Back to: Seventh
Session of the Ad Hoc Committe
Documents of the Seventh Session
11 January 2006
New York, 16 January -3 February 2006
Accessibility to Information and Communication: perspectives of the visually impaired
Background conference document prepared by the
Department of Economic and Social Affairs
This paper addresses lack of accessibility to information and communication as an obstacle to the exercise of basic rights by persons with visual impairments. This paper describes (i) how accessibility to information and communication is addressed and interpreted within the framework of human rights treaties and disability specific instruments and; (ii) ways in which the principle of accessibility has been implemented at the national level in selected countries.
The lack of access to visual information, be it in print or electronic format, lighting or coloured signs, is disabling for persons with visual impairments and blind people2 in all areas of life. Lack of accessibility does not only concern the inability to read print, but also, depending on the print impairments, the partial or complete inability to distinguish colours, shapes and lighting, as well as to impart information in one’s chosen mode and format of communication. Accessibility to information and communication relates not only to books and computers, but also to packaging, street signs, the built environment (e.g. operation of doors and windows, characteristics of stairs and flooring), operation of machines, emergency exits and procedures. Therefore, lack of access to information and communication may bring obstacles to a very large set of activities from education and employment to shopping, banking, voting, taking part in cultural activities, receiving adequate health care, having access to justice, being able to move around and to live independently. It affects people of all ages and backgrounds in different life situations.
Technological development has brought about many advances in the area of accessibility at the same time as it has improved access to information and communication to the population in general. For example, computers and the internet have allowed an increasing number of persons with visual disabilities to access information that used to be in print only, and to communicate with others by using the internet. However, technology, especially if not appropriately designed, can also bring barriers to information and communication. Technology is not available everywhere, and it is not accessible to all because of cost and because of lack of accessible design. Additional technology is often needed to access mainstream technologies. Such additional technology is often custom made and very expensive.
The lack of accessibility in general and to information and communication in particular is a formidable obstacle to the exercise of basic rights by persons with disabilities. This paper describes (i) how accessibility to information and communication is addressed and interpreted within the framework of human rights treaties and disability specific instruments and; (ii) ways in which the principle of accessibility has been implemented at the national level.
I – Access to information and communication as a human right
1) Accessibility in international human rights law
The link between accessibility and the realization of human rights for persons with disabilities is made clear by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its General Comment 5 on Persons with Disabilities. Through General Comments, United Nations treaty monitoring bodies provide interpretation of the content of human rights provisions. General Comments can be used as guidelines for the implementation of human rights treaties. In General Comment 5, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reviews provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in light of the situation of persons with disabilities.
In General Comment 5, the Committee recognizes that persons with disabilities are often discriminated against in the field of employment because of artificial barriers that are erected in the areas of transport, housing and the workplace. In relation to the right to an adequate standard of living, the Committee points to the need to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to adequate food, accessible housing and other basic material needs. The right to physical and mental health implies the right to have access to, and to benefit from, medical and social services. The Committee also notes that the right to full participation in cultural and recreational life for persons with disabilities requires that communication barriers be eliminated to the greatest extent possible. “Useful measures in this regard might include the use of talking books, papers written in simple language and with clear format and colours … adapted television and theatre…” (para. 37).
Accessibility to information and communication is not specifically mentioned in human rights treaties. However, in light of the interpretation provided by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, accessibility may be understood as implicitly included, as without it, the human rights contained in these treaties would be meaningless to persons with disabilities. Accessibility is therefore not a stand-alone right, but a principle that is applicable to all other human rights, similarly to the principles of equality and non-discrimination.
The human right that is most intimately connected to accessibility to information and communication is the right to freedom of expression. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that the right to freedom of expression includes the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of al kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.
Many other human rights provisions are relevant indirectly. While they do not expressly mention the right to information and communication, they cover areas of life in which access to information and communication is necessary in order to fully enjoy those rights. Therefore, the relevant provisions belong to all categories of human rights: civil, political, economic, social and cultural. Such provisions include, for example, the right to work, the right to education, the right to a fair trial, the right to participation in political life, and the right to participation in cultural life. These rights are guaranteed in the major international and regional human rights treaties, such as the ICCPR, the ICESCR, as well as in treaties dealing with specific areas, such as work and education, and specific groups of people, such as women, children and racial minorities.
