The European Commission has earmarked more than £94m for research into accessible and inclusive ICT since 2007.
Researchers taking part one of its biggest programmes, a £15m assistive technology programme called Aegis, gathered in Seville in the autumn to take stock as the four-year development effort reached its half-way mark.
“The underlying objective is to put together people from all over the world involved in accessibility,” said Miguel Gonzalez Sancho, deputy head of ICT for inclusion at the European Commission.
“Overall we are satisfied with how things are going: it is one of the biggest projects around.”
Aegis, which stands for Open Accessibility: Groundwork, Infrastructure, Standards, is an ambitious project aimed at embedding accessibility into mainstream technology of the future.
Named after the Roman god Zeus’ shield, Aegis is one of the EU’s biggest undertakings in this area with 20 organisations collaborating on some 30 projects. It is half-funded by organisations taking part in the programme.
Participants range from big IT companies such as Oracle, Research in Motion and Vodafone to top universities including Cambridge University and the Fraunhofer Institute.
“Aegis is trying to do for IT systems what access regulations have already done for buildings,” explains Aegis technical manager Peter Korn.
In a six step approach, Aegis is defining accessibility and building sets of stock user interfaces, says Korn.
The researchers involved are also producing tools for developers and devising platforms that can run assistive technology applications.
These building blocks are brought together to produce applications which will be used by disabled users.
“One of the key goals of the Aegis project is to develop a complete framework for building accessibility into IT,” Korn told the conference of academics and developers.
“Earlier, every application had to have its own set of assistive technology applications. The focus of third generation access is to provide everything that’s needed by means of application programming interfaces.”
Karel Van Isacker of the European Platform for Rehabilitation presented a damning and as yet unpublished survey of ICT usage in Europe.
He estimates that less than 50% of people with disabilities in Europe are using assistive technology. And of those who are using it at least half have a problem.
There are some 40,000 different assistive products used in Europe and logged in a database called Eastin. However, they suffered from lack of user awareness and high purchasing costs.
There was a mismatch between end user needs and those offered by assistive technology.
Ways of making assistive technology available to disabled people vary across Europe. In some countries medical experts recommend access aids.
Other countries adopt a social model in which assistance is covered by national legislation. In a third group of poorer countries individuals are responsible for themselves.
“Ignorance is bliss but an abyss for impaired end users,” said Van Isacker.
Many applications have already been developed by Aegis researchers.
They include a low cost system for converting text formats into the Daisy talking book standard, an open source screen reader called SUE and magnification software for the latest GNOME Shell desktop interface. .
Aegis developers have opted for free open systems based on the Linux operating system rather than proprietary software.
And although some of the work in face tracking, eye tracking and gesture switches is at the cutting edge of applications technology, the main thrust is to develop cheap, open source tools.
Dr Evangelos Bekiaris, coordinator of AEGIS, acknowledged that Linux is not as widely used as Microsoft Windows, but says the important thing is that low-cost assistive technology is available.
“It will persuade those who produce technology for other platforms to improve their products and cut their prices,” he said.
Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace R&D centre at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who advises the EU on scientific matters, outlined his idea for a global public inclusive infrastructure (GPII) that would enable anyone to access the internet.
The professor advocated a worldwide broadband infrastructure, run by a public trust that would give users access to a store of existing assistive technologies made available to them when they wanted to go online.
“What if you had automatic personalisation interfaces that would change to accommodate every individual?” Vanderheiden asked.
He described a system that would take advantage of cloud computing to record users’ preferences for assistive technology and deliver software and services to them on demand.
At present less than 20% of those who need assistive technology actually have it, Vanderheiden says.The GPII , run by a public trust, would make it cheaper and easier for disabled people to access technology.
In addition, it would lower development costs, increase the number of solutions for different disabilities and enable new types of assistive technologies, said Vanderheiden.
“It’s like building a road system does not provide transportation but greatly enhances the ability of car companies and others to do so,” he said.
Vanderheiden is still pitching his ideas to policymakers. “Making people aware there is a fix is the toughest part,” he said.