For many, the Internet remains a mystery
By Philip Ebels
It is with remarkable finesse that Bart Simons opens the browser on his laptop and navigates to the website of the European Commission.
His hands glide over the surface of a separate, synthesizer-like keyboard sticking out from underneath the computer, little white stubs poking his finger tips.
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“Okay, let’s see,” he says, his eyes shooting from left to right with no apparent direction.
Simons, who works for AnySurfer, an organisation that trains web designers to make sites accessible for people with disabilities, doesn't actually see. He reads the braille display and relies on speech-recognition software to surf the internet.
"Welcome to the European Commission," says the computer, in English, but with a strong Flemish accent. "The speech software has been configured to Flemish," Simons explains, "and because the design of the web page lacks a small piece of code, it doesn't switch to the English-speaking voice automatically."
It is little things like these, trivial as they may be, that highlight the fact that despite commitments made and resolutions adopted, the vast majority of websites, public and private, are not in line with international accessibility standards. To people with disabilities, this means being left on the wrong side of a growing digital divide.
“The commission website is actually fairly accessible,” says Simons. “Most are far worse. Some are just not accessible. That is annoying when I want to book a flight, for example, make a bank transfer, or order groceries. But it is just wrong when it comes to government websites, because there is no alternative. If I am not able to access the website of a shop, I can go to a different one. But there is only one site where I can do my taxes on.”
Some 15 percent of the population in Europe today is believed to have some form of disability. They have had the right to equal access to the internet since the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came into force in January 2011, but no EU legislation is yet in place.
The EU has made commitments from as early as 2002 to make sure that all public websites are fully accessible, but has until now relied on voluntary agreements.
The EU’s digital agenda states that the commission would “make proposals by 2011 that will secure that public sector websites (and websites providing basic services to citizens) are fully accessible by 2015," but no such proposals have yet been made. The deadline is at "risk of delay", according to the commission progress overview.
Businesses, however, have been reluctant to adapt their websites. Changes would include providing headlines and image descriptions for blind people, easy-to-read versions for those who are cognitively impaired, and sub-titles or sign language interpretation for deaf people.
According to a commission study from 2008, the latest available, only 2.6 percent of all websites and 5.3 percent of public websites investigated were found to be in line with the so-called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines drawn up by the World Wide Web Consortium, the creators of the web.
Its director, Tim Berners-Lee, once said that “the power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
This issue will only get more significant in the future. By 2020, some 25 percent of Europeans will be over the age of 60 and likely to have some loss of vision, hearing, or any other ability that is often taken for granted.
“My patience is running out,” says Simons. “There has been a lot of smooth talking, hard commitments and grand declarations, but nothing has been done so far.”