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European Parliament urges stronger public website access law

Members of the European Parliament have voted by a huge majority to beef up a proposed European Directive on the Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites.

This week MEPs backed a move by 593 votes to 40, with 13 abstentions, to require EU member states to ensure all public websites are fully accessible, not just those in 12 categories proposed by the European Commission such as social security benefits and enrolment in higher education.

The parliament also wants the new rules to apply to websites run by private firms performing public tasks, such as energy utility companies and companies providing outsourced public services such as transport or health care.

According to the Parliament’s plan, an optional exemption would be included in the private sector condition for small businesses, however. This would mean companies employing up to 12 people could be exempted from the new law if member states wish. MEPs have proposed giving member states one year to comply with the rules for new content and three years for all existing content, with a further two years for live audio content.

The vote constitutes the European Parliament’s first reading of the proposed directive. The EU Council of Ministers, made up of government ministers from all member states, may now accept, reject or adapt the recommendations, for further subsequent discussion with Parliament.

In a statement following this week’s vote the European Blind Union, an umbrella group of blidness associations from 43 countries including the RNIB in the UK, welcomed “ the strong message sent by the European Parliament to EU governments”.

However it urged rapid action – “within days” – by the current Greek Presidency of the EU to schedule meetings to discuss the directive, something it says is currently not planned other than in general terms.

“It is not enough for the Greek Presidency to have this directive on their ‘to do’ list”, EBU President Wolfgang Angermann said in the statement. “If the presidency refuses to organise a meeting to discuss the directive with member states then they are effectively blocking the legislative process.

“When 92% of MEPs are calling for action, we believe that council members should listen and engage… Failure to act will delay new rules for many months and therefore be hugely detrimental for the 30 million blind and partially sighted EU citizens who struggle to access information and services online”, Angermann said. “People with sight loss have been shut out of the online world for far too long.”

Accessible Copyright Treaty Hits New Roadblock

The World Blind Union (WBU) has reacted angrily to a new setback to long-running work on an international copyright treaty which could improve access to accessible books for blind and visually impaired people.

The union has been a key negotiator in talks at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) which have been going on for almost five years. Following the latest round of talks from 18-20 April in Geneva, the WBU released a statement saying the discussions “devoted almost no time to insuring that the treaty will encourage the cross border sharing of desperately needed books for the blind”, concentrating instead on protecting the rights of existing copyright holders.

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Courts Freeze Samsung Battle Against Apple Screen Reader

A lawsuit in Germany in which mobile handset maker Samsung is attempting to force its rival Apple to remove the VoiceOver screen reader function from its iPhone smartphones in the country has been halted by the courts.

VoiceOver allows users to have content on the screen read aloud to them. It is marketed as an accessibility aid for blind and visually impaired users, since it can help people use and navigate an iPhone by touch and audio alone.

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“Finish Line In Sight” for Accessible Copyright Treaty

After what will have been five years of negotiations, an international treaty to allow the sharing of accessible copyrighted material across borders for use by blind and visually impaired people could finally be signed in 2013, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

A “roadmap” for formalising a treaty, which would increase book access for disabled people including blind and visually impaired people, has finally been approved at this month’s World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) general assembly in Geneva ( http://bit.ly/OqkKxp ).

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DOTCOM Maps Out European Disability Laws

A searchable online database of laws, policies, strategies and initiatives upholding the rights of people with disabilities has been launched to measure how well European nations are implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

“DOTCOM: the Disability Online Tool of the Commission” has been developed by the Academic Network of European Disability Experts (ANED) – in collaboration with the European Commission and EU Member States – building on the commission’s European Disability Strategy 2010-20.

The information, taken from 34 countries, is organised into eight themes: UN convention status; general legal framework; accessibility; independent living; education; employment; statistics and data collection; and awareness and external action.

Data can be searched by country, group of countries, theme or sub-category – for example the three sub-categories of accessibility law are transport accessibility; built environment accessibility; ICT and web accessibility.

Searching for the UK’s ICT accessibility laws and policies returns information on the Equality Act 2010 and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, among others.

Digital books in Italy: Reading Without Barriers

By Michele Smargiassi

They can’t see their books: maybe this is why they read them with such an extraordinary passion. On average, in Italy, a blind person reads 9.2 books a year, while among sighted Italians only two in ten people read so many. Six blind people out of ten read a few pages of a book at least once a week, while 53.2% of Italians never, ever, read. In short, the blind read much more than the sighted.

