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Ministerial Symposium Towards an Inclusive Information Society in Europe”: Ministerial Declaration on eInclusion

(Final Version)

Background

1. Ministers of EU Member States, Acceding, Associated and EFTA countries, met in Heraklion, Crete, Greece, on the 11th of April 2003 in the framework of the Ministerial Symposium "Towards an Inclusive Information Society in Europe" organised by the Greek Presidency of the Council in cooperation with the European Commission.
2. On this occasion, Ministers agreed on taking all necessary actions towards an open, inclusive knowledge-based Society accessible to all citizens. In this context, measures should be taken to ensure inclusion and prevent discrimination due, for example, to age, disability, economic and social disadvantages or geographical isolation. To this effect, eInclusion seeks to devise policies to overcome traditional and new forms of social exclusion, while ensuring that all citizens fully participate and benefit from the Information Society .
3. The potential of existing European legislation to address and improve accessibility should be fully exploited. In this context, a positive example is the setting up of a Working Group under the Communications Committee of the Framework Directive (article 22)  that aims to improve access to electronic communication networks and services for people with disability. Furthermore, the possibility of introducing specific European legislative measures against all kinds of discrimination of people with disability should be considered.
4. Moreover, they agreed that eInclusion policies should have a global impact across thematic domains, such as eGovernment, eLearning, eHealth, etc, and also in the new eBusiness environments, while strengthening specific dedicated policies, and they recognised that in all cases eAccessibility is an important element of eInclusion.
5. The overall approach should be based on the principles of Design for All, availability, accessibility and affordability of products and services appropriate to meet the needs of citizens with disabilities. It should also be based on solidarity, on the equal and active participation of all parties concerned in technology programmes and projects, in standardisation bodies, technical committees, committees looking at legislative and / or persuasive measures as well as education, training, employment and empowerment initiatives.

Continued commitment to the relevant eEurope 2005 objectives

6. The Spring European Council of 21 March 2003 emphasised that actions must be taken to consolidate and to contribute to the achievement of the Lisbon goals. This requires, inter alia, tackling eInclusion with the removal of technical, legal and other barriers to effective participation of people with disability in the knowledge based economy and society. Equal access to employment is essential to achieve these goals.
7. eEurope 2005 Action Plan objectives contain measures regarding eInclusion in all action lines. Improved access to public web sites for disabled people has been an objective of eEurope 2002. In October 2001, the Council adopted a resolution on "eInclusion -exploiting the opportunities of the Information Society for social inclusion" . Two further resolutions followed: the first, of March 2002, "on the eEurope Action Plan 2002: accessibility of public websites and their content"  stating that Member States should speed up their efforts in implementing the 'Web Accessibility Initiative' guidelines (http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10/) in their public Web sites, and that accessibility to private Web sites should be promoted; the second, of February 2003, "eAccessibility: improving the access of people with disabilities to the knowledge based society"  focussing on the measures to be taken in order to bridge the gap of the digital divide. A resolution of the European Parliament "eEurope 2002: Accessibility of Public Web sites"  recommends, among others, compliance with W3C – WAI content and authoring tools guidelines, and suggests setting up reporting channels for the citizens concerning web accessibility.
8. The continued support of Ministers to the work of the eAccessibility Experts Group and the commitment to its objectives regarding monitoring and benchmarking progress on the adoption of the ‘Web Accessibility Initiative’ guidelines by member states and European institutions, and the establishment of a European curriculum on Design for All for designers and engineers, is also to be noted.

Promoting networking and exchange of experience

9. Ministers welcomed recent progress towards eAccessibility, such as the nomination by member states of National Contact Centres (NCCs) on Design for All, and the launch and operation of EDeAN as a network with over 100 members across Europe. They stressed the need to maintain close links between EDeAN and the eEurope working groups, by reporting regularly about their progress. They also agreed to strongly encourage additional actions at national and European level to ensure further promotion of the targets set and the timely delivery of results. Ensuring that future professionals in the Information Society are competent in Design for All practices and accessibility is critical for the achievement of eInclusion.
10. National- and EU institutional level measures should be taken to ensure that WAI guidelines adoption and implementation is increased, especially in public web sites. The results should be fed to and consolidated by the European Commission, in order to report progress and raise awareness. A European web accessibility label that certifies compliance with W3C – WAI guidelines could be considered, in order to avoid any market fragmentation.
11. Measures are also needed by member states, perhaps through their Operational Programmes for Information Society to launch initiatives towards consolidating best practices in the form of examples, and making them available (e.g., as documented material or open source). This will also help the monitoring and benchmarking efforts of the European Commission.
12. Member states should join efforts with the European Commission to exchange experiences in order to harmonize national procurement policies based on European public procurement legislation and supported by technical standards. Emphasis should be placed on promoting and facilitating the use of accessibility criteria in public procurement, removing existing barriers and strengthening the role of standards in order to meet the needs of people with disability.
13. Citizens with disabilities should be empowered through the creation of an Accessibility Ombudsman function, including information points to collect concerns regarding lack of accessibility in the main priorities of the eEurope Action Plan. This function is expected to promote feedback on standardisation activities as well as on their impact on the real-life situation of all citizens. Member States and European institutions should address these concerns and solve existing problems.
14. Raising awareness, exchanging experience and promoting partnership at a European level is considered particularly important in the context of eInclusion. International cooperation on the issues of eAccessibility and eInclusion should also be further enhanced. The European Union should continue to contribute actively towards the successful achievement of the objectives of the World Summit on Information Society, following the principles of solidarity, humanism, democracy and economic development, whilst supporting cultural and linguistic diversity, in order to achieve a fully inclusive and accessible global Information Society.

