Breaking down digital barriers for persons with disabilities

When it comes to getting hold of the latest smartphone or TV, it isn’t as simple as it could be for a person with a disability. 66-year old Pedro has a disability, and the fact that some ICT equipment and software do not provide basic accessibility functions means he has to purchase specialised, often costly add on products, something which is upsetting and unfair. This is just one example of the daily challenges which persons with disabilities face simply trying to make use of the services and products many people take for granted.

There are over 80 million persons with disabilities in Europe. All of them should have the opportunity to participate in and contribute to our societies and economies. So whether it’s catching the train to work, using banking services or downloading online content, all goods and services should be designed and delivered with accessibility in mind, so they can be used independently by all.

In 2010, the EU ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, thus promising to ensure that Europeans with disabilities would enjoy the same fundamental rights as all other citizens. This year, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities examined how the EU had implemented this Convention, issuing several recommendations as a result. The adoption of the long-awaited European Accessibility Act (EAA), introduced yesterday by the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, Marianne Thyssen, is central to carrying these out.

In Commissioner Thyssen’s words, the EAA aims to “improve the functioning of the internal market for accessible products and services”, by making these usable to all people as far as possible, without the need for special adaption or design. This is known as the “design for all” or “universal design” approach for mainstream goods and services.

Since 2009, the Treaty of the EU has recognised that the internal market isn’t just about economics; it should also combat social exclusion, discrimination and inequality. This shift in focus should provide the basis for the EAA to encompass a wide and ambitious scope, to avoid discrepancies across the EU and to ensure that persons with disabilities have the same opportunities as all European citizens to contribute to and benefit from growth and prosperity.

Increasing the focus on accessibility will also help the EU build an inclusive eSociety and Digital Single Market. Technology plays an ever increasing role in our lives and fundamental rights in the EU should also be guaranteed in a digital Europe. Otherwise, we risk excluding over a third of Europeans – persons with disabilities, as well as those over the age of 50 – from the Digital Single Market.

Accessibility must be considered as much a characteristic of the digital environment as privacy, security or data protection. However, as the proposal for a Directive on the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites highlighted, less than 10% of all websites can currently be considered accessible. This is one of the most basic ways to access information and services nowadays. Yet, given the lack of progress from some Member States, there is still significant scope for improvement, as well as for a boost to the European market for web accessibility related products and services, which is currently estimated at €2 billion.

There is an increasing plethora of technologies which can make a difference to persons with disabilities and older people across society. The potential of ICT lies in its ability to open up a wide range of opportunities, and facilitate the participation of persons with disabilities in all aspects of life. This is particularly true of technologies which assist persons with disabilities in the workplace. Less than half of persons with disabilities in the EU are currently employed. This has significant repercussions not only for individual welfare and independence, but also for Europe’s prosperity and social cohesion as a whole.

Using accessibility criteria in public procurement is an effective way for promoting inclusion, since they increase industry competition and innovation, foster harmonisation and interoperability of technology solutions and lower costs. Governments should therefore lead the way when it comes to advancing the use of accessible ICT in their own public organisations, as required by the 2014 Public Procurement Directive.

Many technology companies are already working not only to ensure that their basic products and services are usable by everyone, but also that they can provide additional value to persons with disabilities. Nonetheless, regulatory legislation in the field of accessibility of goods and services is still necessary.

It is important to note that ICT is just one area that merits attention. Accessibility challenges remain in almost every sector, from transport and housing, through to healthcare and banking. This is why the EAA must retain as broad a scope as possible, to ensure no sector is left behind.

The EAA is a unique opportunity for Europe to deliver on its accessibility promises and ensure that citizens with disabilities can participate in society as much as anyone else. With the right national and pan-European safeguards for adequate enforcement and independent monitoring, and an ambitious, broad approach, this piece of legislation could transform the lives of persons with disabilities across Europe.

Today’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities should be a reminder that governments, businesses and citizens in Europe can do more to advance in accessibility and inclusion. Our continued economic and social welfare depends on it.

Rodolfo Cattani
Secretary-General and Chair of the ICT Expert Group, European Disability Forum

Rodolfo Cattani, born in 1941, has a University degree in Philosophy of Science from the Bologna University. He worked as a school teacher for 13 years and for almost 20 years he was Managing Director of the Italian National Library for the Blind. He is the Chairman of the Commission for Liaising with the EU of the European Blind Union, an organisation that he has been part of since its establishment in 1984. From that date up to 1996, Cattani also occupied various positions within the World Blind Union. Since 1997, he has been a member of the Board of the European Disability Forum (EDF), since 2005 of EDF Executive Committee, EDF Secretary General since 2009. He is the chairman of the EDF’s ICT expert group and has been an EDF representative on various European Union’s consultative bodies, currently on the European Multi-Stakeholder Platform on ICT Standardization. Since 2006 he has been a member of the Design for All Working Group of ANEC (European Association for the Co-ordination of Consumer Representation in Standardisation). From April 2011 to April 2015 he was Vice-President of the Platform of European Social NGOs.