Improving Accessibility Can Close Digital Divide

by Rob Sinclair 03 December 2012

In an increasingly interconnected world in which more and more services are being delivered online, it is imperative that people with disabilities are not left behind, writes Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer

In the European Union one in six people – around 80 million – have a disability. Many of these people are prevented from fully participating in society and the economy because of physical or other barriers. In fact, only 50 per cent of individuals with a disability of working age are employed. As more and more services are delivered online, web accessibility is a key component to overcoming the digital divide, enabling those with disabilities to enjoy the benefits outlined in the United Nations convention, the EU treaty and the Charter for Fundamental Rights.

During the early days of personal computing, people with visual, hearing, mobility, cognitive or language-related disabilities could find it difficult to take advantage of new technology, and were at risk of being marginalised in employment opportunities and even basic communications. While this was certainly a daunting challenge in the past, the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3 is a good opportunity to take stock of recent developments. I am happy to say that the situation is improving, and technology innovation continues to play a strong role in this positive evolution.

The latest step has been the development of accessible software, embracing the philosophy of accessible design, a model that benefits everyone, including people with disabilities, temporary impairments such as a broken wrist, or age-related vision impairments, to personalise technology according to their changing needs. It enables users to customise screen magnification and keyboard controls more easily and use built-in features like narrator and speech-recognition.

Accessible design is allowing the widest variety of customers to use technology products and services. For people with hearing disabilities, it may include websites with streaming video or audio files that offer captioning. For people who cannot use their hands to navigate with a mouse, it can mean websites navigation with speech recognition or input devices such as joysticks or ‘sip and puff headsets’ activated by the user’s breath.

But technology innovations such as these are just one side of the coin. We also need policy frameworks in place that put forward accessibility rules pointing to global accessibility standards and implements programmes to remove economic and social barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating in all aspects of life. The European Commission’s proposal for a directive on the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites as well as the forthcoming European Accessibility Act will present a unique opportunity for the EU and its member states to move from word to deeds when it comes to helping people with disabilities realise their potential.

Meanwhile, it is important to continue the dialogue between industry, non-profits, consumers, and governments to encourage more training and professional development in accessibility. Likewise, encouraging competition and innovation based on accessible products and services will lead to increased numbers of people with disabilities finding employment leveraging their talents and skills. As we all move forward to an increasingly interconnected future, where technology plays an ever more important role in everyone’s daily lives, it is vital that we do not let individuals with disabilities or age-related impairments get left behind.

Rob Sinclair is chief accessibility officer at Microsoft

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