aimed at the mass market have to take into account the universal access principle which stimulates the market and make new products available.
To reach the 2010 and Riga's objectives on e-Inclusion, it is necessary to realize that this is a pressing issue, to strengthen the visibility of the advantages of e-Inclusion, and to consolidate strategic choices.
"e-Inclusion, be part of it" is meant to create awareness and coordinate the contributions aimed at mobilizing participation about a proposal. On the occasion of the high-level ministerial conference planned for the end of 2008, the progress of programmes will be discussed.
In reality, for numerous persons with disabilities obstacles to e-Accessibility are still insurmountable. Communication COM(205)425 on e-Accessibility planned various measures to facilitate the attainment of accessibility to goods and services in the sector, among which the issuing of a new specific set of rules. Everyone involved agree that progress is insufficient and that the impact of adopted measures by some countries seems limited. It is consequently necessary to immediately establish community rules and procedures, before diverging national interventions produce an ulterior fragmentation of the market, and in useful time to influence the development of new mass technologies such as digital television.
During the period 2008-2010, solutions have to be implemented in regards to the independence of persons with disabilities so that they can use digital television and electronic communications to guarantee access to emergency services and the interoperability in accordance with the revision proposed in the directives relative to electronic communications. Organizations and users have to keep up their cooperation with the European institutions of normalization, particularly in regards to the normalization of public contracting of accessible products and services in order to establish in 2008 a European training program on ICT planning accessible to all.
The European Commission will have to implement a transversal legislative approach for an open-minded information society, respectful of rights, and an efficient internal market. Besides guaranteeing the existence of basic conditions, it is necessary to provide incentives for the effective use of services based on ICT and offer the possibility to acquire ulterior competence through education and training services.
In conclusion, it seems appropriate to underline the importance of year 2008 for the success of Initiative 2010 and for the realization of the Riga Declaration objectives. Unfortunately, there is, besides the real problems, obstinate and unjustified resistance on the part of the industry to take on precise commitments, which may create a delay in reaching the objectives beyond the deadline of the mandate of the Commission and the European Parliament in 2009. If this hypothesis were to be true, the damage would be great and the recovery highly difficult. It is better then not to lose today this favourable opportunity.

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Image - Logo of the community initiative e-Inclusion

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