The United Nations has declared “e-accessibility” to be the theme for this year’s International Day of Disabled Persons.
While the official day itself, referred to as E-Accessibility Day, was yesterday, the theme will act as a focus for UN disability efforts over the whole of the coming year.
Access to information and communication technologies should level the playing field for people with disabilities, say the organisers of the day. In practice, however, such people “are at a considerable disadvantage, by not being able to access [some] information technologies.”
For instance, as education becomes increasingly dependent on ICT, not being able to access the internet limits the learning potential of people with disabilities.
At the international level, standards and guidelines on website accessibility are being developed, and a number of governments are enforcing these standards, at least when it comes to public sector developments. The New Zealand government is at the forefront of such efforts, with its web accessibility guidelines.Once the UN’s International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is adopted and ratified — as is expected shortly — signatory nations (New Zealand is likely to be one) will be required to ensure that disabled people can access ICT.
The convention specifies that measures should be introduced to eliminate obstacles and barriers to information and communications, and to promote access for people with disabilities to ICT, including the internet.
Making information technologies available to disabled people, the organisers say “is not only a matter of human rights, it also makes good business sense. Studies suggest that accessible websites appear higher up the page rankings of search engines and can save costs on web maintenance.”
Working to these “accessibility standards” will “also allows companies access to a largely untapped new customer base, says the organisers.
However, many websites remain inaccessible, particularly for blind and partially sighted users. A recent study of the FTSE 100 companies in the United Kingdom showed that around three-quarters of all company websites did not reach basic levels of accessibility.
Currently, New Zealand’s public-sector websites are under-going their second round of vetting for accessibility.
Disclosure: Stephen Bell’s wife, Robyn Hunt, is a director of a company advising on and testing for website accessibility by disabled users.