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In every society, there are innumerable obstacles and barriers—from stairs that cannot be climbed to signs that cannot be read—that prevent persons with disabilities from living full lives. Accessibility (article 9) involves providing equal access to facilities and services in the community for all members of society, including persons with disabilities. It is a guiding principle of the Convention (article 4) and is relevant to all areas of implementation. Although some of the provisions for accessibility in the Convention may be costly to implement in the short term, there are a number of low-cost, low-tech solutions that would have immediate impact.
For example, providing access to information can be relatively inexpensive and will improve the lives of persons with disabilities enormously, whether in reading a price tag, entering a hall to participate in a meeting, understanding a bus schedule or browsing websites. Television is recognized as an essential source of information and a vehicle for accessing cultural and sporting events. Parliamentarians, in cooperation with the media industry, can work to make television accessible to deaf individuals and elderly persons by providing closed-captioning or subtitles. These measures have already been adopted in more than 30 countries around the world.
Similarly, the Internet provides a crucial link to education, employment opportunities, news and health-care information, and is a channel for civic engagement and social networking. Individuals who cannot access the Internet are denied a certain degree of involvement in society. When websites are designed and developed according to accessibility guidelines, all users have equal access to the information available through the Internet. Although several countries now require that at least the Government’s website be accessible to persons with disabilities, most of the world’s websites remain inaccessible (see box below).
ACCESSIBILITY AND THE INTERNET
The Internet can create opportunities for everyone; yet most of these opportunities are inaccessible to persons with disabilities. In late 2006, some 100 leading websites in 20 countries were assessed against the international accessibility guidelines established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The websites surveyed included those focusing on travel, finance, media, government and retail shopping.
The survey found that most of the websites examined do not meet international standards for accessibility; indeed, only 3 of the 100 websites achieved minimum accessibility standards. While some of the sites could be upgraded easily to accommodate persons with disabilities, most need considerable work.
Making information technologies available to persons with disabilities is not only a matter of human rights; it also makes good business sense. Studies suggest that accessible websites appear higher up the page rankings of search engines, can save costs on web maintenance, and provide the companies behind the websites with access to a largely untapped customer base.
Access to information is also essential during emergencies. Recent disasters around the world have demonstrated that persons with disabilities do not receive the same level of support as everyone else during these catastrophes. The Convention calls upon States to develop measures for emergency services (article 9 (1) (b)). Text messaging, for example, has quickly become one of the preferred methods for communicating for deaf persons. However, emergency services in most countries cannot communicate via text messaging because of incompatible communication protocols.
When you give blind persons in the world access to information in a timely and efficient manner, and in a format they can read, understand and digest, you are guaranteed that great contributions will be made to societies all over the world by blind people.
Don Breda, blind IT specialist (USA)
In most countries, there are no laws on providing information in accessible formats, such as Braille, audio formats or sign language, or to make websites accessible. Often, even where there is legislation, those laws have not been translated into actual services. The Convention asks Governments to introduce adequate legislation and means to ensure that persons with disabilities can access information that directly affects their daily lives (article 9 (1) (a) and (2) (g)).
MAKING LIFE ACCESSIBLE
An accessible physical environment benefits everyone, not just persons with disabilities. The Convention states that measures should be undertaken to eliminate obstacles and barriers to indoor and outdoor facilities, including schools, medical facilities and workplaces (article 9 (1) (a)). These include not only buildings, but also footpaths, kerbs and obstacles that block the flow of pedestrian traffic.
Over time, all new construction should be based on designs that incorporate accommodations for persons with disabilities. The World Bank concluded that the cost of including these features at the time of construction can be minimal. It has also been shown that making buildings accessible adds less than 1 per cent to construction costs.
Public facilities and services
The Convention asks Governments to set an example in ensuring full participation in society for persons with disabilities by developing guidelines to make public facilities and services accessible (article 9 (2) (a)). Accessibility may require providing ramps into government buildings, signage in Braille, accessible toilets and sign-language interpreters or closed-captioning on public television. These guidelines should be developed in consultation with persons with disabilities and/or their representative organizations.
Transportation, including air travel, buses, trains and taxis, is vital for independent living. In many instances, persons with disabilities, particularly those who are visually impaired or who cannot move around easily, are denied access to these essential services and are thus prevented from attending school, having a job, or receiving medical treatment.
CHECKLIST FOR PARLIAMENTARIANS
How I can make society more accessible
- Wander through your community and observe how many obstacles exist, such as stairs into buildings, a lack of dropped kerbs and signage in Braille, etc.
- Determine if government material is available in alternative formats that are accessible to persons with disabilities.
- Review how accessible government facilities and services are.
- Ascertain if there are contingencies for persons with disabilities in Government emergency plans
- Consult persons with disabilities and their representative organizations on steps to improve accessibility.