Making Digital Technologies Accessible to All
On 3 December, we celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a day on which the disability movement comes together to call for the realisation of the rights of over 15% of the population.
This call is particularly necessary this year, as persons with disabilities have been one of the groups most affected by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. As for non-disabled people, the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) helps in coping with this situation. The difference is that for persons with disabilities, many tech products and services are not yet accessible to us.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by 182 countries including the EU and all its Member States, is the first international human rights treaty recognising access to ICT as a fundamental right to be ensured to persons with disabilities. Why is that necessary? We are early adopters of technologies because, when these are available, affordable and accessible to us, they are a gateway to social participation and independent living, employment, education, culture and leisure.
We are early adopters of technologies because, when these are available, affordable and accessible to us, they are a gateway
With accessible technologies we can indeed overcome some of the existing barriers we encounter in our everyday life. This is why we, the disability movement, ask for accessibility to be considered as one of the core aspects in the digital domain, such as privacy, data protection or security.
Accessibility refers to the extent to which ICT products and services are designed to be used by the widest range of users, regardless of their needs, characteristics or capabilities. In short, incorporating accessibility embraces human diversity, and rejects concepts such as designing for the “average user” or “one-size-fits-all”.
Accessibility is essential for persons with disabilities, but it’s beneficial to all. It increases usability, personalisation, adaptability to different contexts of use, wider compatibility, in the case of the web – better search engine optimisation, faster loading time, among others.
For example, having subtitles help to follow a video in noisy places, possibility to enlarge font-size or increase contrast are useful in very lighting environments (or when you forgot your glasses); if your mouse is broken, keyboard navigation is the only way; voice commands or text-to-speech facilitate multitasking. You can watch a series of very short videos about all these benefits at Web Accessibility Perspectives of W3C-WAI.
Accessibility is essential for persons with disabilities, but it’s beneficial to all
For over a decade, the European Disability Forum has been advocating at the EU to set up a legal framework, similar to that of the US (in this specific case, they are the best practice), to guarantee that accessibility is required in the main technologies people use in their everyday life. Thus, in 2016 the EU adopted the Web Accessibility Directive, covering websites and mobile apps of the public sector.
In 2018 progress on accessibility became mandatory in the Audiovisual Media Services Directive for TV channels and video on demand platforms. In the same year, equal access and choice was strengthened in the Electronic Communications Code, and, finally, in 2019, the EU adopted, after years of campaigning, the European Accessibility Act. To support all these laws, the EU has the most advanced and comprehensive technical standard on accessibility for ICT products and services.
Moreover, the European Accessibility Act is a Directive with a very strong ICT component. It covers computers and operating systems, tablets, smartphones, and smart TVs, self-service terminals (such as ATMs, ticketing machines, or payment terminals), e-books and e-readers, telephony and emergency communication (sadly and surprisingly, in 2021, there are still countries which consider fax an “accessible way” for persons with disabilities to call the 112 emergency number), e-banking and e-commerce services. In just a few years, therefore, the digital sector will consider accessibility as a legal prerequisite in order to place their products and services within the EU single market.
In just a few years, therefore, the digital sector will consider accessibility as a legal prerequisite
Not so many years ago, persons with disabilities had to buy separate screen reader software and set it up in their devices. Nowadays, this feature comes built in the device. And even though some persons with disabilities will still need to make use of certain assistive technologies (those specifically designed for us), accessible mainstream technologies must continue expanding its usability by a broader range of users.
We indeed witness many potential opportunities in emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, reality technologies, robotics or smart environments, however we do also see as well the risk of further discrimination and exclusion. Our publication Plug and Pray? explains it all.
Therefore, in order to succeed in ensuring that technology does serve our diverse societies, disability advocates and digital rights advocates must join forces in defending and promoting human rights, including accessibility, in the digital field.
Alejandro Moledo is Policy Coordinator at the European Disability Forum.