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Persons with disabilities: Nine steps for Europe to ensure digital accessibility

Despite information and communication technologies (ICTs) touching nearly every aspect of life, their wide-ranging benefits can remain largely out of reach for persons with disabilities. Ensuring full accessibility of ICTs and related services requires strategic and bold regulations and policies, mainly at the regional and national levels. European countries are broadly on track to meet a key goal – creating enabling environments that foster the accessibility of digital technologies for persons with disabilities – in the next two years.

A regional assessment released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on 23 March outlines the current commitments and progress of 46 countries across Europe in relation to the ICT accessibility target.

As ITU’s new ICT Accessibility Assessment for Europe Region notes, almost all European countries have ratified and adopted the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), while most have achieved significant progress with anti-discrimination and equality measures. Still, implementation varies widely in practice when it comes to ICT accessibility. “Together, we were able to get a clear picture of the status of digital accessibility across the region and identify gaps that we still need to fill through concrete actions,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau.

Fostering ICT accessibility in Europe

The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has heightened the importance of digital connectivity and ICT accessibility for everyone. In shifting from the classroom to online learning, for example, children with disabilities may have lacked the necessary ICT infrastructure and adapted devices, to keep up with lessons from home.

As more economic and social activities shift online, website accessibility can determine whether vital information as well as basic products and services are available for all persons, including those with disabilities.

Common ways to improve ICT accessibility, as highlighted in the regional assessment, include the adoption of accessibility requirements and standards; guidelines, strategies and training sessions to improve digital accessibility; and raising awareness about specific challenges and solutions to ensure digital inclusion for persons with disabilities. The ITU Regional Initiatives for Europe, adopted by the World Telecommunication Development Conference 2017, promote accessibility, affordability, and skills development for all, among other objectives ensuring digital inclusion and sustainable development. Within this framework, ITU is working closely with countries to bridge the digital divide. This means equipping everyone, regardless of age, gender or ability, to take advantage of ICTs as a means to actively participate in the digital economy and society.

Current status and outlook

Most European countries have introduced website accessibility laws, amended electronic communication and public procurement provisions, and taken steps to make audio-visual media services accessible, to mention just a few critical areas of progress. Yet the production and distribution of accessible ICTs could be improved further, the report notes, such as by strengthening the universal design principle and ensuring that all are equipped with the necessary means to use such systems. Persons with disabilities, or organizations representing them, also need to be included as validators in the design of e-government services. Overall, Europe remains on track to achieve Target 2.9 of ITU’s Connect 2030 Agenda, which calls on countries to “enabling environments ensuring accessible telecommunications/ICTs for persons with disabilities” by 2023.

Key recommendations

Meeting the target by 2023 will require significant effort. The report outlines nine key recommendations for countries over the next 20 months: 1. Establish firm and forward-looking regulatory and strategy frameworks for ICT accessibility. 2. Raise awareness and provide training to all stakeholders on ICT accessibility’s developments, innovations, and trends. 3. Engage representative organizations of persons with disabilities in the regulatory and implementation process of ICT accessibility. 4. Develop accessible ICTs, products, information environments and services in accordance with the principles of universal design. 5. Promote the creation of a market for accessible ICTs through mandatory ICT accessibility procurement policies and harmonized standards. 6. Ensure equitable access to education and skills through accessible ICTs. 7. Ensure proper legal and regulatory commitments including effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. 8. Provide accessible broadcast television and catch-up or on-demand services with access services (subtitling, audio subtitling, audio description, signing, etc.). 9. Provide affordable and equitable access to electronic communications and emergency services for all. The report release marked the opening of Accessible Europe 2021, held online on 23-25 March.

The flagship ICT accessibility event, “Accessible Europe: ICTs 4 ALL”, was held jointly by ITU and the European Commission. For more details and country-level insights, read the full report here. Learn more about digital accessibility and follow the newest online self-paced trainings, offered free of charge by ITU in multiple languages through ITU Academy: How to ensure inclusive digital communication during crises and emergency situations Web Accessibility: The cornerstone of an inclusive digital society ICT Accessibility: The key to inclusive communication Watch the tutorial on ICT/digital accessibility the key to achieving a digitally inclusive world and the video on how to make online job applications and recruitment systems accessible for all.

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