Finding a place for all in the digital world

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Series Details Vol.12, No.19, 18.5.06
Publication Date 18/05/2006
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By Anna McLauchlin

Date: 18/05/06

Socially disadvantaged or disabled Europeans risk being marginalised in an increasingly digitalised world unless policymakers recognise their needs, says the European Disability Forum (EDF).

Next month the European Commission, the Latvian government and the Austrian government, holder of the EU presidency, will hold a ministerial conference on e-inclusion, aiming to set the policy agenda for the coming years to make more digital services available to all.

Increasing the number of public sites available online has the potential to reach those people who perhaps are physically unable to go to offices, but only if certain consid-erations are taken into account. The partially sighted, for example, can use websites with speech or magnification software. Deaf people need subtitles when downloading videos, and others need help with the increasingly used voice-recognition software.

In those EU member states that have problems with access to education, the same people that are excluded often do not have the digital literacy to cope with the changing development that is a common feature of using the internet. They need simple, easy-to-follow websites and clear instructions.

Accessibility challenges are relatively simple to solve by using certain coding and layout when building web pages, which are laid out in voluntary guidelines under the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). This global initiative, which is partly EU-funded, aims to encourage collaboration between industry, disability organisations and governments in the field of e-inclusion.

But the problem with voluntary guidelines is that they are not always followed. According to the EDF, only the UK and Italy have so far included the accessibility of websites in their national legislation. "Governments need to think about integrating more access features into all their new eGovernment developments, rather then developing them and then perhaps adapting as an afterthought," says Carlotta Besozzi, EDF director.

EDF is pushing for the European Commission to adopt mandatory legislation on e-inclusion. "Voluntary commitment is not enough," argues Besozzi. "Failure to make eGovernment accessible to all is often not even bad will on the part of the public sector; they just don't know about it."

She adds that until e-inclusion becomes an obligation, there is also reluctance by governments to follow the guidelines because of the extra cost of involved in developing accessible services.

The European Commission admits that "widespread understanding of the issues and opportunities surrounding e-inclusion, and take-up of good examples is not yet evident", despite a communication on the accessibility for public websites that was adopted in 2002.

"E-inclusion is an important aspect of eGovernment, and one of the real problems is that eGovernment services don't just need computer access, they need broadband access," says a spokesman.

In January this year, broadband was taken up by 13% of the EU population, or 25% of households, mostly in urban and suburban areas. Nationally, the highest penetration rates - above 20% of the population - are seen in the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland, but in the new member states, Ireland and Greece, less than 5% of the population had broadband in October 2005. Ministers are expected to lay out their political intentions in a declaration after the conference in Riga on 11-13 June. Representatives of civil society and industry will also attend.

Article takes a look at the issue of e-inclusion, referring to activities aiming at an inclusive information society.
Article is part of a European Voice Special Report, 'eGovernment'.

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European Disability Forum: Homepage
eInclusion@EU: Homepage

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