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Accessibility could take a step backward

IBM's Frances W. West says a European plan threatens to fracture IT standards for people with disabilities.

The Internet has no country borders--neither should the information technology that enables it to be accessible to all people.

At a time when travel and currency barriers continue to fall in Europe, several countries want to create new boundaries related to the Web. These nations want to establish a label or mark that would specify Web pages or products that are "accessible" to people with disabilities. However, such standards could differ from existing U.S. standards.

The reality is that if you are blind and use a "screen reader" to read Internet content out loud as you surf the Web, the product should be able to read sites from the U.S. government as easily as it reads ones posted by the government of Sweden. Agreement among governments on their policies for accessibility would accomplish this goal.

Accessibility is in everyone's interest.

The World Health Organization estimates that between 750 million and 1 billion of the world's 6 billion people have a speech, vision, mobility, hearing or cognitive impairment.

In the U.S. alone, more than 54 million people have disabilities. The numbers are increasing as 76 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 get older. In other developed countries, including Italy, Spain and Japan, 45 percent of the population will be over the age of 60 by the year 2040, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Accessibility is in everyone's interest.

People are living longer, and although health care is continually improving, it's almost impossible to eliminate the incidence of disabilities acquired as part of the normal aging process.

Powerful demographic and social trends are fueling the need for information technology accessibility worldwide, but we are at a point where individual governments may fragment their efforts.

The U.S. marked a milestone in IT accessibility in 1998, when it amended Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 requires all information technology purchased by the federal government to be accessible. Federal government Web sites and Web-based activity must be accessible as well. The law, coupled with its amendment and its technical specifications, has had global reach as many countries around the world look to Section 508 as a blueprint for their own Web accessibility guidelines.

Since Section 508 took effect, the entire tech industry has invested significant technical and human resources in bringing products and services into compliance, in many cases, by incorporating accessibility requirements in the concept phase of product development.

Now the technology industry is concerned that the positive impact of Section 508 may be disrupted or side-tracked: Several governments in Europe are in the process of exploring or establishing their own accessibility policies. Some are similar to the U.S. standard, but others offer new, divergent or conflicting accessibility guidelines for public procurement.

The technology sector wants the U.S. government to convey to the European Commission the importance of creating policy that removes existing barriers--and does not create new barriers to accessibility. In addition, we have major concerns about the European Commission's consideration of enforcement based upon labeling and certification of products as "accessible."

Without a harmonized approach to procuring information technology, each government could adopt a different technical standard.

Even when people have similar disabilities, every individual is different. Given the enormous range of functional limitations that exist, even within a single disability or impairment type, it would be nearly impossible to create a label or mark that could provide sufficient information to buyers regarding a product's conformance with evolving accessibility standards. In fact, labeling products as "accessible" could set false expectations for consumers.

Making technology accessible to all is best met by technologies and solutions that are committed to interoperability based upon open standards and have been developed via collaborative processes.

Without a harmonized approach to procuring information technology, each government could adopt a different technical standard. If various governments mandate different regional or country technical requirements, industry will be forced to focus on multiple compliance efforts, rather than pushing beyond compliance and investing in new technology and solutions. Most likely, some companies would choose not to invest in some markets, and the people who need the technology most will lose out on its benefits.

However, if European technical specifications for accessibility are in harmony with global standards, it would enlarge the market of conforming IT products and would create an even greater incentive for manufacturers to compete globally on the basis of accessibility.

Industry has made much progress, but there is more to do. Given the broad implications that accessibility has on society in general, industry wants to move beyond mere compliance and bring innovative solutions to the marketplace. Agreeing on global standards will enable society to derive benefits from more involved citizens, more contributing workers and more enabled workers.