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Accessibility for all
Making the web accessible
photo credit: Shutterstock

The Internet, and the World Wide Web that it carries, should be accessible to everyone. But, as well as different languages and cultures, users have widely varying capacities in hearing, movement, eyesight, and cognitive ability. To look into the issues more closely, ITU organized two workshops at the meeting of the Internet Governance Forum in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, on 15–18 November 2009.

The first of them, entitled “Global Internet Access for Persons with Disabilities”, was held jointly by ITU and the European Broadcasting Union. “Accessibility is an important focus of ITU’s work,” emphasized Malcolm Johnson, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, in opening the workshop. He noted that the “lack of industry participation in accessibility is a problem. This is surprising when one considers that 10 per cent of the world’s population is disabled, many living in developing countries, and also there is a growing elderly population…This represents a huge and growing market.”

The work of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT) in this field was noted by its Director Sami Al Basheer Al Morshid, in an opening speech to the workshop on “Best practices for an Accessible Web”. He stressed that “the mandate of BDT is to ensure that all people participate fully in the information society”. BDT organizes forums to share best practice, and has teamed up with the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies (G3ict) to develop an e-Accessibility toolkit to raise awareness among policy-makers, said Mr Al Basheer.

Both workshops were activities of the Dynamic Coalition on Accessibility and Disability (DCAD), of which ITU is a founder member. The second meeting of DCAD took place on 16 November in Sharm el Sheikh, resulting in a policy statement that was later presented to the Internet Governance Forum.

Practical solutions

Achieving harmonized, interoperable solutions is the goal of the Real-Time Taskforce Foundation (R3TF), based in the Netherlands. Its Director Arnoud van Wijk commented that “we all depend more and more on the Internet in our daily life. Not just on a personal computer, but on mobile devices too. This dependency will only increase every year.” However, he added, “on the web, text pictures and videos are hidden from people with a visual disability. Navigation and controlling hardware is a hurdle for some disabilities. Video and audio can be hard or impossible to understand with a hearing disability.”

For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, real-time text is “a major leap forward,” said Mr van Wijk. It has a conversational quality that is not provided with instant messaging, because characters are transmitted online immediately when typed. Mr van Wijk gave a demonstration of real-time text and suggested that it could create a new market for instant conversational text messaging to be used by anyone — starting with “the trendy young”.

Professor Arun Mehta, President of the Bidirectional Access Promotion Society, spoke about information and communication technologies (ICT) for people with mental challenges. For them, “computers can be easier to work with than people: they are more consistent and patient,” he said. “Usually, we assume a person is literate before we teach her about computers. A child with mental challenges may need to learn how to use a computer in order to become literate,” continued the professor. He outlined how his organization has created a software platform with customizable modules that can be fitted to a specific range of needs, and a low-cost input device designed for people with disabilities.

The digital accessible information system (DAISY) is a format that allows any document on the web to be readable by any user, explained Dipendra Manocha, President of the DAISY Forum, India. He gave examples of how it is used with various formats for documents, and in a number of different countries. In India, for example, is an online library with 9000 books in DAISY, and users pay a subscription fee of less than USD 9 per year.

Usable websites

Websites should provide the appropriate interaction and accessibility for all users. Jorge Plano, of the Internet Society (ISOC) Argentina, gave a presentation on how to avoid creating barriers when designing websites. Examples of many mistakes made in the design of government websites were given by Peter Major, of CyberSpace Consulting. He described a survey carried out on the websites of 136 signatory governments of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in every world region. Typical accessibility errors included missing descriptions for images, or empty links. The results showed that 12 per cent of websites were errorfree, and 23 per cent had no more than five errors. However, 21 per cent of the websites had more than 40 errors. There is still a clear need to raise awareness of these issues as an important step towards truly accessible e-government, concluded Mr Major.

Universal design

photo credit: Shutterstock

The impact upon the Internet of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was explained by Cynthia Waddell of the International Centre for Disability Resources on the Internet. Nirmita Narasimhan, of the Center for Internet and Society, outlined a study of how the Convention is being applied in seven countries: Australia, Germany, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The study looked at the scope of legislation or guidelines, and the procedures for monitoring compliance, among other factors. The results varied widely. Ms Narasimhan concluded that “people with disabilities must be involved at every stage of the policy formation and implementation process.”

The need for appropriate regulatory frameworks was also mentioned by Fernando Botelho, of consultants Botelho and Paula Consultaria. He presented strategies that governments can adopt for promoting public-private partnerships “to ensure a thriving assistive technology marketplace and affordable products.” Shadi Abou-Zahra of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) explained how it is promoting international standards to make it possible for everyone to use the Internet.

Universal design benefits society as a whole, stated Gerard Ellis of consultants on ICT accessibility, Feel the BenefIT. He detailed how, for example, burdens on administrative officials are reduced when everyone can use e-government effectively, while accessible websites will be of increasing value as society ages. He also stressed the importance of social inclusion for people with disabilities, as did David Wood, Deputy Director, Technical, at the European Broadcasting Union. Access means more than simply enabling everyone to use the Internet; it also means “society making the best use of the Internet for people with disabilities,” said Mr Wood. As individuals we seek out content on the Internet to discover our context and where we belong in society, he commented. “It is about finding out that ‘I am not alone’,” said Mr Wood, and people with disabilities need this as much as — and perhaps more than — anyone else.


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