Making the Internet more disability-friendly is good business, experts tell UN panel

4 December 2006 –

Making Internet sites accessible to persons with disabilities is not just a moral issue but also a business opportunity to tap into a larger share of the global market, according to business executives speaking at events marking the International Day of Persons with Disabilities at the United Nations today.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan also echoed this theme in his message marking the occasion. “Access to information and communication technologies creates opportunities for all people, perhaps none more so than persons with disabilities,” he said.

“And, as the development of the Internet and these technologies takes their needs more fully into account, the barriers of prejudice, infrastructure and inaccessible formats need no longer stand in the way of participation.”

Speaking at a panel discussion at UN Headquarters, Preety Kumar, President and Chief Executive Officer of Deque Systems, a company that helps make websites accessible, said, “When you’re talking about one in five people being disabled, we got management’s attention.”

“E-Accessibility”– or making the Internet easier to use for persons with disabilities – was the theme of this year’s International Day.

“Information and communication technologies (ICT) can create further barriers for persons with disabilities,” according to Dr. Harold Snider, who is blind. “We can’t use them effectively.”

“If a website is designed properly, it can give you a lot of information,” said Betsy Zaborowski of the United States National Federation of the Blind while demonstrating a website reader on the site of her organization. “It is the first time in my life that I can access so much information at the click of a mouse,” she said, while the automatic voice of the device read out the content of the page.

Making websites accessible was justified as a business initiative, said Frances West, Director of IBM’s World Wide Human Ability and Accessibility Centre. “You don’t design accessible websites just for persons with disabilities, but for all of us,” she said, adding that standards should be global, not countrywide or region-wide.

Ms. Kumar added that Web accessibility would increasingly become an issue with the ageing of the world population. It was also a matter of corporate responsibility and there was a business rationale – such as reducing web maintenance costs, increasing market share and providing services an ageing population.

“The cost implications of adding accessibility to a website are like those of purchasing car insurance,” she said. “Usually they amount to 5-10 per cent of the total cost of web site ownership.”

An accessible website, according to Judy Brewer of the World Wide Web Consortium, an organization that sets standards for the Internet, relies on accessible browsers, accessible media players and other user-friendly features for hundreds of assistive technologies, such as screen readers and screen magnifiers. She added that the ideal website should be “perceivable, navigable, operable and robust”. Industry-wide standards would build a unified market for accessibility tools, helping to bring down costs.

Also meeting for the first time was the Steering Committee of the Global Initiative for Inclusive Technologies, bringing together representatives from the private sector, disability groups, international bodies and academia to discuss possible standards for new technologies.

“Greater harmonization and standardization of solutions will make them more affordable,” said Alex Leblois, of the Boston-based Wireless Internet Institute. With the right standards for accessibility, “ICT vendors will pay more attention, and the market will evolve that way,” he said, adding that the goal was to reach economies of scale to make production more attractive for the private sector.

One major goal of the Initiative, which is led by the Wireless Internet Institute and the UN Global Alliance for ICT and Development, is to standardize technology for persons with disabilities so as to dramatically lower production costs. A similar initiative to harmonize standards for microchips brought down the cost from $45 to $3.

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