As much as technology is our beacon of hope to give people with disabilities equal access to society, we must not forget that it will always be only a helper or facilitator and not the solution in and of itself. The title statement by Dr. Thomas Kahlisch, board member of the German Association for Blind and Visual Impaired (DBSV), added an important dimension to the discussions at the 1stM-Enabling Forum Europe, which assembled 100 accessibility experts in Düsseldorf.
Policy ambitions and the reality on the ground
Representatives of the European Commission gave updates on the status of Europe’s efforts to create a binding legal framework for ICT accessibility in the form of the European Accessibility Act (EAA). Once the European Parliament and European Council agree on the final content and wording of the text, the EAA will introduce obligations for the private sector, mainly for ICT products and services, and strengthen the accessibility requirements in public procurement already in force. After the adoption of the EAA, which is expected for the end of this year, countries will have two years for transposing the requirements into national law, followed by a four year implementation period.
Going by the outcome of a survey presented by Yuval Wagner, founder and president of Access Israel, legislation such as the EAA will be important. Access Israel carried out a survey among more than 500 persons with disabilities in Israel. 56% stated that their N°1 issue is a lack of accessibility, and for 64% out of these it was a lack of accessibility in ICT.
On the other hand, we have today a plethora of accessibility features in mainstream devices, dedicated apps and accessibility services which in theory could ensure seamless access to information and communication for everyone. The panel about “Innovative apps, products and services for independent living” for example painted the picture of an entirely accessible mobile ecosystem, starting with a central source of information – the GARI database with information on the accessibility features in over 1,500 devices – passing by accessible devices such as Apple’s who was also on the panel, and freely available apps specifically designed for accessibility such as Speech Code, another panelist. To finish with, assistive technology and services like sign language relays for phone calls can supplement these accessibility features.
Where is the disconnect?
It would seem that our stumbling block is well targeted communication. While all attendees to the Forum are clear on the need, importance and availability of accessible solutions, we need to get better in reaching those user groups who have never heard of accessibility and those who are reluctant in using new technologies all together.
“This future is all about technology”, said one of the attendees. “The big question is, can digital accessibility solve the physical and social accessibility?”
For one, we do have the amazing opportunity of making technology accessible from day 1 and avoid being pushed into a retro-fit mode in which we find ourselves today in trying to make the physical world accessible. Ensuring that ICTs are accessible has the potential of reducing the gap for persons with disabilities and also saving a lot of money.
However, tackling accessibility from the technical side alone will not suffice. We need to raise awareness and we need a system that provides consulting and guidance to companies and hands-on training for persons with disabilities. Or to put it in Dr. Kahlisch’s words: We need to help people make sense out of the technology and help them understand how using the technology is relevant to them in their individual situation.
The GARI database
Apple’s accessibility page
Association manufacturers and retailers of assistive technology in Germany (BEH)
Association for Blind and Visual Impaired (DBSV)