Wednesday, August 17, 2022

More accessible information on accessibility

By 28 June 2022, all EU member states had to transpose the European Accessibility Act into national law. Some countries made the deadline, the others are close. Companies have another three years until 2025 to comply with the new regulation, and the question is: what will change for the consumer? 

The European Accessibility Act (EAA) promises to improve the functioning of the European internal market for accessible products and services by removing barriers created by divergent national rules. From 2025 onwards, the products and services within the scope of the EAA will have to fulfil the accessibility requirements across the Member States. The European Commission hopes that this common rule set will lead to more accessible products and services on the market, cost reductions and fewer barriers for people with disabilities and older citizens when accessing transport, education and the open labour market. 

A key element in the EAA is the provision of accessible information on the accessibility of products and services. This intends to empower consumers with information about existing accessibility solutions in the market and enable them to select products and services that best respond to their individual needs. 

The lack of information on existing solutions is indeed a persisting issue. During the European Accessibility Summit, co-organised by the European Disability Forum (EDF) and Microsoft at the beginning of June in Brussels, several stakeholders underlined the general lack of information, the complexity of understanding the full range of existing solutions and the high threshold in implementing accessibility in their countries and organisations. For many sectors impacted by the EAA, assessing the effort and scale of the necessary changes is difficult. 

“There is a lot more accessible technology than is being used or that people are aware of”, one of the speakers at the Summit said. Also, people often don’t know what’s available regarding technology. The new obligations under the EAA to provide better information will not change that in and of itself. It is only one step in the right direction. 

It will also need a mental shift in how the manufacturers and service providers promote accessibility. Users need to be open to trying and exploring the solutions. One speaker said, “amazing technology is available and even more if it is paired with the insights from people with disabilities”. We can only agree. 

So let’s recap what will change for the consumer when the European Accessibility Act enters into force in 2025. Most ICT devices, e-commerce, audio-books, audio-visual and banking services, and services related to air, bus, rail and waterborne passenger transport will have to fulfil functional performance criteria to be accessible for users with and without disabilities. Manufacturers and service providers will have to inform their customers about what accessibility features their products and services offer and how to use them. 

Some sectors, like the manufacturers of mobile phones and tablets, are already well prepared. The GARI database, for instance, has provided information on the accessibility of a range of devices since 2008 and supports consumers in finding devices that work for them. Other sectors, such as the providers of many of the services mentioned above, are only beginning this journey. 

The next few years will see significant changes in the amount of information made available about accessibility features – an excellent development with GARI continuing its leading role. 

Are accessible smartphones to be considered assistive technology?

In July, a panel of five international experts debated that question at the ICCHP AAATE 2022 conference in Lecco. The consensus was that accessible devices increase the independence of people with disabilities and hence should qualify for assistive technology funding. The panelists shared practical experiences from their work, evidence for the importance of accessible devices for users with disabilities and thoughts on the need to change our perception of who deserves technology.  

To what extent could accessible consumer electronics fill the gap in providing assistive technology (AT) to people with disabilities? David Banes kicked off the panel discussion around this question in Lecco with an overview of the results from a research project initiated by the Mobile & Wireless Forum (MWF) in 2021. This research aimed to investigate to which extent accessible mobile phones and tablets provide assistive functions and hence might be eligible for AT funding. 

The research team investigated funding schemes in six countries and found that in none of them, there was funding for smartphones or tablets even though people with disabilities emphasised how much they wanted and used those devices in everyday life. Currently, however, our funding systems are not prepared to cater to this need, effectively denying access to these devices to many people with disabilities and also ignoring a means to bridge the gap in AT provision with technology that is both wanted by the users and can potentially offer unexpected additional benefits. 

The actual value of accessible mobile tech devices, which already provide built-in text-to-speech, voice input, word prediction, screen-readers and a whole range of other accessibility features, lies in being the core for comprehensive and personalised solutions upon which other things can be built on – such as fall detection, AAC (alternative and augmented communication) functionality, sound-amplification, sound notifications and much more. The additional benefit is that mobile technologies are the preferred platform by users with disabilities. 

