The information society should be open to all and not discriminate against people with physical and sensory disabilities or senior citizens. In a joint effort with the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry, the EU is attempting to ensure that all citizens can use computers and the internet to realise their potential.

An accessible system is one that can be used by as many people as possible without modification. The concept of e-Accessibility deals with aspects linked to the information society, ie hardware, software, electronic documents and web pages. 

e-Accessibility addresses people who are potentially experiencing difficulties with information technologies due to old age or disabilities, particularly cognitive varieties. It is part of the wider concept of e-Inclusion, which also refers to people who are disadvantaged due to social factors such as low income, education, gender or ethnicity, as well as people living in less-favoured areas. EU bodies have endorsed the concept of e-Accessibility repeatedly.

Information technologies and information-society services can help people with disabilities and older persons overcome barriers in their material environment or in society. On the other hand, when they are not specifically adapted to those users' needs, some barriers can be inadvertently created by the information society itself. Accessibility problems can also be created by specific environment or social conditions, these concern specifically persons with disabilities and older people, but also anybody in specific environmental or social situations.

The EU approach rests on three pillars: 

  • Accessibility requirements in public procurement: The revised directives on public procurement contain specific references to using 'Design for All' and accessibility requirements as possible selection criteria for tenders (see e.g. the Directive on procedures for the award of public works, supply and service contracts, Article 23, Par. 1).
  • Certification and assessment: The Commission plans to set up a certification mechanism for accessible products and services.
  • Exploration of legal measures: Existing member states' and foreign legislation on accessibility will be examined. The introduction of appropriate measures may be part of a planned overhaul of e-accessibility legislation due in 2008. 
  • Complementary actions: In addition, member states are urged to increase skills on how to create e-Accessibility and how to avoid creating new barriers, and foster its translation into member states' law, and to raise awareness among key stakeholders. 

The two main approaches to e-Accessibility in practice are mainstreaming accessibility and assistive technologies. 


Mainstreaming Accessibility 

The concept of 'design for all' means that ICT products should be designed to be usable by as many people as possible, indepently of their age and ability. The European Disability Forum agrees that "the concept recognises that ability is a continuum, and the usability of products should extend towards the ends of that continuum". It adds the advantages of the "design for all" approach: 

  • Appropriate design in technology reduces the need for human support and empowers disabled people because it reduces dependence on others.
  • The vast opportunities offered by the information society will change the lives of nearly all disabled people and support their ability to achieve independent living.
  • Incorporating disability standards on the design stage is also a cheaper solution than amending products and standards or making specialist provisions. 

Mainstreaming accessibility implies several factors: 

  • Hardware should be designed to be simple and easy to understand; user interfaces such as keyboards should follow standard designs. 
  • Web pages should respect accessibility guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Inititiative (WAI), which ensure that alternative output methods, such as text-based browsers, acoustic screen readers and Braille displays for the blind, understand a web page's structure. 
  • Software should by default contain appropriate interfaces (so-called APIs), that allow assistive technology devices to smoothly plug in and respect the WAI User Agent Accessibility Guidelines.
  • Operating systems should by default contain well-integrated assistive-technologies that should be easy to activate. When starting up, they should not require any input before software-based assisitive technologies can be activated. 

    All major operating systems and many software applications have integrated accessibility features: 

    • Microsoft's new Windows Vista operating system introduces accessibility features even before a user logs in. The features include an application for magnifying portions of the screen, an integrated screen reader that can read text aloud, speech recognition and an on-screen keyboard. In addition, Vista is compatible with a wide range of accessibility technologies and applications from third-party vendors. 
    • Apple has implemented similar features in its OSX operating system, including zooming into parts of the screen, an integrated screen reader and speech recognition. 
    • KDE and Gnome, the two major desktop environments under Linux and other Unix operating systems, both feature a small range of integrated accessibility tools plus a larger choice of accessibility add-ons, such as text-to-speech systems, screen magnifiers, and speech-recognition software.  

    The fact that the list of accessibility features looks somewhat similar from one system to another may stand as a proof that e-Accessibility has made good progress towards mainstreaming. At the same time, it is arguably the quality of the implementation that counts and where software makers will be competing in the future. 


Assistive Technologies

This term refers to technological solutions that are designed for disabled users only, bridging the ability gap for the use of mainstream technologies. Examples of such technologies include Braille displays that allow blind people to have textual content displayed to them or software allowing people with disabilities of the upper extremities to command a computer using speech recognition. 

"In today's society, access to information by all citizens is a right as well as a condition for prosperity. It is neither morally acceptable nor economically sustainable to leave millions of people behind, unable to use Information and Communications Technologies to their advantage" said Viviane Reding EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media at the launch of the e-Inclusion initiative in November 2007.

"With today's initiative, the Commission reinforces its commitment to overcoming digital exclusion in Europe. Progress has been only half as fast as it should be. The Commission is sending today a clear signal to all parties concerned: industry, regulators and governments that we must act together now to ensure a barrier-free information society for all."

In the Riga declaration EU ministers committed to an inclusive and barrier-free information society.

In the 'Geneva Declaration' of the World Summit on the Information Society, the representatives of the peoples of the world declared their "common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge[...]". 

The 'Lyon Declaration' of the First World Summit of Cities and Local Authorities on the Information Society contains a commitment to "an Information Society for all, without exclusions; to a model of Society based on respecting human rights, democracy, transparency, freedom to communicate and equalitarian access to knowledge, and a more balanced, equitable and fairer Society that is more respectful of cultural diversity". 

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said: "Our vision is to create innovative technology that is accessible to everyone and will adapt to each person’s needs. Accessible technology eliminates barriers for people with disabilities and enables individuals to optimize their abilities and unlock their potential."

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