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Mapping mobility access across Europe

An open source map that plots information on accessibility of public spaces is being enhanced by a European Commission-funded research project.

The CAP4Access project aims to improve the Wheelmap platform, an interactive website that allows users to input mobility information about an area using editable mapping platform OpenStreetMap. Information might cover issues such as how accessible an area is to those with mobility impairments, such as wheelchair users and those with walking aids.

Users visit the Wheelmap website and ‘tag’ areas with category symbols, such as ‘leisure’, ‘shopping’, ‘food’ and ‘accommodation’, before choosing a colour for the symbol to indicate partial, full or no wheelchair accessibility, or ‘unknown’ status.

CAP4Access aims to develop more advanced tools for the collection of accessibility data such as route planning and navigation for users with limited mobility. New accessibility data will be submitted through Wheelmap, as well as other OpenStreetMap platforms such as Mapping For Change, using a smartphone, tablet or desktop computer. Other accessibility information from existing sources, such as public sector open data, will also be added.

Partially funded under the European Commission’s ICT Policy Support Programme, CAP4Access is currently in a three-year test phase and is being piloted in four cities: Vienna, Austria; Elche, Spain; Heidelberg, Germany; and London. UK project partners include University College London.

Karsten Gareis, project manager of CAP4Access, told E-Access Bulletin one longer-term aim is to establish Wheelmap in countries that don’t currently use the platform. Another is to “firmly establish online routing and navigation for people in wheelchairs and other people with limited mobility – make it available in the same way that navigation and routing have become common tools for non-disabled travellers”, Gareis said.

EU elections ‘inaccessible for many disabled citizens’

“Inaccessible and cumbersome administrative processes” including inaccessible websites are preventing people with disabilities in Europe from voting in elections, according to a new report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), an EU advisory research body.

The report, published this month, examined how well the political rights of persons with disabilities are being upheld across Europe, and found significant barriers exist to the exercise of these rights. “Gaps between the promise of law and policy and their actual implementation – for example in the form of inaccessible polling stations or websites – persist”, it says.

Information on elections remains largely inaccessible to persons with disabilities, the report says, and official voting information websites in most EU member states do not appear to meet the minimum accepted standard for website accessibility, the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

In a move linked to publication of the FRA report, the European Disability Forum (EDF) urged EU member states to remove restrictions that were preventing persons with disabilities from voting in the run-up to the recent European Parliament elections.

The forum, an independent international campaign group, also called on those European citizens with disabilities that were able to vote to do so, and exert their influence. The group published its own policy manifesto, “The key priorities of the disability movement”, aimed at political parties across Europe. These include making goods and services accessible for all, through implementing the proposed EU directive on the accessibility of public websites.

EU accessibility policy and standards: The slow arm of the law

For many years, the disability community in Europe has been pushing the EU to write accessibility into its trade rules for ICT goods and services, not least when it comes to ICT purchased by governments themselves.

Similar rules have long been in place in the US, perhaps surprisingly for those who like to caricature America as a champion of free trade at any social cost. Now it seems, some progress is being made in Europe. But is it fast enough?

The ‘European Standard on accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT products and services in Europe’ (EN 301 549) was published in February by ETSI (the European Telecommunications Standards Institute) in association with international groupings of national standards bodies CEN and CENELEC. It had previously been known as Mandate 376, through a drawn-out development period of some seven years (see EAB, July 2012).

The standard aims to ensure ICT products and services – including websites, software and digital devices from computers to smartphones and ticketing machines – are made more accessible to people of all abilities, either directly or through compatibility with assistive technologies such as text-to-speech. It is accompanied by three technical reports (TR 101 550, TR 101 551 and TR 101 552), adding more detail.

Currently, however, its use is not mandated either by EU law or national law in any individual country, a fact which is likely to delay its take-up in most parts of Europe for some time, Matthias Schneider, chairman of the ETSI technical committee on human factors, told E-Access Bulletin.

“The EU has not yet ruled that the standard has to be used for procurement at European level, and unless a state regulates that the standard has to be applied by public procurers, I wouldn’t expect many organisations will switch over to using it”, Schneider said.

In 2011, the European Commission did announce it was developing a European Accessibility Act covering the accessibility requirements of all goods and services bought and sold in the EU, which would be likely to use the new standard. However despite several false dawns – including a promise last year that the act would finally be drafted in the first quarter of 2014 – it has since been delayed again.

“So far it has still not been drafted, and there is no clear insight why the commission has delayed for so long”, Schneider said. “My personal opinion is that it will not appear prior to the instalment of the next European Commission in July or August, so I don’t see anything happening before October.”