From the user perspective, Klaus Höckner from the Austrian Association in Support of the Blind and Visually Impaired also questioned the distinction between consumer products versus unique products for people with disabilities. 10 to 15 years ago, no one would have predicted that smartphones would become the most used technology for people who are blind or visually impaired. Now it seems the smartphone might serve as a universal remote control to access all other devices and services – if the technologies are interoperable. People with disabilities prefer to access the smart home and the range of connected devices via the personal, accessible smartphone. 

From a policy maker perspective, Wei Zhang from the World Health Organization (WHO) agreed with David’s point that we should not fight over definitions but focus on the outcomes for the users, enabling people with disabilities to get the products and services they need to lead a dignified and independent life. 

The WHO just published The Global Report on Assistive Technology, which contains new evidence on the needs for and barriers to accessing AT worldwide. The WHO is looking at conventional AT and digital solutions regarding their effectiveness regarding money, time, and overall resources needed. 

Siobhan Long from Enable Ireland confirmed that the accessibility built into the major technology platforms has been a game changer and has accelerated the general use of technology by people with disabilities. Functions like voice assistance and smart home technology have transformed the perception of their relationship with technology and possibly even their personal life goals for and beyond independent living. Building on this, we need to trust people with disabilities to be the experts in their own lives and needs. They can share this expertise with the companies in developing new solutions in a co-design setup. 

One such new approach is the Assistive Technology Passport concept, developed by Enable Ireland and FreedomTech. The AT Passport is a digital record of AT needs that seeks to ensure the provision of assistive technology to people with disabilities and older people effectively and efficiently. It places the owner or consumer of the assistive or accessible technology at the heart of the process. 

To close the circle from industry, end-user, and academia to policy maker Brian Boyle shared insights from several of his studies at the University College Cork. Their research program was motivated by the recognition that people with disabilities use technology – whether the AT providers know about it or not. And that, for the most part, people with disabilities and their families were self-funding accessible technology outside the system. 

Rather than using the usual metrics to assess technology use, focusing on what deficit it was intended to equalise, Brian’s team wanted to investigate the unexpected side benefits and understand how people derive pleasure from the technology they use. One of the studies looked into teenagers and young children with disabilities who were using smartphones and laptops, as well as young adults who had been provided with technology at a young age, and explored the benefits of using the technology outside the traditional metrics. A more recent study looks at the use of smart speakers, smart displays, and smart home technologies by people with disabilities to assess their assistive potential. 

The team found that our current systems almost hold a bias about how much people with disabilities deserve the technology, focusing too intensely on the cost-benefit analysis. The focus is on filling a deficit, rather than allowing people to explore and discover what the technology can do for them, in a person-centred rather than service-centred approach. 

The panel session in Lecco was well attended, and the panellists expressed interest in pursuing the discussions to produce a policy paper by the end of summer. The purpose of that paper will be to outline the benefits of accessible consumer electronics to people with disabilities, their de-facto use and current self-funding, and recommendations on supporting a shift in national funding systems to include accessible devices in the provision of assistive technology. 

The panel was held during the Joint International Conference on Digital Inclusion, Assistive Technology & Accessibility (ICCHP-AAATE), which took place 13-15 July 2022 in beautiful Lecco, Italy. #ICCHP_AAATE_22

The conference programme can still be consulted at:

The panelists: 

  • David Banes, Director of David Banes Access and Inclusion Services & DATEurope 
  • Siobhán Long, Manager, National Assistive Technology & SeatTech Services, Enable Ireland
  • Klaus Höckner, Director, Hilfsgemeinschaft der Blinden und Seeschwachen Österreichs
  • Wei Zhang, WHO Assistive Technology Program
  • Bryan Boyle , Lecturer, University College Cork