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EC plans to boost accessibility

The European Commission has announced that it will set up a high level group this year to speed up progress on accessibility.

The move was announced at the e-Inclusion Ministerial Conference, which was held in Vienna at the end of November and drew 2,000 technologists, civil servants and community workers.

Officials acknowledge that despite impressive individual efforts, not enough headway has been made on accessibility.

"It is now urgent to achieve a more coherent, common and effective approach to e-accessibility, in particular web accessibility," says the Commission in a 'communication' published at the Conference.

Around 15% of Europe's population has a disability and up to one in five working-age Europeans has impairments requiring accessible solutions.

Overall, three out of every five people stand to benefit from e-accessibility, as it improves general usability, says the commission.

However, just over 5% of public sector websites in Europe are accessible. The commission set a target of 100% accessibility by 2010 at a conference held in Riga two years ago when the proportion of accessible sites stood at 3%.

If 40% of all consumers with disabilities across the EU were enabled to make use of on-line shopping then cost savings to consumers would be more than €12 billion, according to the Commission's research.

Web accessibility will be the group's top priority, followed by the accessibility of digital television, electronic communications, self-service terminals, electronic banking and the single European emergency number.

The Commission details a shockingly low availability of IT-based services for disabled people in Europe.

Text relay services, essential for deaf and speech-impaired people, are only available in half of member states.

Emergency services are directly accessible by text telephone in only seven member states.

Broadcasting with audio description, subtitled TV programming and TV sign-language programming remains very poor, says the Commission.

And only 8% of ATM's installed by the two main European retail banks provide 'talking' output.

The Commission wants greater involvement of users and industry. Too many companies are "standing on the sidelines".

The use of standards that make it easier to develop accessible I T is a major plank in the Commission's programme.

The organisation recommends that governments adopt WCAG 2, the updated Web Content Accessibility Guidelines that at the time of writing were due to be released by the end of 2008. WCAG 2 will form the basis of new European standards.

Member states are also urged to get involved in EU-funded research programmes and to be aware that European funding rules already require recipients to consider accessibility in many cases.

So far as legislation is concerned, the Commission is keen to remove the disparity between laws in different member states. However, it has dropped the idea of EU legislation for now because there is no clear consensus on what laws are required.

However, one European study showed 90% of users gave EU legislation a high priority, compared with only a third of industry and public authorities.

The Commission will launch a study in 2009 to continue monitoring both general e-accessibility and web accessibility.


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