As and when an accessibility act is passed it will cover both public and private sector procurement, and it will then be possible for member states to apply the new accessibility standard across all sectors, after a late change to it at the urging of the European Commission, Schneider said.

“The original purpose of the standard was very clearly public procurement, but during its development the commission realised it could be used for many more purposes”, he said. “The problem was, to change its purpose halfway through development would have meant asking new groups of interested parties to comment, which was no longer possible. So in the end, we came up with something which didn’t go all the way to what the commission wanted but still could also be used in other tasks such as in the private sector, provided someone mandates it.”

The compromise reached can be seen in a small but key change in the standard’s title, from the previous ‘Accessibility requirements for public procurement’ to the final ‘Accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement’, with the new wording leaving its use open in other fields, Schneider said.

In a bizarre quirk of the European standards system – that could cause unnecessary expense to the unwary – the new European Standard EN 301 549 is available free of charge from the ETSI website but costs a significant fee to buy from some national standards bodies. The latter group includes the British Standards Institution (BSI), which is charging members £134 and non-members £264 to buy the same standard (its website does not specify how much it charges for membership, which depends on how many standards an organisation uses).

It is usual for all national European standards bodies to publish their own copies of European standards, numbered within their own systems – the new standard is published by BSI as BS EN 301549:2014. However because different standards bodies have different business models, some charge for their products, while others do not. ETSI, funded by more than 700 members worldwide including technology companies, does not charge for its standards.

The situation is made even stranger by the fact that the British and other national ‘versions’ of a standard such as this one do not differ in any way from the pan-European version, Schneider said.

“It might have a different cover page, but the content is identical because they cannot change it. It is one of the puzzles that the European standards situation creates every once in a while.”

The new standard does not create its own technical specifications from scratch in most areas, since this groundwork has already been carried out for existing hardware and software standards in Europe, the US and elsewhere, he said.

For example there are already standards specifying the range over which speech volume should be adjustable; and for web accessibility the new standard refers to level ‘AA’ of WCAG 2.0, the web content accessibility guidelines produced by the international World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Likewise for software that runs on desktop computers or other devices and for documents, the requirements are harmonised with work by the W3C’s WCAG2ICT Task Force. This means that the requirements for the web, documents and software all follow the same principles.

The work on this standard is seen as crucial for global trade and so ETSI and its partners have worked hard to ensure the accessibility requirements contained in the new standard are consistent with the revision of Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act, a US law requiring ICT purchased by public bodies to be accessible, Schneider said.

However, this work has been complicated by the fact that Section 508 has been undergoing its own review process which is lasting longer than policymakers originally expected, he said.

“We have tried to synchronise with the newest version of Section 508, but unfortunately the newest version is not finalised, so we don’t know what its contents will be yet. It could be that in half a year from now, when the US comes out with the newest version of Section 508, we might have to change ours again so it is compatible. We hope that this will not be the case.

“Harmonising our approach with US was extremely difficult and very time-consuming, but we want it to be harmonised because international companies such as Nokia, Motorola or Microsoft have no wish to develop products designed for accessibility requirements in Europe which are different to the US.”

Progress in some areas is happening a bit faster, however. While Europe continues to wait for a general accessibility directive, one area where the new standard may be put to use more quickly could be public sector websites. There is a proposal to use it as part of accessibility guidelines for a new public sector website accessibility directive already passing through the EU law-making system (see E-Access Bulletin, February 2014).

It would also be possible for European nations to pick up on the new standard individually and embed it in their own policies, Schneider says. “Member states can act individually, so I would expect that some – probably Nordic countries and Germany first – will mandate it in their state procurement rules.”

As well as creating major potential social benefits, European policymakers also hope the standard, and European Directives or state laws mandating its use, will help boost the market for technology companies and companies working in the accessible and assistive technology sectors.

As Elena Santiago Cid, director general of CEN and CENELEC, said in a statement: “We believe that including accessibility requirements in European standards will deliver both societal and economic benefits, by helping to expand the market for accessible products and services.”

While the workings of European law move slowly, the new standard is the latest piece in a jigsaw puzzle which does seem to be finally coming together.

Despite the long delay in its development, and the new further wait for a law mandating it to be widely used, the standard’s publication – following on from the directive on public sector websites – marks the beginning of a breakthrough.

In the US, Section 508 law is credited with driving the biggest technology companies including Apple and Microsoft to pay far more attention to the accessibility of their mainstream products. Step by step, Europe seems to be catching up.

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

“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 ( bit.ly/OqkKxp ).

(more…)

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: 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.

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