Brussels, 25 September 2001
Commission promotes better Internet access for people with disabilities
The European Commission today adopted a Communication on improving the accessibility of public web sites. With this Communication, the Commission is supporting European Institutions and Member States in adopting and implementing guidelines which enable people with disabilities and older people to use the Internet more easily.
There are 37 million people with disabilities in the European Union, while the number of older Europeans is steadily increasing. With the growth of eGovernment around the world, these groups risk severe social exclusion due to a range of technical barriers they face when using the Internet.
"In Europe, we have now clearly established that actions must be taken to identify and remove these barriers," said Erkki Liikanen, European Commissioner for the Information Society. "We want to secure an inclusive society that provides equality of opportunity for all. The European Commission is fully committed to this goal."
President of the European Disability Forum (EDF), Mr Yannis Vardakastanis said "Information is vital for all citizens in society in order to enjoy full citizenship and equality. In today's information society, the web is one of the most important channels to communicate, to work, or to buy products. For disabled people, the way web sites are developed can mean the difference between integration and social exclusion."
Most of the barriers to the web can be easily avoided by the site designers, who need to follow some simple rules covering site content, structure and coding. Unfortunately, these techniques are neither well known nor systematically implemented.
Hence these guidelines, created by the World Wide Web Consortium / Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C/WAI) with the support of the European Commission's Telematics Applications research programme(1). They provide a voluntary mechanism for public information providers and web site builders to conform to a set of informal rules on designing and structuring web sites.
By adopting these guidelines, the Commission aims to make web sites more accessible to people with disabilities and older people. The Communication is therefore an integral part of the eEurope 2002 Action Plan, adopted at the European Council of Feira in June 2000, which includes the specific target of ensuring that people with disabilities benefit fully from new technologies and the Internet.
The W3C/WAI guidelines represent best practice in design-for-all (universal design) for the Internet, and aim to be compatible with both earlier and new technologies. Recognised as a de facto global standard for the design of accessible web sites, they are likely to have an impact on improved web access throughout the public sector, particularly in eHealth, eGovernment, and eLearning, and are being constantly discussed and developed within the W3C/WAI.
As part of its eCommission strategy, the Commission is actively improving its own web-based services. The Europa web service (http://europa.eu/) is aiming to adopt the guidelines by the end of 2001, while the Office of Publications has already launched a pilot project for making documents of the Treaties accessible on-line for people with visual impairments.
The Member States and the European institutions are taking on board the guidelines for all public web sites by the end of 2001, and have agreed to exchange information and benchmark their progress. Progress on web accessibility and best practice in the Member States is monitored by an eAccessibility for all expert group, set up under the eEurope Action Plan 2002.
Other steps include the creation of an inter-institutional group to promote adoption and implementation of the guidelines within the European institutions and the launch of awareness-raising and training operations on web accessibility. European- or Member State-funded organisations will be encouraged to make their web sites accessible.
Developments on the accessibility of the web in Europe are being undertaken in consultation with the European Disability Forum (EDF). The EDF is a representative organisation of disabled people that maintains a regular dialogue with the European Union.
Guidelines in Practice
So how do these rules and guidelines make web sites accessible to people with disabilities and older people?
Blind people, for example, 'read' web pages via a screen reader, which generates a combination of speech and/or refreshable Braille output. Even the simplest web pages, however, often feature images and format their content using tables. Blind people, however, cannot see the images, while their screenreaders can have problems interpreting tables.
In both cases special codes and texts can be used to describe the image to the user and the table's structure to the screenreader. These codes are not difficult to implement, but most site builders and the designers of site authoring tools - generally consider them optional if they are aware of them at all.
Another example is distance learning via the Web. Apart from helping individuals develop themselves and their careers, it is an important element of lifelong learning - essential to a modern economy such as Europe's. Distance learning, however, is not always easy, so courses are increasingly adopting multimedia content such as university lectures, films, animations and videoconferencing, much of which can be difficult for deaf and blind people to access if not designed according to the guidelines.
Multimedia that has been added to improve a distance learning course, can therefore effectively close the door on some users if not correctly designed. Similar problems will become more widespread as multimedia continues to penetrate other parts of the Web, such as e-commerce, news and entertainment. Yet most of these problems can be tackled by simply adding text descriptions of the multimedia content, such as transcripts of the audiovisual material.
The guidelines cover many other issues. By following them, designers will not only make web sites accessible to people with disabilities and older people they will create more useable and friendly sites for everyone.
(1) Part of the Fourth Framework Research Programme (1994-1998)