Promoting accessibility of emerging technologies and new European Research and Development activities
15. Ministers agreed that eInclusion could be greatly facilitated by proactive and early account in the course of on-going and future technological, legal and regulatory developments. New and emerging technologies, such as Digital TV and 3G mobile communications among others, should be advanced in such a way so as to reduce barriers and to exhibit greater accessibility. A set of comprehensive actions should be undertaken in the context of the eEurope 2005 Action Plan with appropriate Community resources, specifically devoted to eInclusion and eAccessibility. This could be implemented in a specific eInclusion Action Plan.
16. Moreover, eInclusion should feature prominently through dedicated research actions in the 6th Framework Programme (FP 6) of the European Commission. These efforts should build upon results of the FP 5, where eInclusion was very well-represented, for example in:
o EC "User friendly Information Society" Programme (Key Action 1, Sub-area 1.2 "Persons with special needs including the disabled and elderly")
o EC "Quality of Life" Programme (Key action 6 "The ageing population and disability", Sub-area 6.3 "Demographic and Social Policy aspects of population ageing" and Sub-area 6.4 "Coping with functional limitations in old age").

Establishing thresholds and creating a favourable industrial environment

17.  The continued commitment to the establishment of the required broadband access infrastructure anywhere, to facilitate new services that are accessible for all citizens was noted.
18. Services should be delivered through several, competing communication media to offer all citizens the same service quality level either through complementary access or alternative access, as needed.
19. Technology (and solutions) providers, particularly from the mainstream industry should be encouraged to address accessibility in their products and services. Furthermore links between mainstream industry and the assistive technology sector should be facilitated and improved. The assistive technology sector should be supported to respond to eAccessibility by becoming receptive to change, accustomed to the use of new technologies, willing to invest in research and development and competent in transforming research findings to new high quality products and services, in anticipation of the demands of an increased client base and a digitally-literate Europe.
20. Cross-industry research and technological development should be promoted to enable effective pathways of innovation, while addressing accessibility mainly across sectors of the industry (e.g., Digital TV and 3G mobile communications) and maintaining a close link with users with disabilities, as a pre-requisite for fusion-type innovation and cross-platform developments.

Promoting a digitally-literate Europe

21. Beyond infrastructure and technological thresholds, eInclusion entails active participation by all citizens who should be informed about, and be willing as well as competent to fully participate and take advantage of new services in the Information Society. Inclusive education, public procurement, employment, leisure, business, etc, and the social environment could act as catalysts towards digitally literate European citizens. Emphasis should be placed on catering for specific needs and requirements of user communities, which have been traditionally underserved (e.g., people with disability and older persons, inhabitants of geographically dispersed regions, immigrants, etc).
22. Citizens should be able to express and realize their preferences with regards to the way in which services are appropriated (e.g., choice of provider, delivery medium, language in multi-lingual content, terminal, etc).
23. New policies are devised to foster users’ trust and security in carrying out computer-mediated human activities and to stimulate industry to develop approaches to security and privacy that take into account accessibility. The Spring European Council stressed the need of establishing a European network and information security agency by the end of year 2003. To this effect progress in scaling up the application of electronic signatures, when appropriate, is considered important, and this should be done in an inclusive manner.

Looking to the future

24. Ministers recognized that eInclusion has far-reaching institutional and organizational effects, requiring changes in individual and societal culture as well as in the overall economic environment. As a result, continued commitment is required at all levels with periodic review of progress and of the targets set. In particular, future research actions must encompass harmonisation between Design for All and Assistive Technologies. Furthermore, as 2003 is the European year of people with disability, emphasis should be placed on the commitment towards these citizens by increasing attention to accessibility matters. At the same time, it was considered as a unique opportunity for a culturally diverse and expanding Europe to plan, initiate and execute the initiatives required to promote global Information Society requirements such as equal participation, enhanced quality, accessibility and efficiency, and to ensure that new technological or regulatory developments do not create additional barriers. This will help Europe attain internal social cohesion, as well as the eEurope 2005 target to "create a favourable environment for private investment and for the creation of new jobs, to boost productivity, to modernize public services, and to give everyone the opportunity to participate in the global information society".


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