Among the major human rights treaties, only the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) includes an article that specifically concerns persons with disabilities. Article 23 on children with disabilities is also the only human rights treaty provision to incorporate the concept of accessibility in relation to persons with disabilities. The Article refers to accessibility in connection with the child’s right to receive education, training, health care services, rehabilitation services, preparation for employment and recreation opportunities.
2) Accessibility in disability-specific instruments
While international human rights treaties do not expressly refer to accessibility to information and communication, some disability-specific instruments do. The Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities currently have the most comprehensive provisions on accessibility. Rule 5 on Accessibility deals with Access to the physical environment and Access to information and communication. According to Rule 5, States should undertake measures to provide access to information and communication. More specifically,
• Persons with disabilities and, where appropriate, their families and advocates should have access to full information on diagnosis, rights and available services and programmes, at all stages. Such information should be presented in forms accessible to persons with disabilities.
• States should develop strategies to make information services and documentation accessible for different groups of persons with disabilities. Braille, tape services, large print and other appropriate technologies should be used to provide access to written information and documentation for persons with visual impairments. Similarly, appropriate technologies should be used to provide access to spoken information for persons with auditory impairments or comprehension difficulties.
• Consideration should be given to the use of sign language in the education of deaf children, in their families and communities. Sign language interpretation services should also be provided to facilitate the communication between deaf persons and others.
• Consideration should also be given to the needs of people with other communication disabilities.
• States should encourage the media, especially television, radio and newspapers, to make their services accessible.
• States should ensure that new computerized information and service systems offered to the general public are either made initially accessible or are adapted to be made accessible to persons with disabilities.
• Organizations of persons with disabilities should be consulted when measures to make information services accessible are being developed.
The Standard Rules are not a legally binding document, but serve as guidelines and have been used as such in many countries, especially in the design of national policies and plans of action. The implementation of the Standard Rules is monitored by the Special Rapporteur on Disability.
Specialized instruments on the rights of persons with disabilities, such as instruments adopted under the auspices of ILO and UNESCO, include provisions on the accessibility to information and communication in the framework of education and employment. For example, ILO Recommendation 168 on Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (Disabled Persons) asks that States take measures for the
“elimination …, of physical, communication and architectural barriers and obstacles affecting transport and access to and free movement in premises for the training and employment of disabled persons; appropriate standards should be taken into account for new public buildings and facilities” (para.11 (g)).
The Salamanca Statement and Framework of Action on Special Needs Education addresses accessibility to information and communication in a more extensive way. For example, it asks for access to sources of information to be broadened (para. 38), and states that there should be international coordination to support universal accessibility specifications in communication technology (para. 84).
II – Implementation of access to information and communication
Many countries have taken steps to implement international norms and standards to improve the access of persons with disabilities to information and communication. Implementation takes many forms, and may include the adoption of laws and policies, the development of standards and guidelines, the development and provision of assistive technologies, and setting up institutions for implementation and monitoring.
1) Development of legislation
Different types of legislation3 exist:
• general legislation on human rights, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability;
• legislation on disability discrimination (or rights of persons with disabilities);
• more specifically, legislation on accessibility for persons with disabilities;
• and legislation on technical areas, such as telecommunications, which cover the issue of accessibility or accessible design.
Many countries have adopted a combination of two or more types of legislation that protect the rights of persons with disabilities related to accessibility to information and communication.
Disability rights and non-discrimination
Some countries have adopted legislation prohibiting discrimination based on disability. Human rights and non-discrimination legislation often consider lack of accessibility as indirect discrimination. In this case, accessibility as a form of non-discrimination is linked to the concept of “reasonable accommodation” and “undue burden”.4 For example, the Canadian Human Rights Act of 1976-77 considers lack of access as discrimination:
“It is a discriminatory practice in the provision of goods, services, facilities or accommodation customarily available to the general public, (a) to deny, or to deny access to, any such good, service, facility or accommodation to any individual” (Article 5).