“The thirst for knowledge is strongest where there is a barrier,” says Orlando Paladino, president of the Unione Italiana Ciechi (Italian Union of the Blind). Or perhaps, where a barrier falls. The data outlined above from a new survey by the Italian Publishers’ Association (Associazione Italiana Editori – AIE: http://www.aie.it ) would probably have been very different 15 years ago, when it was impossible to read books on a computer, or to have them translated into Braille on a tactile display. (more…)

New trial in Spain for accessible medicines app

A major new trial in Spain using mobile devices to make prescription medicine information more accessible has been approved by the project’s partners including charities, pharmaceutical industry representatives and government bodies.

The “Accessible Medicine” project will use two-dimensional Data Matrix square barcodes placed on medicine boxes and packaging allowing people to use an application or “app” running on a smartphone or other mobile device with a camera to link to detailed medicine information online. The information can then be spoken aloud or conveyed in other formats on the mobile device according to user needs and preferences.

The project is being led by Vodafone Spain Foundation with a range of partners including Technosite, the trading and research arm of Spanish national blindness charity ONCE; and the Spanish Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (FARMAINDUSTRIA).

The partners say beneficiaries of the system will include not only blind people and people with impaired vision but also people who have difficulties handling the small folded leaflets currently issued with medicines.

The new trial has been approved following successful phase one trials ending last year. Developments for phase two include expansion of the online drug database from five to the 30 most commonly-used medicines; and improvements to the design interface.

Alongside the trials, ONCE is working with the Spanish Agency of Medicine and Health Products to create a database with accessible information on all available medicines.

According to the phase one report, the system has possible applications in other fields such as information about food and clothing. More information can be found in Spanish only at the project’s website.

To receive more stories the moment they are published, subscribe by email to E-Access Bulletin. Simply email eab-subs@headstar.com with “subscribe bulletin” in the subject line.

Video Game Communities Could Boost Social Inclusion

Online communities built around popular video games could help build social inclusion for disadvantaged groups including disabled people, a digital games expert involved in a new European research project told E-Access Bulletin.

The Digital Games for Empowerment and Inclusion (DGEI) research project, funded by the European Commission, held its first meeting in Seville last month. The project aims to examine uses of digital games for social purposes such as health, training, education, social inclusion and other public services – so-called “serious games”. After the researching the current state of play it aims to develop an action plan to help realise games’ social potential.

However the use of games for social benefit is wider than simply the use of gaming techniques to create “serious games” with a social or educational purpose, says Scott Colfer, project manager of internet channel Young Dads TV and participant in the Seville event.

He told E-Access Bulletin there was big untapped potential in building support communities around existing popular games, which already feature online player communities.

“The big computer games have a budget bigger than a large motion picture,” Colfer said. “It’s hard to match that, so it might be better to see how communities around games can be used.” One model might be the UK-based group GamerDads, a group of young fathers who set up their own online community to play games online (http://www.gamerdads.co.uk/ ), Colfer said.

“They were tired of playing in normal gamer groups where if you leave during a game, it’s frowned on. But they may have to leave the game because they are looking after their kids.” From coming together as gamers, the group had developed into one of the largest online communities of fathers, and members were offering each other informal support outside the gaming sphere, he said.

“Now they work on other things together, they support a particular charity, and they do it all themselves, there’s no government input.” Similar communities could work well for disabled gamers, Colfer said.

To receive more stories the moment they are published, subscribe by email to E-Access Bulletin. Simply email eab-subs@headstar.com with “subscribe bulletin” in the subject line.

ICT Access Barriers ‘Common Across Europe’

The problems encountered in putting ICT accessibility policies into practice are common across Europe, according to early findings of a survey of policies in 30 nations (the EU countries, plus Norway, Iceland and Switzerland), E-Access Bulletin has learned.

According to research carried out in June for the EU-funded ‘i-access’ project on access to electronic information and lifelong learning, problems encountered include creating accessible content; standards compliance; problems procuring accessible systems; and a lack of awareness and understanding.

The project is run by the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education to raise awareness of the issues surrounding accessible information provision for lifelong learning. While some survey respondents said their organisations provided style guides for creating content, only about half of these addressed accessibility aspects such as considering how a screen-reader would cope.

“There are an estimated 80 million people in the EU with disabilities of varying sorts and to differing degrees, and as the age profile shifts, so too will the proportion with disabilities”, John Galloway, a consultant working on dissemination of i-access findings told E-Access Bulletin this week. “There is no one solution to the issue of ensuring that any information in an electronic format, whether a web-page, a text message, an on-screen document, or an information film, is available to all of them equally,” Galloway said.

“For each country, we need to find out – what policies do they have, and how do they put them into practice? What are the differences and similarities? The lessons learned from across Europe will be brought together for everyone to share, so this difficult issue can be addressed.”

Full details of the research and a report of a project conference co-hosted by the Danish Ministry of Education in Copenhagen this June are due to be published shortly, with the final project recommendations expected towards next summer, Galloway said.

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