The European Commission has committed itself to improve access to mobile communications and interactive TV to the disabled.
There isn't any commitment to finance these laudable aims, but a speech this week by Erkki Liikanen, political head of IT policy at the EC strikes many of the right notes.
eEurope Action Plan
The implementation of the eEurope 2005 Action Plan, designed to boosts the uptake of government services over the Net and broadband in Europe, factors in the interests of the disabled. This is consistent with the "Information Society for All" approach the Commission is taking, only rightly since it is the European Year of People with Disabilities, we learn.
"Access for people with disabilities to this multi-platform world is crucial for their integration and participation, and for development as citizens with equal rights," Liikanen told attendees at a Ministerial Symposium on e-Inclusion, held in Crete last weekend.
Liikanen admitted the current situation for people with disabilities "is still far from perfect".
He outlined some practical problems; for instance, it's very difficult for a deaf person to make calls to another EU country. And he notes that a "person with reduced upper limb mobility using a computer to communicate or send e-mail very often needs considerably more time online than other citizens. With dial-up connections the consequence is a larger telephone bill."
"Although the need to have appropriate equipment at affordable prices is obvious, it is difficult to find special terminals that can be connected to assistive technologies and where they exist, they are usually rather expensive."
Liikanen added: "People with disabilities and older citizens have difficulties in accessing online services, for example phone banking or Internet shopping. Such services often lack of flexibility in their user interfaces, as these require simultaneous visual, auditory and dextrous competence."
European Legislation: is it working?
European legislation, such as the telecoms legal framework, mentions accessibility for persons with disability in several Directives.
"However, the potential improvement that these laws can bring has not yet been fully realised," Liikanen notes.
He added that a "particular challenge" is ensuring access to new mobile communications and digital television services to the disabled.
So what is Europe doing?
Last month a working group under the Communication Committee was set up with the goal of "improving access to communications networks and services for people with disabilities".
The group aims to raise awareness of the needs of the disabled; to work with telecoms operators and manufacturers to make changes for the benefit of the disabled; and share best practice.
Another group is promoting workplace technology that is compatible with needs of the disabled.
The EC is also touting an initiative designed to ensure that government Web sites in Europe are accessible to the disabled.
The way ahead
Looking forward, Liikanen said: "there is a clear political will in Europe to continue to improve accessibility to the Information Society".
In the conclusions of the Vitoria Informal Telecom Council last year, it was stated that "accessibility to all kinds of electronic services provided by any means, including those based on Broadband internet access, 3G mobile communications or digital TV should be ensured for people with disabilities and for older persons," he noted.
The eEurope 2005 Action Plan makes specific reference to the role of access for all to public services, digital TV and mobile telephony.
"eEurope 2005 addresses content, services and applications in eGovernment, eHealth, and eLearning, a favourable environment for eBusiness, removing barriers to multi-platform broadband, and security in the information society," Liikanen explained.
"The support and co-operation of the Member States experts working closely together with the eEurope steering group for the duration of eEurope 2005" is vital for success, he added.
According to Liikanen, building accessibility for the disabled into services makee economic, as well as moral, sense. Public procurement programmes can bolster disabled access, he argues.
Across the pond
The Americans with Disabilities Act sets out to "prohibit discrimination and ensure equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation".
This basic legislation has been complemented with The Rehabilitation Act and in particular Section 508, which says "agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others".
Section 508 is not having a strong impact on European as well as US industry, Liikanen argued.
Liikanen didn't, at least on this occasion, argue for the need for any European legislation to bolster disabled access.
He did, however, float the idea of an "accessibility ombudsman" who would "collect accessibility concerns and propose a process for implementing solutions".
Trust us, we're Eurocrats!
Future calls for proposals under the EU's 6th Framework Programme for R&D will promote research and pre-standardisation on accessibility issues, we learn.
"For example, attention will be paid to further development of alternative access platforms, such as digital television or 3G mobile, and eInclusion policy support," Liikanen said.
"The European Commission is committed to taking into account the needs of persons with disabilities when developing the European contribution to the Information Society," Liikanen concluded.
You can read Liikanen's speech in full here. ®