The Internet has transformed society. From e-commerce to e-education, and e-health to e-government, the digital revolution is altering our lives. The Web offers unprecedented opportunities to communicate and interact. Social media sites, such as Facebook, have spawned virtual communities across the globe and sites like Wikipedia mean we can access information on almost anything, quickly and easily.

The potential is clear, but does the virtual world offer equal access and equal opportunity for all? The answer is, unfortunately, “not yet” and for two main reasons.

First, while rates of Internet usage have skyrocketed – increasing according to Internet World Stats by more than 380% since 2000 to include over a quarter of the global population in 2009 (some 1.7 billion people) – there are many for whom its promise is still a dream.

Second, among those who have on-line access, there are millions who cannot fully take advantage of all that the web has to offer simply because web design inhibits their access.

Optimal web design meets the evolving needs (physical and technical), preferences and circumstances of a wide range of users. All too often, however, web developers inadvertently create barriers for those living with disabilities inhibiting access to text, images, forms and sound.

In an interview, Artur Ortega, a software engineer for Yahoo! who is blind, said the main problems arise because “of a lack of knowledge or inexperience. Many web developers are not exposed to someone with disabilities and aren’t aware of how they use the web to access information”. Mr. Ortega believes “a huge difference can be made with very little effort”.

Web accessibility seeks to tear down these access barriers and to correct web design problems so that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, interact with and contribute to the web.

Guidelines and resources, such as those developed by the Worldwide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), are widely available and increasingly influencing web design.

The United Nations (UN) and its specialized agencies host a rich source of interesting and relevant content, including text, images, video and audio clips. To help ensure that the system’s web developers are aware of and up to speed on best practices for web accessibility, WIPO teamed up with the ITU and world-renowned experts from Adobe, the Mobile Web Initiative, The Royal National Institute for the Blind and the W3CWAI and Yahoo, in early February to host a four-day web accessibility workshop. The event brought together 180 web specialists from 33 UN and other international organizations.

The workshop included technical training sessions which focused on different aspects of accessibility (PDFs, Flash, accessibility tests and the application of W3C guidelines, etc.). In an endeavour to fuel the growing enthusiasm for accessibility in the UN system, WIPO is hosting a wiki – http://www.wipo.int/wiki/accessibility/ – to encourage exchange of information and ideas. While each organization has different approaches to accessibility, poor understanding, inadequate training and resources are common problems.

In opening the Joint Workshop, WIPO Director General Francis Gurry reaffirmed the Organization’s commitment to establishing an accessible web environment that promotes easy access to intellectual property information. This, he said, was in line with WIPO’s visually impaired persons (VIP) initiative (www.visionip.org) which is exploring ways to enhance access to copyright-protected works for the VIP community.

Recognizing the needs of the VIP community in the digital era and the barriers to access that can sometimes arise from the operation of copyright protection systems, WIPO and its 184 member States are reviewing the question of how to maintain a balance between the protection available to copyright owners, and the needs of specific user groups, such as VIPs. More than 314 million blind or visually impaired people around the world stand to benefit from a more flexible copyright regime adapted to the technological realities of today.

Noting that some 650 million people worldwide live with disabilities, ITU Secretary- General Hamadoun Touré said, “The key to the information society is universal access and no one should be denied the potential benefits of information and communications technologies (ICTs)”,” Dr. Touré added, “ICTs have the great merit of serving as a powerful equalizer of abilities, empowering persons with disabilities to fulfill their potential, ... and take their place as active members of society.”

The Director of ITU’s Standardization Bureau, Malcolm Johnson, highlighted the potential of ICTs in improving accessibility for persons with disabilities. He noted that ITU has “long championed the principles of inclusion and universal design”.

The promotion of web accessibility for UNhosted websites was given added impetus by the entry into force in 2008 of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The Convention requires that steps be taken to ensure that accessibility informs the design of new ICTs and systems.

For Artur Ortega, this really is good news. A self-confessed accessibility evangelist, he takes every opportunity to spread the “web accessibility” message. It has made a huge difference to his life. “I can do things on-line that would require assistance in the off-line world,” he said, “I can read a newspaper and bank on-line on my own because I have software that reads text from the screen. I can shop on-line and have it delivered to my door. Web accessibility really does make a huge difference. It means that I can be independent and don’t have to rely on other people to help me”.

But web accessibility is not just of relevance to the blind. It can make a significant difference for anyone living with visual, audio, physical, cognitive and neurological disabilities. These might range from a mild condition, such as color blindness, (problematic if a website states that all products marked in red are on sale and you are unable to identify this color) to more serious physical or motor disabilities.

Mr. Ortega spoke of someone he knew who, paralyzed after a swimming accident, is only able to move his head. Web accessibility technologies mean that he can read the books of his choice and turn the pages simply by moving his eyes. The importance of opportunities such technologies offer cannot be underestimated. They can enable people with disabilities to make independent choices and to actively participate and contribute to society.

One thing is clear, given the growing importance of the web today, if people with disabilities are to have equal access to the web and equal opportunity in using it to actively participate in and contribute to society, and if we are all to be enriched by their innovative and creative potential, a focus on web accessibility is not an option, but a “must”.

© 1949-2010 UN Special