Similarly, the practice of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has determined that denial of access to information and communication is understood as falling under indirect discrimination under the Disability Discrimination Act of 1992.
The United Kingdom Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 (DDA) prohibits service providers from treating persons with disabilities less favourably for a reason related to their disability. They must also make reasonable adjustments to the way they deliver services if persons with disabilities find these unreasonably difficult to access. The DDA clarifies that “access to and use of means of communication” and “access to and use of information services” are examples of services covered by the Act.
In India, the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, also considers lack of access as non-discrimination, and addresses it with the provision of practical measures, such as the installation of auditory signals at red lights in the public roads, engraving on the surface of the zebra crossing for the blind or persons with low vision, and the provision of warning signals at appropriate places.
General accessibility legislation
Some countries have adopted legislation that addresses accessibility of persons with disabilities to information and communication in general. For example, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act of 2001 (ODA) requires that each government ministry make its facilities, practices, programmes, publications and Internet sites more accessible and inclusive. Ministries are responsible for preparing annual accessibility plans, in consultation with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario. The new Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005, which is to replace the ODA, requires the government to work with the disability community and the private and public sectors to jointly develop standards, leading to an accessible Ontario. Standards will be mandatory and apply to both public and private sectors. The accessibility standards will set out measures for the removal of barriers to disabled persons with respect to goods, services, facilities, accommodation, employment, buildings, structures and premises. A “barrier” is defined to mean “anything that prevents a person with a disability from fully participating in all aspects of society because of his or her disability, including a physical barrier, an architectural barrier, an information or communications barrier, an attitudinal barrier, a technological barrier, a policy or a practice”.
Similarly, the Law on Accessibility (L. 10.098) in Brazil establishes general norms to promote accessibility for persons with disabilities, through the reduction of barriers and obstacles that exist, for example, in public spaces, buildings, means of transportation and communication. The Law expressly guarantees the right of persons with disabilities to information and communication, and, for example, requires the government to train professional translators for Braille, to adopt programmes for the development of assistive technologies. The Decree 5.296 of 2004 includes more detailed provisions on the implementation of the Law on accessibility. For example, the Decree requires that all governmental Internet sites be accessible to persons with disabilities, that providers of telecommunications services make their services accessible to persons with disabilities, and that the pharmaceutical industry and producers of electronic or mechanical equipment must provide information on their products in accessible format.
Access in specific areas
Many countries have adopted legislation that specifically provides for accessibility in the area of information and communication technologies (ICT), and especially in the area of Web accessibility. For example, the Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (Accessibility for People with Disabilities in the Information Age) in the United States requires access to electronic and information technology procured by Federal agencies. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Federal agencies must ensure that this technology is accessible to employees and members of the public with disabilities to the extent it does not pose an “undue burden.”
Legislation is also common in the area of telecommunications. In Chile, Resolution 316 issued by the Undersecretary of Telecommunications mandates the installation of accessible public telephones by telecommunications companies. Adaptations include large keys and Braille instructions. In Poland, the Telecommunications Law of 2000 requires that telecommunications operators in charge of common service provide and adapt their services to persons with disabilities. The services include the wire telephone network, including fax and data transmission, including access to the Internet. In Hong Kong SAR, the Office of Telecommunications Authority has developed a Code of Practice on the Provision of Telecommunications Services for the Elderly and People with a Disability. It includes recommendations to telecommunications service providers to make services and products accessible to persons with disabilities. For example, the Code of Practice states that phone cards for payphones should bear a “notch” on the left bottom of the phone cards to aid orientation of the visually impaired, and that mobile phones should have 5-key tactile key marking, large digits, font size setting and voice control.
