The second edition of the M-Enabling Forum Europe 2019 took place on 19 September 2019 in the Congress Center of Messe Düsseldorf parallel to REHACARE. The event is dedicated to promoting accessible and assistive technology for people with disabilities and senior citizens. The M-Enabling Forum Europe is organized by G3ict, the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technology and E.J. Krause & Associates, Inc.
Review of this year’s conference program:
Keynote was given by: Inmaculada Placencia Porrero, Senior Expert, Disability & Inclusion, DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, European Commission:
Accessibility on the new European Commissioners’ agenda from Day 1
In the first days of starting their position, each European Commissioner receives a mission letter from the president elect of the European Commission, Mrs. Von der Leyen. This time around, these letters contain a clear reference to the duty of the Commissioners to help implement the UNCPRD.
“You will lead on the people with disabilities rights, you will work to ensure that our policies pursue this aim.” With this citation from the mission letter of new EC president Von der Leyen to her Commissioners, Inmaculada Placencia-Porrero started her keynote at this year’s M-Enabling Forum in Düsseldorf, in which she outlined the EU’s policy framework for accessibility.
The European Commission promotes accessibility via a number of complementary pieces of legislation:
On top of these, the European Commission has initiated and/or mandated the development of several accessibility standards. These include the accessibility standard for public procurement EN 301 549 as well as the recently finalized standard for Design for All, EN 17161.
“Technology is advancing fast though and the European Commission is trying to look ahead and anticipate possible accessibility barriers of technologies which are yet to come – thinking of artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, robotics etc”, said Ms Placencia-Porrero.
Plenary Session: General Progress of Digital Accessibility in Europe
Inmaculada’s presentation was followed by a panel on the general progress of digital accessibility in Europe. First, Francesca Cesa Bianchi presented G3ict’s DARE Index which provides macro data on the advances in accessibility on country level. Her findings were then substantiated by reports from national stakeholders in Spain, Slovenia and the UK.
David Zanoletty Garcia from the Fundación ONCE presented their efforts to make the pilgrimage route of El Camino de Santiago fully accessible, including the unforeseen pitfalls and barriers to overcome in such an endeavor. Starting from GPS data only being precise to a few meters – which can make a big difference if there is a cliff next to the route, or ascents, slopes or stairs not being indicated in the usual map apps.
Dušan Caf from Slovenia’s Digital Society Forum contributed some insights that he gained from recent work for the ITU, in which some countries reported only 1% population with disabilities while some other countries recorded up to 23% population with disabilities – clearly a matter of how disability was defined. We know that in some countries, we have too narrow a definition of disability and that the actual number might be much higher. Estimates are that we have around 100 million people in Europe who have some form of disability.
In Slovenia, the legislation regarding disability and accessibility was adapted when the country joined the EU in 2005. Around 80 different pieces of legislation deal on a national level with disability, however monitoring and enforcement are not very effective.
Robin Spinks from the RNIB in the UK stressed the importance of including people with disabilities in the accessibility training given to organizations and companies – both actively in the development of the content and with the staff who need to understand how to assist people with disabilities.
Accessibility is a process and every interaction with a product or service should be better accessible. This includes updates and refreshing of products. The envelop of accessibility needs to be pushed constantly and this can be accomplished through partnerships with the disability community, Robin added.
The discussion panel was chaired by Gerry Ellis from Feel The BenefIT in Ireland who not only contributed his long experience in the accessibility sector but also his views as a blind user himself.
Panel: “Latest Advances in Innovation and Impact on Solutions for Users”
One of the biggest trends we currently see is the mainstreaming of accessibility. What used to be specialized assistive technology (AT) is now embedded in mainstream technology. However, do accessibility features, like screen-readers for instance, work the same way, across brands and devices? It will be very important to standardize the different approaches to accessibility and to also include people with disabilities in the elaboration of the standards themselves, stressed Stein Erik Skotkjerra, Head of Accessibility Relations at Siteimprove in Denmark.
People with disabilities should be involved in the design of products and services, however they also have their day-to-day life and cannot just volunteer for industry as test users. For this reason, Stein Erik emphasized, it would be important to find a way of abstracting the knowledge of the disability community in this regard and be able to share it with industry.
He also advised industry to stop thinking about disability groups and rather focus on user groups. It does not matter why a user has a certain preference for doing things without vision, hearing, hand movement etc. It should only matter that the user does have the preference and how the device can address it.
While Stein Erik pointed out that we need to focus on methods and process and not on one specific technology (like AI that is being hyped as the tool to revolutionize access to technology), Robin Spinks, Principal Manager for Digital Accessibility at RNIB in the UK is convinced that the trio of Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) will create great potential for accessibility.
Beyond creating new solutions for everyday life, the 4th industrial revolution will also change the employment and labor markets radically as we move towards knowledge-based jobs that rely more on controlling ICTs. If these ICTs are accessible, they can provide new possibilities for people with disabilities in the workplace.
