Saturday, March 3, 2018

#ZeroCon18: Advancing ICT Accessibility - some policy updates on where we are and where we are headed

It is difficult to summarise a three days conference that combined so many different contributions, views and discussions, but we would love to share some key impressions.

In the High Tech Solutions session for example, Rodrigo Huebner Mendes who is paralysed from the neck down, shared his experience of driving a Formula 1 car with his mind. Dr. Christopher Lee, expert on learning disabilities and assistive technology, talked about the first teaching robot which based on artificial intelligence and machine learning, managed to respond to a high percentage of student questions. He also mentioned the prospect of employing drones to support teachers for children with troubles in eye-hand coordination. And David Banes, accessibility consultant with a lot of experience in technology transfer across cultures, pointed out that the inclusive technology we introduce today is possibly the main way to guarantee that our planned smart communities will be inclusive communities. David also talked about the importance of linking the different concepts we have today together: only when we integrate the smart home data to the weather data to the transport data…. will we arrive at a truly smart city. In the smart home, our concept of universal design is no longer about adapting the physical environment to the person, but universal design has become about providing people with voice or touch control over their environment.

Interesting though in this context was the question on why the accessibility gap still exists. Our answer would have been, because of a lack of knowledge and awareness. David’s answer was, because the gap is moving. And indeed, some of the new technologies like smart speakers and other voice controlled devices become a new exclusion factor for people with speech impairment for example.

Dr. Victor Pineda presented the Smart Cities for all Initiative, launched by G3ict and World Enabled. The aim is to eliminate the digital divide for persons with disabilities and older persons in Smart Cities around the world and to define the state of ICT accessibility in Smart Cities worldwide. In this context, we are not talking about disability as medical diagnosis but we need to look at functional diversity, which only grows with age. So how can innovation and technology best deliver services in this context?

Data from G3ict’s DARE Index presented by Francesca Cesa Bianchi showed that Qatar and Oman lead the list of countries with a 25/50 score or greater for ICT accessibility implementation and outcomes, followed by the United States and Brazil, Israel and Italy, South Africa, the UK, France, Spain, Australia and Ireland. The DARE Index was created to assess the level of maturity of countries in promoting ICT accessibility. This work found early successes in countries of various levels of economic development which proves that ICT accessibility is achievable in all sectors and at every income level. Today, 84% of countries globally have institutionalised a global regulation defining the rights of persons with disabilities and 48% of countries worldwide have a definition of accessibility in their laws or regulations which includes ICTs.

However, for the large-scale uptake of accessible technology, harmonisation is key, said Inmaculada Placencia Porrero from DG Employment, giving a quick update on the pending European Accessibility Act (EAA). Once the EAA will be adopted, the reward for all companies fulfilling all the functional accessibility requirements will be the access to the huge European internal market. But while it is great and important to have accessibility legislation, Ms Porrero continued, that alone is not enough. “We need to keep accessibility on the agenda and put it into all our policy papers.” And, very importantly, we need to have accessibility experts in place so that the legislation can be put into practice.

One very concrete step forward in Europe, is the EU's directive on the accessibility of public sector websites, which sets out to increase digital inclusion and aims to reduce fragmentation in the digital accessibility market, as explained by Gail Kent from DG Connect. While there are today more than 300 standards on accessibility in Europe, the Directive intends to increase digital inclusion also by harmonising the national guidelines and laws.

"We have done a great job in writing down in legislation what we want to achieve", agreed Bobbi Cordano, first female deaf president of Gallaudet University. "However, in reality we often only see the implementation of the bare minimum”, she cautioned. Also, in light of all these initiatives, who will decide when accessibility is achieved? And who holds the power to establish the norms that determine access? Who needs to adapt to make access possible?

Accessibility means that everyone can live independently and participate fully in society, suggested Luis Gallegos, chairman of G3ict. Transformation will happen when we create authentic ecosystems based on the different ways of being, suggested Bobbi Cordano. It would seem we come back to the words of Dr. Victor Pineda: "I came into this world as somebody who did not quite fit in. But it is just a question of imagination. Let's all go away from ZeroCon18 with imagination and find the partners we need to make equal access for all a reality.”

#ZeroCon18 - the Zero Project Conference 2018:

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