Several examples of legislation exist in the area of education. In Mexico, the General Law on Persons with Disabilities of 2005 provides for accessibility to information and communication in the area of education. In this context, the Law provides for facilities in public libraries to cater to the needs of blind and visually impaired people. For example, it provides for computer equipment with assistive technology, including text readers and Braille embossers, as well as a percentage of books in Braille and audio format. In Thailand it is the National Education Act of 1999 that guarantees children with disabilities the right to accessible education materials, services and councelling. In the United States, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require that postsecondary students be afforded appropriate academic adjustments and auxiliary aids and services to provide them an equal opportunity to participate in an educational programme.
Other areas pertaining to accessibility to information and communication are also covered by national legislation. For example in the United States the ADA states that public accommodations must comply with basic non-discrimination requirements that prohibit exclusion, segregation, and unequal treatment, and that they must comply with specific requirements related to effective communication with people with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities. The American Copyright Amendment Law of 1996 sets limitations to copyright laws with regards to the reproduction of braille, audio, or digital text which is exclusively for use by persons with disabilities. In China, the Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons of 1990 lists measures to be taken to enable persons with disabilities to access culture. Measures include the publication of Braille books and talking books, and the insertion subtitles or narration, as appropriate, in films and TV programmes.
Examples of national standard-setting in the area of access to information and communication are composed of guidelines and codes of practice issued by different national governmental and non-governmental bodies or organizations.
ICT and the Internet
Most national standard setting efforts in the area of access to information and communication pertain to ICT, and specifically the Internet. Most of these are based on international standards developed by non-governmental standard setting bodies, such as the W3C.5 For example, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has developed World Wide Web Access: Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes. These Notes provide advice about how web designers and website owners can avoid disability discrimination without sacrificing the richness and variety of communication offered by the Web. Similarly, the Irish National Disability Authority has developed IT Accessibility Guidelines that cover all information and services delivered via the Web or using HTML, including web sites and online applications. In the United Kingdom, the Royal National Institute for the Blind is a non-governmental organization that has developed Guidelines for the Design of Accessible Information and Communication Technology Systems. These Guidelines include references to all relevant international standards in the field of ICT accessibility.
In other countries standard setting has been the effort of governmental agencies, and their guidelines target information provided by the government. Examples include: 1) Portugal’s Guide of good practices for the construction of the Web sites of the State Administration, and Guide for software, which include issues of concern to persons with disabilities in relation to accessibility of products and services; 2) Thailand’s Guidelines on Accessible ICT and Assistive Technology Devices, developed by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security; 3) The United Kingdom’s Web Guideline: Guidelines for UK Government websites, which provide a blueprint of best practices for building and managing accessible websites, addressing website management, content, storage and structure, HTML and other formats and scripts; 4) Finland’s JHS 129 Guidelines for designing web services in the public administration, which emphasise equality of access to Web services by different users using different technologies, make Web-page design recommendations, and require alternatives to Web-based public services; 5) The Government of Canada Internet Guide, which is a tool for government agencies to build their own Web initiative, states:
“Since the end user cannot count on either standard technology or helping devices to ensure access to information on the Web, the onus is on the Web page developer to deliver the message in a way that allows everyone to benefit… It is every Canadian’s right to receive Government information or service in a form that can be used, and it is the Government of Canada’s obligation to provide it”.
In the United States, Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (“Access Board”) has developed accessibility standards for various technologies covered by the law (Rehabilitation Act, Section 508). These standards have been included into the Federal government's procurement regulations. When compliance with the provisions of these standards imposes an undue burden, agencies are to use an alternative means to provide access for persons with disabilities to the information involved. The standards include:
• Software Applications and Operating Systems
• Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications
• Telecommunications Products
• Video and Multimedia Products
• Self Contained, Closed Products (products that have embedded software and are designed in a way that a user cannot easily attach or install assistive technology)
• Desktop and Portable Computers
Other areas of standard-setting pertaining to accessibility to information and communication pertain to a variety of areas, including employment, education, voting, buildings and transportation.
For example, in the United States, the 2005 Voluntary Voting System Standards have being developed to implement the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The Guidelines provide for accessibility requirements to enable persons with disabilities to vote independently and privately (section 18.104.22.168), and build on Section 508 (Rehabilitation Act) on Electronic and Information Technology and Accessibility Standards.
