eAccessibility – Opening up the Information Society
To be a real success, the Information Society must share its benefits with the whole society, including people who find it more difficult to use new technologies, such as those with a disability and the elderly. The European Commission is promoting "eAccessibility" aimed at ensuring people with disabilities and elderly people access ICTs on an equal basis with others. This includes removing the barriers encountered when trying to access and use ICT products, services and applications.
Widespread ICT tools like computers, mobile phones and public information terminals make day-to-day life easier, make us more productive, and open up the possibility of new experiences such as information sharing, active participation in society and social networking.
Although for most of us such devices are designed to make our lives easier, for a large part of the population ICTs are difficult to use, if not unusable. Therefore, instead of reaping the benefits of the Information Society, the elderly and disabled people are often sidelined as the design, production and installation of ICTs fail to take account of their specific needs.
For example, blind and partially sighted people may find it difficult to read websites if the font size cannot be increased or if an audio version is not available. Even if the user has the software that is required to help them browse websites, unless the site designer has followed recognised standards, it may not work.
Moreover, ICTs themselves can actually become tools of exclusion. For instance, older people often feel intimidated by new technologies and are then confused when new versions are introduced, such as touch-screen bank machines or computerised rail ticket machines.
Setting out policy
The Commission’s new European i2010 initiative on e-Inclusion: "To be part of the Information Society", includes an active strategy to improve accessibility to the Information Society for all potentially disadvantaged groups. In order to bridge the eAccessibility gap, the Communication calls on:
- The ICT industry to work to help disabled people access digital TV and electronic communications products;
- Industry and consumers to work closely with European standardisation bodies, especially in the area of procurement of accessible ICT products and services for public-sector bodies; and
- Member States to work harder to address eAccessibility issues in the context of existing EU legislation, and to agree a plan of action by mid-2008 to ensure public websites are fully accessible.
On 1st December 2008 the European Commission adopted the Communication "Towards an accessible information society".
The Communication makes suggestions for improving both web accessibility in particular and e-accessibility in general, notably to:
Pursue and make full use of instruments at European level - notably standardisation efforts, financial support for research and deployment of technology solutions in favour of people with disabilities and for elderly persons, and the possibilities of current and proposed legislation.
Reinforce cooperation with Member States and other stakeholders towards a common European approach for e-accessibility, including through a new EU high-level e-accessibility expert group to provide strategic guidance.
The Commission is also running the ICT Policy Support Programme in which eAccessibility is considered a key priority. The aim is to stimulate competitiveness and innovation while encouraging greater uptake of ICT across society.
Web accessibility is one of the crucial building stones in order to secure e-accessibility in general. Better web accessibility entails major social and economic gains for several groups of people and for public and commercial service providers. For example, people with disabilities and elderly, people living in remote areas and people who are disadvantaged for economic or educational reasons can be more active as workers or consumers. Public and commercial service providers can reach a larger customer base.
Access for all
According to the Commission, policy-makers and the ICT industry must embrace the Design for All approach to ensure that new technologies take the needs of all potential users into account.
In addition, efforts need to be made to promote the development of assistive technologies that are tailored to help people with special needs access ICTs.
The Commission has supported and funded research and development for eAccessibility projects for more than 15 years. The EU’s current framework programme for research (FP7) continues to provide strong support under its Challenge 7 priority area, which focuses on Independent Living and Inclusion.
In addition, the Commission is funding pilot work to improve accessibility to digital TV.
Last update: 04/06/2012