Accessible digital services are a means to social inclusion

Originally published on the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights website ahead of the Fundamental Rights Forum on 20-23 June 2016

Digitalisation and the spread of new technology provide opportunities to reduce social exclusion. As a European social NGO network we have long tried to counter decision makers’ fears and misconceptions that inclusion costs more than it pays off. Social inclusion is an investment, not a cost. Ensuring access to the labour market, to education, to healthcare and to social protection are the most efficient ways to overcome social exclusion across Europe. We also need to combat discrimination and violence, both of which lead to and aggravate exclusion and isolation. Removing physical and digital barriers will enable all people to live in dignity and to participate fully in society.

There are some great examples of how digitalisation is already being used to fight exclusion. The city of Barcelona has developed an innovative digital platform to break down the social isolation that elderly people can experience, giving them a network of family, friends, healthcare and social services. Another good example is RomaReact, an interactive multimedia mapping platform to enable people across Europe to share everyday realities and challenges as well as the stereotypes and prejudices that Roma face. These examples illustrate what new technology can do.

While some companies – such as Apple – are frontrunners in ensuring that their products are accessible, other providers continue to find loopholes to avoid implementing accessibility regulations; for example, a company may be required to provide sign language interpretation for its programming, but it will choose to do so only during limited hours at night when very few people are awake. This is why it is important that the EU sets out rules for what obligations should be in place for people to enjoy both their digital and social rights.

At the moment there are three important pieces of EU legislation on the table that can make a huge difference to people’s lives. Unfortunately Member States’ misconceptions about the cost of implementing them is delaying and blocking their adoption. In reality, there is no evidence supporting the idea that adding accessibility features makes a product more costly, nor that ‘Design for All’ is problematic as it is aimed at maximising accessibility. Firstly, the Web Accessibility Directive will make websites and mobile applications more accessible, enabling people with disabilities to participate in society on equal terms. Secondly, the Accessibility Act will impact the built environment, transport and information and communication technology for 80 million EU citizens. This includes older people and people with disabilities that are either forced to pay more for accessible products and services or lack access altogether forcing them to stay at home or rely on institutions. The Act is a big step forward, but it does not cover all necessary services; for example, while it will make bus ticketing machines accessible, the individual may still be unable to reach the building of the coach or bus terminal. Thirdly, the Equal Treatment Directive will close the gap in protection against discrimination in accessing goods and services, such as being refused a hotel room or a table at a restaurant because of your religion, belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.

I firmly believe digital technology can bring Europeans closer to each other and improve social inclusion, and digital rights can be a gateway to the enjoyment of human rights. I look forward to the Fundamental Rights Forum and to connect with other stakeholders on these topics.