Concerning education, the Australian Vice-Chancellor’s Committee has developed Guidelines on Information Access for Students with Print Disabilities, which present advice on good practice, in order to assist individual institutions to meet the needs of students with print disabilities through arrangements which are appropriate to their local circumstances. The guidelines relate to subjects such as provision of student assistance; teaching materials; internet access; equipment and technology. The Ontario Human Rights Commission in Canada has developed Guidelines on Accessible Education which provides interpretation of the Ontario Human Rights Code. The Guidelines provide clarification on the principles of accommodation. Forms of accommodations that students with disabilities may require include academic materials in alternative formats, provision of and training on adaptive technology, and in-class assistance and supports.
The American ADA Standards for Accessible Design have been designed for the implementation of the ADA, and include standards on all the elements covered by the ADA. For example, they provide for accessible signage for buildings and public telephones. Another example of standard setting covering multiple areas is provided by the Code of Practice on rights of access to goods, facilities, services and premises for disabled people published by the UK Disability Rights Commission. The Code provides detailed advice on how the law (DDA) should work, including practical examples and tips.
3) Other examples of implementation
Other examples of implementation concerning accessibility to information and communication for the visually impaired pertain to the actual provision of accessible products and services. These range from Braille libraries to accessible bank notes. For example Argentina has a government-owned Braille-publishing house that publishes Braille and talking format materials. It translates all documents provided by government officials into alternative format and sends materials to the National Library and Braille libraries. Chile has a Tape-Recording Center and a National Library for the Blind, and a Central Library for Blind Persons.
Production of braillewriters (specifically through the Perkins Brailler Project) is a source of livelihood for many persons with disabilities in Brazil, India and South Africa. Manufacturing braillewriters locally, and therefore reducing costs, has enabled a greater number of blind people in developing countries to access this equipment.
Another example is provided by Canada, which has adopted a series of accessible bank notes for persons with visual impairments, either by touch, by sight or by electronic signal. The Bank of Canada provides, without charge, a bank note reader which helps the user to determine the denomination via voice, tone or vibration.
4) Institutional arrangements for the implementation of accessibility to information and communication
Many countries have set up institutions having responsibility for providing advice on accessibility, for monitoring implementation of accessibility guidelines and legislation, or for developing standards. Many of these bodies, such as those in Australia and Ontario, Canada, have been established as a result of disability legislation.
Activities of the implementation bodies include the following:
• complaints and conciliation mechanism for alleged disability discrimination, public inquiries, awareness-rising activities and the development of disability standards (Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission);
• developing coordination activities and communicating information about projects, providing training courses on designing Web accessibility, Accessibility of Public Administration Web Sites Report, and Accessibility prize and a Web Accessibility Evaluation Methodology (Portuguese Access Unit within the Ministry of Science and Technology);
• supporting persons with disabilities to exercise their rights under the disability discrimination legislation, for example through conciliation and legal service (UK Disability Rights Commission);
• introduction and promotion of accessibility for all within the government, specifically in the area of ICT accessibility (Thailand’s ICT Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities Sub-Committee under the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security);
• reviewing progress of implementation under accessibility legislation, providing public education and community-based accessibility programs, sharing information, resources and best practices (Accessibility Directorate of Ontario);
• coordinating all organizations dealing with persons with disabilities, formulating national policy and national plan of action, training and creating job opportunities (Fiji National Council for Disabled Persons).
Persons with visual impairments and blind people often experience difficulties in accessing information and communication. This affects all areas of their life, particularly in the fields of education and employment. Problems relating to lack of access to information and communication are two-fold. Accessibility can be hampered because of lack of accessible design, and also because of the cost and availability of technology.
With the exception of the CRC, human rights treaties do not include an explicit reference to accessibility. However, General Comment 5 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights may suggest that accessibility is the principle by which persons with disabilities exercise all their rights.
