With the contribution of the Community Programme
For Employment And Social Solidarity - PROGRESS
“Harnessing new ICTs as a means to ease the job
inclusion of visually impaired youth”
EBU Youth Seminar
Bratislava, Slovak Republic
7th – 8th November 2009
Slovak Member of the European Parliament and Member of Disability Intergroup
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to thank the European Blind Union and Slovak Blind and Partially Sighted Union for allowing me the chance to speak at this workshop in my capacity of Member of the European Parliament.
We come here today to talk about the potential impact that the increased application of new Information and Communication Technologies will have on visually impaired youths in the classroom and in the workplace.
Over the past ten to fifteen years Europe has moved towards an incredibly more digitalized, information based economy. While these technological innovations provide opportunities for citizens with vision impairment and other disabilities, it also has potential to create further impetus for discrimination unless steps are taken to ensure the accessibility of these new technologies to those who need them most.
Roughly one sixth of the overall EU working age population live with disabilities. This group is almost twice as likely to be inactive in the economy as non-disabled people. This equity gap has intensified over the past ten to fifteen years because the needs of these workers have been largely un-addressed as new technologies have become increasingly prevalent in educational institutions and the workplace.
These barriers are simply a failure to develop technologies that accommodate people with disabilities, such as visual and sensory impairment. However, the European Union recognizes the need for development of Information and Communication Technologies that are accessible to disabled people as a necessity for creating an Information Society that is all-inclusive.
As stated in the Madrid Declaration of 2003, our goal is not to continue to foster a society that creates an environment of discrimination towards those who are less fortunate, all the while putting on a pretence of charity and salvation through subsidies and welfare checks. Rather, the real fight must be to “modif(y) our society to include and accommodate the needs of all persons” so that they may be able to compete in a level playing field.
As a member of the Disability Intergroup in the European Parliament, I have made effort to explore the possibilities to provide funding and mandates for assistive technology such web accessibility and audiovisual and electronic communications equipment and services which would make these innovations more accessible to disabled students and workers. If these measures are adopted, there is the potential for disabled youths to be more competitive in school and in the workplace then ever before.
In December of 2006, the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognized the rights of the disabled as an issue of human rights. As a signatory of the declaration, the EU pledged to “enable persons with disabilities to… participate fully in all aspects of life… including information and communications technologies and systems1” by providing “accessible formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities in a timely manner and without additional cost2.”
However, equal opportunity in education and employment cannot be realized by pledges and token gestures. Equality can only be realized if good intentions are followed by the enactment of concrete policy and funding to make sure that the necessary steps are taken to combat discrimination.
The EDF has sought to address these issues by formulating the European Disability Strategy. The Strategy’s main tenant is the Disability Action Plan, which advocates the “mainstreaming of disability issues” into EU policy wherever relevant, rather then treating these issues as an isolated concern. This mentality can be seen in the steps taken by the EDF to address the rights of disabled people in many recent decisions regarding ICT development and funding.
Firstly, the EU has passed two Council Resolutions that highlight the need for accessibility of public websites and information to participate in a knowledge based society.
Also, the European Union Member States, along with the European Free Trade Area countries unanimously approved the Riga Ministerial Declaration in June of 2006. This document states that “ICT(s) contribute(s) to improving the quality of everyday life and social participation… facilitates access to information… and more flexible job opportunities, and to fight discrimination.”
It goes on to say that these benefits will only be realized as long as the use of ICT(s) coincide(s) with the “reinforcing (of) current legal provisions as appropriate where benefits for users with disabilities appear to be limited so far.”
Another recent success in our fight to end discrimination is the recognition of needs of the disabled in the i2010 initiative. This initiative seeks to lie out a new strategic framework for economic growth in the European Union through the creation of a Single European Information Space. Included in the agreement are specific provisions regarding technologies which are inclusive of disabled users, to ensure that the new society will be mutually beneficial to all.
Additionally, the needs of disabled citizens are addressed in the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme, which is one of the main financial instruments of the i2010 initiative. Included in the CIP is the ICT Policy Support Programme, which combines regulatory actions, policy coordination actions, and financial support to ensure a fair and equal European Information Society.
While the EDF and the European Union have made progress toward ending discrimination, our fight is far from over.
If we are to bridge the equity gap in job inclusion, we must make sure that mutually accessible services are provided in the workplace and in the classroom.
To be able to compete in the workplace, disabled youths must first be given the same opportunities for education as all other students. Without equality in the classroom, equality in the workplace will never be achieved.
ICTs must accommodate students who seek to use computers for personal research and study. Also, development of ICTs may enable visually impaired students to have access to a greater volume of information then before. Not giving these students the same resources as their non-disabled peers puts them at an unfair disadvantage which goes against the central tenants of the United Nations Declaration which the EU pledged to uphold.
Once disabled students are able to utilize ICTs in their studies, we must then make sure that the necessary technologies are provided that will enable them to take these skills into the workplace. This means providing employers with incentives to take the necessary measures to accommodate disabled workers. The failure to do so would effectively result in de facto incentive to continue to practice policies of discrimination.
If we are able to ensure that the innovations of the Information Society include new technologies that can be utilized by disabled youths and workers, our society will benefit extensively. If the disabled workers are no longer dependent on government welfare grants and are given the chance to contribute to the economy, it will surely grant a level of financial security and independence that was not possible before. Also, the European Union as a whole would benefit from this improvement because of the increased productivity of these newly empowered workers.
But our society will not only benefit economically from this change. Equality of opportunity is one of the founding principles of modern Europe, and I and my colleagues in the EDF and EU have a moral obligation to fight to bring down the social barriers that foster inequality.
It is only with the help of dedicated organizations such as the European Blind Union that these goals can be achieved. As long as you continue to fight for the rights of disabled people in Europe and everywhere, you will have a partner in the European Union.
Thank you for your attention.