EU Failing Blind People on ‘E-Inclusion’ Access to Information

by Dan Pescod 12 September 2012

Only a tiny percentage of websites and books are fully accessible to blind and partially sighted people – the technology is there, now we need the political will to match it, writes campaigner

It is a cliché, but true, that we live in an information age. We Tweet from our mobile phones, send emails from our tablets and watch television on our laptops. But how do blind and partially sighted people cope with this brave new world? To try to put ourselves in the shoes of a blind person, let us focus just on access to websites and books. If space allowed I could fill another article explaining how television programmes, TV sets, radios and mobile phones – to name but a few – are also often needlessly inaccessible.

Firstly, the good news is that technology can overcome many of the barriers the information age would otherwise present to blind people. With more and more shops, government and information services going online – it is good to know that some websites are designed accessibly to be ‘read’ by ‘text-to-speech’ software and be easily visible to those with low vision. Guidelines for developers exist to achieve this.

As for books, it is possible to either use text to speech software to ‘read’ digital files or text, or for an accessible eBook reader to hear to a synthesised voice read the book. There are even digital devices that produce ‘refreshable’ braille on a braille keypad. Here is the bad news, however, summed up in two ‘onlys’. Only a tiny percentage of websites are fully accessible to blind and partially sighted people. And only around 5 per cent of books published are produced in formats, whether electronic or physical – like paper large-print books – which can be read by blind people or the machines they use. What has the European Union done in these areas to ensure accessibility?

With regard to websites, in 2007 the European Commission published a study showing that less than 3 per cent of key public and commercial websites in each member state met accepted international accessibility standards. It has since held several conferences on ‘e-inclusion’, but there has been little practical progress. As online public services are gradually replacing face-to-face interaction, blind people are still waiting for the commission to publish draft legislation to ensure that all public websites and online portals providing basic services to citizens are fully accessible. Proposals were expected at the end of 2011. They have yet to materialise.

One of the ways we can end the ‘book famine’ in which only 5 per cent of books are made accessible to blind people is by reforming copyright law. To cut a complex story far too short, the European Blind Union is campaigning with the World Blind Union for a treaty at the World Intellectual Property Organisation – the United Nations body that makes international copyright law. Our treaty would allow the pooling of resources by allowing organisations like the Royal National Institute of Blind People, in the United Kingdom, to share scarce accessible books with other countries. The commission has been sceptical about this proposal. In 2010, it got us around the table to try to work out a voluntary agreement with European publishers – mirroring a similar ‘stakeholder dialogue’ it set up – with modest results on TV accessibility.

The European Parliament has been strongly in favour of the treaty, and the European Council has been against it. So, last October, we petitioned the EP explaining that the commission and council were letting blind people down by not backing the call for a treaty. As a result, the parliament plenary grilled European Internal Market and Services Commissioner Michel Barnier in February. Barnier told MEPs that he would seek a “negotiating mandate” from the council so that the EU could, finally, negotiate at the WIPO for the binding treaty we have long called for. We await the council’s response. In summary, there have been repeated public commitments from the council, from as far back as 2002, and support from the European Parliament – to legislate as well as discuss accessibility for blind and other disabled people.

The entry into force of the 2008 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has not yet spurred the EU into strong enough action on access to information. Stakeholder discussions and conferences only take us so far. Now is the time for the commission to propose clear and useful EU accessibility legislation and for the member states to help blind people worldwide by unambiguously backing a WIPO book treaty. The commission and council can make 2013 the landmark year in which they demonstrate they mean business when it comes to blind people’s access to information. The technology is there. Now we need the political will to match it.

Dan Pescod is campaigns manager for the Royal National Institute of Blind People and the European Blind Union

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