Many countries have adopted legislation which considers lack of accessibility as a form of discrimination, and have made institutional arrangements for the implementation and monitoring of accessibility.
In the area of standard-setting pertaining to accessibility to information and communication, it appears that focus is on ICT and especially on Web accessibility, and it is based on international standard-setting efforts. However, as the internet is not a solution everywhere in the world or for every aspect of life, some areas have been neglected from the perspective of accessibility.
Technologies involved in accessibility to information and communication
The following examples are an illustration of how persons with visual impairments can overcome information and communication barriers in daily life situations with the help of technology and other means. The examples also show how persons with disabilities are increasingly made to rely on technology, and if the technology is not available or is too expensive, it becomes difficult or impossible for persons with print disabilities to access information and communication.
• Conventional print information
Books, newspapers, magazines, leaflets, receipts for commercial transactions, postal forms and other documents are often unavailable in accessible formats. Tools that make the print media accessible to persons with visual impairments include live assistance (readers), large print, books and documents in audio format (tapes, radio…), plain language, information and communication technologies (ICT), that allow converting print documents into electronic format, and tools for reading electronic versions of documents. ICT tools include optical character recognition,6 refreshable Braille displays,7 Braille embossers,8 and screen readers.9
• Electronic documents and the Internet
Assistive technologies are often needed to make electronic information accessible to persons with visual impairments. These include extra large monitors, text browsers10 or voice browsers,11 refreshable Braille display, scanners and screen readers.
Universal design12 is also important, as electronic documents and internet pages can be inaccessible even with assistive technologies. For example, opening PDF documents may present problems if the documents are not well designed or structured. Internet pages often have characteristics that make them inaccessible or difficult to use with or without assistive technology. Such characteristics include font sizes that cannot be changed, images without alternative text, browsers that do not support user override of authors’ style sheets, tables that cannot be read serially, video without descriptive captioning, or forms that cannot be tabbed through in a logical sequence.
• Labels, instructions, interfaces
Reading labels and instructions in order to get information on the contents of products or on how to operate machines is also a question of accessibility to information and communication. What makes these products inaccessible, can be lack of information on the user interfaces for operation, and digital features without audio, such as touch-screen interfaces. Because labels, tags, leaflets and machine interfaces are often inaccessible, it is difficult for persons with visual impairments to perform daily activities, such as shopping, using vending machines or ATMs, and operating household appliances.
Accessible information for products and machines includes audio and tactile information (Braille or raised letters or signs). To obtain information on products, the internet can sometimes be used by persons with visual impairments, as some websites that allow ordering products also give detailed information about them. The internet may also be used to control machines, such as household appliances (Internet refrigerators, washing machines, microwaves, etc.). If the Internet is used to obtain information about products, ordering them, or operating machines, comments regarding accessibility of the internet apply.
Navigations signs are crucial for everybody to be able to find one’s way outdoors, in public transportation and in buildings. Accessible signage is thus also a part of information and communication.
It is difficult for persons with visual disabilities to locate emergency exits, pedestrian crossings, telephones, restrooms, ATMs and ticket machines, or to be alerted to dangerous areas, such as road construction, stairs, glass doors, slippery or uneven surfaces.
To access information and communication related to orientation, signs with big and clear text and/or images are helpful for persons with low vision. Persons with more substantial visual disabilities can use live assistance, seeing-eye dogs, voice signs, tactile signs, Talking Signs,13 as well as other personal assistive technologies. Many wayfinding technologies, including smart spaces,14 are being developed and piloted. Such technologies are not in common use.
Examples of international standard-setting
In addition to international human rights law, there is a much wider international normative framework that is concerned with accessibility. These are technical standards and guidelines developed by governmental, non-governmental and mixed standard-setting bodies at international, regional and national levels. Standards are often not binding, but they are widely used.
