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February 27, 2004

Conference calls for greater integration of the deaf in the information society

From: Cordis News - EU - Feb 27, 2004

A conference on improving access to the information society for the deaf and hard of hearing has called for the development of a new strategy at European level to make assistive technology more competitive by bringing it into the mainstream.

The conference, organised by the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (RNID) with the support of the European Commission, focused on the major issues in this field. Namely, how to increase the quality and quantity of subtitling and sign language on television, and the need to draw up universal interactive text communication systems to give deaf people the same level of access to the telephone network as hearing people.

According to Johan Wesemann, Director of the European Union of the Deaf, information communications technologies (ICT) have made great advances over the years to the benefit of deaf people. However, major problems of involuntary social isolation still exist.

For example, when it comes to television, which is one of most important sources of information, education and entertainment, access is still limited in most EU countries due to a lack of subtitling, sign language and other assistive services.

In the field of telecommunications, textphones are expensive, not widely available and work on a range of incompatible protocols.

John Low, Chief Executive of RNID, who opened the conference, said: 'New technology has huge potential to transform the lives of deaf and hard of hearing people and help create a fully integrated society. However, the danger is that unless technology is fully accessible and based on design for all principles, it will create new barriers for disabled people rather than bringing down old ones.'

All speakers agreed that whether talking about a universal interactive text communication system or the increased use of subtitling on television, technological barriers are not the main problems, but rather the lack of will on the part of legislators, standard bodies, regulators and industry.

They argued that it is of paramount importance to encourage action at both national and European level so that all stakeholders develop a unified strategy, presenting strong economical and ethical arguments for inclusive design.

A first step would be to show the industry that the necessary technology already exists and that there is a good business case for a design for all. 'I am amazed,' said Guido Gybels, Director of New Technologies, RNID, 'how little industry, service providers and network operators have realised that they can actually improve their services and products for all people and extend their user base through well thought through inclusive design. To allow, through inclusive design, more people to participate in society, to be consumers, will benefit the overall economy.'

Per Blixt, from the Disability and Elderly People Unit of the European Commission called for disability organisations to join forces for more visibility and increased awareness of this issue since, as he said, 'no mainstream, no market'.

At present, there are 22 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the EU. By 2005 there will be over 81 million Europeans with hearing loss, and by 2015, one in seven will have a hearing problem.

In the words of European Commissioner for Enterprise and the Information Society, Erkki Liikanen, also present at the conference, 'adopting a 'design for all' approach is not just a matter of charity but also of economic rationality. Clearly in aging societies there is a growing market for goods and services that satisfy the requirements of disabled and older customers.'

For further information on the conference, please visit:

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities