Thank you. I am very pleased to welcome you all today and formally launch the e-Accessibility Action Plan.
There are some areas where it is important that Government takes the lead. I was pleased to find when I became Minister that there was a newly-formed e-Accessibility forum. One of the forum’s key objectives was to produce and implement an e - Accessibility Action Plan which addresses the issues of people with particular needs so they can partake fully in the UK digital economy.
So today’s launch of the e-Accessibility Action Plan is particularly welcome.
I should like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed to the development of the plan and who has agreed to be involved in the delivery of its objectives.
e-Accessibility Action Plan
The Action plan will be a core element in developing government policy in this area, and will give government and industry the right tools to enable everyone, and I want to stress this, everyone, to be a part of, and enjoy the benefits of, the UK digital economy.
What does this mean?
Firstly, it means that we have work to do on the regulatory framework. As I’m sure you all know, we must implement the revised EU Framework on Electronic Communications Networks and Services in UK law by the 25th May, 2011. The Framework introduces new provisions, particularly in the Universal Service Directive, on equivalence of access and choice for disabled end users.
The UK already has a good story to tell on providing access to services for disabled people - and I want to see that we capitalise on that expertise and continue to improve access.
Through BT, the UK already provides the text relay service and access to the emergency services that are mandated by the revised Framework. BT is also committed to rolling out SMS access to the emergency services once it has procured the additional equipment that is needed to provide the necessary level of service resilience.
The revised Framework builds on and strengthens the provisions on equivalence in the Universal Service Order. These set out the special measures that ensure that all end-users, including those with disabilities and special social needs, have access to certain services irrespective of their geographical location and at an affordable price.
Perhaps the most important provision obliges Member States to empower national regulators to specify, where appropriate, measures to ensure that disabled end-users have equivalent access and choice of electronic communication services.
There is also a new provision that will place a duty on Member States to encourage the availability of terminal equipment suitable for disabled people. This is something we have been doing for some years in the UK through the Usability Action Plan for digital television equipment, and which we now see expanding through the work of the eAccessibility forum.
Last month we published a consultation document on the implementation of these directives. I hope all of you will respond to the consultation as I wish to capture the collective knowledge and experience that is evident here in this hall.
Second, the Forum remit is to support business in exploiting the opportunities that e-Accessibility in the EU and globally offers.
Getting the e-Access question right will ensure that the UK is one of the most competitive, highly skilled and technologically advanced economies in the world. And UK businesses will be able to draw on a larger workforce whose skills it would not otherwise have had access to.
So, there are opportunities here from designing products for ease of use of the vast majority of people - particularly keeping in mind that as we get older, most of us find our eyesight is not what it was, our fingers become stiffer, and we find it more difficult to absorb new information and ways of handling it.
It will also help businesses develop products that consumers value, which cause fewer complaints, and therefore reduces the number of returns or demands that could be made on a company’s customer service department.
In that respect I am particularly pleased that the Employers Forum for Disability and BT are today publishing a best practice guide for call centre staff. It is an excellent example of business working together to address the needs of significant numbers of their customers.
Many businesses, such as Microsoft, BT, Apple and Google now see the benefit to promoting, delivering and designing with e-Access and inclusiveness in mind.
But there will always be people who need assistive technology such as Braille keyboards. Again, with the emphasis now across the EU on equivalence of access, a much larger market is opening up for those manufacturers of what have been previously regarded as niche products. With potentially greater volumes it should be possible for design to improve, and prices to fall, making the equipment more affordable for those most in need or the charities that support them.
The voluntary sector has a critical role to play in bringing to the table its expertise, practical experience and knowledge of people’s needs.
And thirdly, the e-Accessibility Action Plan, that we are launching today is focused on activities that will ensure that the future development of digital products and services are “designed for all”.
In this way the general market will meet the needs of the vast majority of people, and it will also be easier to identify those particular equipment and service requirements necessary for all disabled people to fully participate and engage with today’s digital world.
The plan is a key tool to develop further government policy in this area, and to provide business and other organisations with the right tools to enable everyone to contribute to the UK digital economy.
In case you haven’t seen the plan yet, it has five workstreams:
First, it looks at the regulatory framework.
Secondly, it considers what consumer technology and digital equipment is on the market and how issues surrounding affordability and availability of assistive technologies can be resolved by ‘designing equipment for all’. And when the purchase of specialist equipment is necessary, how we can mitigate or offset this possible cost barrier to engaging in the digital world.
Thirdly, we look at how we can improve on Website Services. I want to see an increase in the accessibility of Government online services. This includes the promotion of developing websites that enable the use of Assistive Technology such as screen readers and uses W.C.A.G. 2.0 (Web Content Accessibilty Guidelines) and double A standards.
Fourth, we will continue to work to remove barriers and make content accessible. This will involve looking at the issues that surround the rules and regulations for television subtitles and audio-description. And the Digital Television Group, a member of the forum, is considering what needs to be done to deliver subtitles, audio description and text to speech services for connected television such as YouView. The Forum will also look at how a wider selection of publishing material, such as e-books, can be made more accessible to the visually impaired.
Fifth, it will, as I will, continue to promote and raise awareness of the issues e-Accessibility and ensure that we make the necessary progress to achieve an inclusive society.
Many of these actions result from the report on barriers for disabled people to using the internet which was produced by the Consumer Expert Group last October. That report showed that people with certain disabilities face very particular issues of accessing products and services. And the report looked mainly at Internet access via computers as well as training and long term support.
Encouraging the audience to take part
So the e-Accessibility action plan is still in its infancy. So far it is only a document. Its aims can only be delivered successfully if people grasp the opportunities that it offers. You have a chance to shape its impact. It will only be effective if it delivers what we all want and reflects the interests and inputs of a wide range of businesses, charitable organisations as well as public sector bodies.
There is no end point for this action Plan. With the pace of change in today’s digital society, it is unlikely that we will be able to say “job done”. But we must focus on what we can achieve. I want to see a step change. And I want to see it by the time of the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012.
To conclude: the digital economy depends on making sure that everyone can contribute and everyone can benefit. Too many people are currently excluded. I want to see that change. The Government will make sure that we have a clear and supportive regulatory framework that legislates where necessary. But regulation can be a blunt instrument. I challenge you to develop new ways of making it easy for disabled people to be productive employees, confident consumers, and engaged citizens. Join the RaceOnline 2012 campaign. Engage with the e-accessibility forum. Make life better for disabled people.
I believe it will be the collaboration and partnerships that will occur between business, the voluntary sector and the Government that will make the difference.
And this plan will help create this environment of co-operation and deliver results that will drive the e-Accessibility agenda forward.