EU acts to remove Web barriers for disabled

The hurdles faced by disabled citizens every day are not just infrastructure-related. Despite the disabled being the most frequent users of media, just 5% of websites in Europe are accessible to the blind and an even smaller proportion of TV programmes are deaf-friendly.

The Commission is currently studying new measures to establish industrial standards which should pave the way to easier access to new technologies with high potential spin-offs. The measures are being introduced in the face of what some describe as a “failure of the market” to guarantee accessibility. 

“We intend to start public consultations shortly around e-accessibility legislation,” Paul Timmers, head of the ‘ICT for inclusion’ unit at the Commission, said yesterday (7 February) during a conference with stakeholders organised in Brussels by Cost, the intergovernmental framework for European cooperation in the field of scientific and technical research.

The move follows the launch of the e-Inclusion initiative by the Commission last November and aims to close a gap which not only affects the disabled but also the elderly and anyone who does not yet have access to the digital world.

According to the most recent figures, set to be published by the Commission in March and obtained by EURACTIV, “in 2007, 40% of the EU population had never used the Internet”. Such e-exclusion is due to educational gaps or geographical disadvantages, but in the case of disabled persons is related to what could be considered as a type of discrimination caused by a lack of agreement over industrial standards.

With populations increasingly ageing, it is not surprising that 15% of EU citizens are now described as ‘disabled’. Disabilities are often acquired with age and websites that do not allow easy facilities, such as font enlargements, pose de facto barriers to a growing number of people who would not immediately be categorised as ‘disabled’. 

Innovative software allowing vocal reading or text relay services is already available, but is not used by the overwhelming majority of websites. Erecting these invisible barriers is often the consequence of negligence, but it is also due to the low standardisation of protocols across the Web. The same page cannot be read by all software. The same software cannot read every page.

The lack of standardisation keeps consumers away from new technologies with many innovative potential applications, and therefore increases their cost. The reprehensible outcome is that disabled persons, who are those with the greatest need of such tools, find themselves disadvantaged once again.

The target for the ICT industry, indicated by the Commission in November, is the establishment of “privacy-friendly accessible solutions for persons with sensory, physical and cognitive restrictions” by 2010. It remains to be seen whether this will it be feasible.

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