The most significant body of standard setting in the area of accessibility to information and communication exists in the field of internet accessibility:
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international consortium of member organizations from different fields, which develops Web standards and guidelines. Within W3C, The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) develops strategies, guidelines, and resources to help make the Web accessible to persons with disabilities. WAI underlines the importance of making the different components of web-accessibility, such as content, assistive technologies and software, work together. To address the interdependence of different components, three sets of standards have been developed to make the web accessible to persons with disabilities:
• The standard for web content accessibility is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The W3C guidelines explain how to make web content accessible to persons with disabilities, and more generally how to improve the internet’s usability for all. The W3C guidelines provide a series of checkpoints that can be used to ensure that websites are accessible.
• The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) documents explain how to make authoring tools accessible to persons with disabilities. Authoring tools are used to produce Web pages and Web content. Specifically, ATAG focuses on defining how tools help Web developers produce Web content that conforms to the WCAG.
• The User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) documents explain how to make user agents accessible to persons with disabilities, particularly to increase accessibility to Web content. User agents include Web browsers, media players, and assistive technologies, which are software that some people with disabilities use in interacting with computers.
The Daisy Consortium is an international consortium composed of nonprofit organizations that has developed the DAISY standard for Digital Talking Books. The standard introduces document structuring that allows easy navigation of the book by the reader, and it targets especially the blind or visually impaired reader. A DAISY book is one that has a set of digital files that include:
• One or more digital audio files containing a human narration of part or all of the source text;
• A marked-up file containing some or all of the text;
• A synchronization file to relate markings in the text file with time points in the audio file;
• A navigation control file which enables the user to move smoothly between files while synchronization between text and audio is maintained.
ISO – International Organization for Standardization is another international non-governmental organization. It has a membership of national standards bodies. ISO creates standards that cover a wide range of areas. Its standards are not binding, but they are widely used internationally. ISO has created Guidelines for standards developers to address the needs of older persons and persons with disabilities. These Guidelines do not include technical standards, instead they offer more general guidance to writers of relevant international standards so that they can take systematically the needs of persons with disabilities into account in drafting technical standards. For example, the Guidelines address:
• the need to offer alternatives to visual information: “The type and texture of surface finishes can be important in providing tactile feedback which can reinforce instructions and warnings for those with visual impairment” (8.2.2);
• consideration of lighting levels and glare: e.g. “Appropriate lighting ensures that those with visual impairment are better able to see instructions and controls” (8.4.1);
• colour and contrast: “All information conveyed in colour should also be available without the perceptions of colour” (8.5.3);
• clear language: “Information should be available in text format wherever possible, in addition to other forms, to facilitate recognition and translation into speech” (8.7.1);
• distinctive form of product, control or packaging: “A distinctive form can make it easier for those with visual impairment and reduced touch sensitivity to identify a product, to interpret the parts of a product… and to distinguish between different controls” (8.11.1);
• ease of handling: “Elements and parts of buildings such as windows, doors, bathroom-elements, lifts, lobbies, intercom systems, etc., should be accessible and easy to handle” (8.12.7);
• accessible routes: “Flooring should be reasonably slip-resistant, firm and stable… Floor guidance for visually impaired should be provided” (8.16.4);
In the area of telecommunications, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) is a non-governmental organization that produces telecommunications standards. It is officially responsible for standardization of ICT within Europe. Its membership reaches beyond Europe and includes manufacturers, network operators, administrations, service providers, research bodies and users. ETSI's standards are built on consensus.
ETSI has published a report on Human Factors; Access to telecommunications for people with special needs, Recommendations for improving and adapting telecommunication terminals and services for people with impairments. The Report identifies some of the main factors that can inhibit the access to and use of telecommunication services for persons with disabilities, and proposes solutions for improvements and changes in terminals to make telecommunication services accessible.