Overall, Alejandro Moledo, Policy Coordinator at the European Disability Forum in Belgium, agreed that we see more and more mainstream accessible technologies taking over former tasks of AT. “But there will always be a need for AT”, he added. Unfortunately, there are still big hurdles to getting the most appropriate piece of AT or accessible technology to the person who needs it.
In the beginning of the year, EDF published a report called “Plug and Pray”, looking at emerging technologies such as IoT, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, robotics, AI and automated decision making and highlighted some examples where these technologies advanced the accessibility and independent living of people with disabilities. The report however also stressed the risks and concerns in respect of accessibility standards, privacy, security, discrimination, bias in AI etc. Two major issues remain - the affordability of access to the most suitable piece of technology and the lack of digital skills among users with disabilities. The report ends with clear recommendations:
Dagmar Greskamp, Expert Work and Inclusion at Aktion Mensch in Germany very much agreed with EDF’s point of view. They conducted a study called “parameter of inclusion”, which showed that ICT is seen as facilitator for change for people with disability although concerns remain, such as bias in ICT applications. The labor market must become more accessible and the exchange of knowledge on tools and solutions must be facilitated.
“It is very individual how we approach and use technology”, said Lidia Best, Vice Chair of the European Federation of Hard of Hearing People, coming from the United Kingdom. AI is seen as having great potential but we need to understand how we are interacting with it. She remarked that often information on how much technology will be able to help users with disabilities is overstated – as was the case with speech recognition, which was sold as a great solution long before the technology had matured. Even today, speech recognition often only works in an ideal environment and does not work so well in emergency situations for example. For this reason, the International Federation of Hard of Hearing and the World Federation of the Deaf issued a statement that we need to come up with a good way to measure where, when and how automatic speech recognition can work and be employed.
“We are not saying no, we welcome new technology but we need to assess its effectiveness,” said Lidia. “Also, we need to make others understand that while we like new solutions, we also want to keep what we have and what works well”, she continued and shared the example of telecoils often not being activated in hearing-aids since audiologists think that users now prefer Bluetooth connections anyway. However, depending on the country and situation, the access to telecoils and the ability to use them can still be very valuable.
The discussion was moderated by Christoph Jo. Müller, Board President of the Association of Manufacturers and Retailers of Assistive Technology (BEH) in Germany.
Session: Senior living in the city and at home
The conclusion of the representatives of senior citizens organizations, the hard of hearing community, academia and the assistive technology industry in this session was unanimous: neutral advice and training are key factors in the uptake of technology.
Senior citizens as well as people with disabilities often face challenges in the area of mobility, when getting from a point A to an unfamiliar point B becomes stressful and difficult, as well as in the interaction with a range of devices all with different user interfaces. In the discussed scenarios, it was clear that accessibility features and apps can help, but the key to fulfill their potential is awareness and training, meaning that users must be informed about the solutions and be offered training in how to find and use these features and apps.
The participants in the session shared examples of great solutions that can help, such as the apps of Seeing AI and BeMyEyes, but emphasized the need for a central source of information that everyone would know and go to for information on accessible solutions. For the product ranges it covers (namely mobile phones, tablets, smart TVs, Wearables and apps), the GARI database can certainly fulfill this role, but there is still need to make it known more widely.
Session: Leveraging Technologies for Accessible Workplaces and Better Employment
This session has been moderated by Antony Ruck, Chairman British Technology Association(BATA), United Kingdom:
„I was delighted to be joined by Angel Perez (Leonard Cheshire), Hansjörg Lienert (Dräger and Lienert), Hendrik Peters (LVR), Malcom Glenn (Uber), and Dr Mathias Hüsing (RWTH Aachen University) who all led one of five panels, who were instrumental in delivering an insightful and engaging session for the delegates.
Our rather ambitious aim was to identify the top twenty factors that influence the topic, and then dive deep into the top five.
Initially the audience split into five groups to independently generate what they saw as the four main factors that affect how we can make workplaces more accessible andlead to better employment. These were then compiled, and the top five factors were identified and shared amongst the panels for further discussion andanalysis. Our fantastic panellists then presented their findings to the whole group.
What was remarkable was that we had input from delegates from over 30 countries, and yet the themes were common to all. In brief, theses distilled down into the following:
Again, my sincere thanks to the panellists who made this session possible, and to M-Enabling for the opportunity to network and engage with so many professionals across the sector.“
Session: Inclusive Digital Environments in Education
Summary to follow
In his closing words to the M-Enabling Forum, Axel Leblois from G3ict underlined how encouraging it is to see the number of legislative and civil society initiatives on national and European level to advance accessibility, which demonstrates a big change in attitude as compared to a few years back. Throughout the discussions during the M-Enabling Forum it became clear that the human factor is crucial in everything we do, to make sure that technology will be accessible and that inclusive technology will be adopted. This can only be achieved by creating even more collaborations, more partnerships, bringing in more stakeholders and working on making the world accessible together.
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