The ETSI Technical Committee for Human Factors (TC HF) has produced several standards that are of relevance to persons with visual impairments, including:
• EG 202 116 "Guidelines for ICT products and services" ("Design for All")
• EG 202 191 "Multi modal interaction, communication and navigation guidelines"
• TR 102 068 "Requirements for assistive technology devices in ICT"
• EG 202 048 "Guidelines on the multimodality of icons, symbols and pictograms"
• ES 202 076 "User Interfaces; Generic spoken command vocabulary for ICT devices and services"
The European Union (EU) has undertaken efforts in the area of accessibility to ICT within the framework of its policy on eAccessibility. The European Council and the European Parliament have encouraged action in this area through resolutions (Council Resolution on “eAccessibility for People with Disabilities”, 2-3.12.2002, and Parliament Resolution “eEurope 2002: Accessibility of Public Web Sites and their Content” (2002 (0325)), while the European Commission has recently adopted a Communication (COM (2005) 425), in which it proposes a set of policy actions that foster eAccessibility.
The EU has adopted two eEurope Action Plans (2002 and 2005). In the framework of those Action Plans, the Commission recommended the adoption of the W3C WAI guidelines, the development of a European Design for All (DFA) curriculum, strengthening assistive technology and DFA standardization, and mainstreaming eInclusion in all action lines.
Moreover, the EU has adopted Directives related to information and communication that have clauses referring to the inclusion of persons with disabilities. These include the Electronic Communications Directives, in particular the Framework (Directive 2002/21/EC ) and the Universal Service Directives (Directive 2002/22/EC ), the Directive on Radio and Telecommunication Terminals (RTTE) (Directive 1999/5/EC ) the Public Procurement Directive (Directives 2004/17/EC and 2004/18/EC ) and the Employment Equality Directive (Directive 2000/78/EC ).
The EU has thus not specifically developed standards, but has created a policy and legislative framework on the use of and development of standards in Europe. Moreover, the European Commission provides support to specific activities undertaken by the European standardization organizations: European Committee for Standardisation (ECS), European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation (Cenelec) and European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Concerning Design for All, the Commission has set up a network of centres of excellence: European Design for All e-Accessibility Network (EDEAN).
1. Comments by Ms. Kicki Nordström, Mr. Nikias Vangelis and Ms. Cynthia Waddell are gratefully acknowledged.
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2. Some of the information may also concern persons with other types of other types of print disabilities, caused by physical, perceptual, developmental, cognitive or learning impairments.
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3. Legislation is understood here in a wide sense, and not merely as acts adopted by the legislative body of a country.
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4. See “The Concept of Reasonable Accommodation in Selected National Disability Legislation”, Background conference document prepared by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, A/AC.265/2006/CRP.1.
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5. See Annex II.
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6. Optical character recognition (OCR) is the process of converting an image of text, such as a scanned paper document or electronic fax file, into computer-editable text. OCR enables screen readers and refreshable Braille displays to read the text contained in images.
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7. Refreshable Braille Displays are electronic devices that are used to read text that a computer sends to the monitor. The device is connected to the computer by a serial cable and produces Braille output on the Braille display. Refreshable Braille displays only read one line of text at a time. These displays generally include directional keys which allow the user to navigate through a document.
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8. A Braille Embosser is a hardware device for printing a hard copy of a text document in Braille. A Braille translation software program is required to translate the text from the computer into Braille.
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9. Screen readers are software that interprets what is displayed on a screen and directs it either to speech synthesis for audio output, or to refreshable Braille for tactile output. (Speech synthesis or speech output can be generated by screen readers or voice browsers, and involves production of digitized speech from text.)
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10. Text browsers such are an alternative to graphical user interface browsers. They can be used with screen readers. They are also used by many people who have low bandwidth connections and do not want to wait for images to download.
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11. Voice browsers are systems which allow voice-driven navigation, some with both voice-input and voice-output, and some allowing telephone-based Web access.
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12. Universal Design is the creation of products and environments meant to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialization, and at little or no extra cost.
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13. These are Remote infrared signs that orient disabled people to the labeled goal and constantly update them as to their progress to that goal. Remote signage technology provides a repeating, directionally selective voice message which originates at the sign and is transmitted by infrared light to a hand-held receiver some distance away.
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14. Smart spaces (roadways, sidewalks, insides of rooms and vehicles, work surfaces…) are embedded with tiny computer systems that can access databases – knowledge that can be accessed on demand.
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