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Home > Tech Reiews > Japan Technology Review Last Updated: 15:24 03/09/2007
Japan Technology Review #33: February 12, 2002

Recent Trends in Technology-Driven Companies -Part 8-
Japan Moves to Develop Accessibility Standards

By Hajime Yamada (GLOCOM)

A Japanese language version of the following article from the Nihon Keizai Shimbun is a good source of information related to accessibility standards in Japan.

"Barrier-free IT Equipment: Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to Develop Standards"

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) plans to promote easy-to-use equipment and software by formulating accessibility standards with a view to allowing people with disabilities to use with ease equipment relating to information technology (IT,) including personal computers. The Ministry aims to incorporate developed standards into the government procurement principle after standardizing them. The government, which is promoting an "electronic government" and other measures, is considers how to create an environment where people with disabilities and the elderly can enjoy benefits of IT to the maximum extent.

METI has established in conjunction with the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications the "Committee for the Study of Standardization for the Accessibility of Information Technology (Chairman: Hajime Yamada, Professor, Center for Global Communications, International University of Japan)." Participants in this committee, in addition to the Japanese Standards Association, include organizations in the field of hardware and software relating to IT including the Japan Electronic and Information Technology Industries Association and the Japan Information Technology Services Industry Association, as well as the All Japan Association for Hard of Hearing People.

The Committee is planning to start its activities by developing relevant standards relating to personal computers and peripheral equipment by the end of fiscal 2001. In fiscal 2002 it will work on turning the standards into a Japanese Industrial Standard (JIS) and propose to the International Standardization Organization (ISO) that the JIS be adopted as an international standard.

The Committee intends to expand the scope of standardization in fiscal 2003 to cover areas of communications equipment including mobile phones as well as office equipment and digital consumer electronics.

What will be defined in these accessibility standards will include, for example, equipping PCs with a function to enable sequential input using a single finger instead of simultaneously pressing more than one key, and software capable of reading aloud character information on a home page. METI has been supporting ventures developing functions exclusively coping with a specific visual or audible difficulty, and expects to adopt technology suited to general-use computers.

In the United States, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that took effect last June obliges IT equipment, including PCs procured by the government, to be equipped with these functions to help people with disabilities. ISO plans to issue "Accessibility Guidelines," and national standards compatible with the Guidelines are being called for. With METI asking industry to voluntarily respond, Japan is "the Information Processing Equipment Accessibility Guidelines" has been now launching development of standards, keeping abreast with movements in the United States and international standardization organizations.

(Nihon Keizai Shimbun, July 29, 2001)


"Information Should be Accessible to Anyone"
- Summary Report of the Committee for the Study of Standardization for the Realization of barrier-free Information Technology (March 2001) -

The Committee for the Study of Standardization for the Realization of Barrier-free Information Technology was organized last year at INSTAC (Information Technology Research and Standardization Center), JSA (Japanese Standards Association) to contribute to the realization of barrier-free information. This report is an outline of the discussions and the conclusions of the Committee during the past six months.

1. Organizing the Committee
In the field of information technology, companies often develop standardization activities as forum activities. In this condition, the responsibility of public standardization activities might be in the public interest as one of various points of view.

The standardization activities, which contribute to the realization of the barrier-free information, are based on the social agreement of allowing people with disabilities and older persons to participate in social life, and activities are public-minded. INSTAC organized the Committee in September 2000 for working out a strategy for how to deal with the field, and discussing standardization activities.

Committee meetings were held six times in total. Representatives of the people with disabilities, company representatives, university representatives, and staff members of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry participated in the Committee and had lively discussions. This paper is written to introduce the outline to people engaged in standardization activities anywhere, although a report of the Committee is issued separately. I was a chairperson, and was asked to write this paper. However, all results are the efforts of every member. I would like to express my appreciation to them. At the same time, I am responsible for the mistakes in the contents of this paper, if any.

2. Participation in Social Life and Barrier-Free Information for People with Disabilities and Older Persons
In Japan, it is predicted that the population ratio of people 65 and over will be about 27% in 2025. Japan is rapidly aging. The Prime Minister's Office estimates the total number of people with physical disabilities at about 3,000,000, and the number of people with mental disabilities at about 2,000,000. Although people whose hearing level is 70 dB or over with both ears are defined as people with hearing loss, people whose hearing level is 40 to 50 dB have some troubles in social life. The total number of citizens with hearing loss therefore will be more than 6,000,000 if we count people who have some kind of hearing problems.

To regard people with disabilities and older persons as objects of nursing is inconsistent with reality from the viewpoint of numbers. Rather, for developing activities in society, it is necessary to allow these people to participate in social life and live together.

Information plays an important part for everyone participating in society. We send information, and we get answers from society. We get information from society and we answer. We maintain our lives exchanging information between ourselves and society. The term "information-oriented society" symbolizes an era when exchanging information is the base of all social lives.

Therefore, without realizing barrier-free environments in the field of information, we cannot make it possible for people with disabilities and older persons to participate in social life. In this report, to exchange information easily is expressed as accessibility to information, that is, securing accessibility.

3. Needs of People with Disabilities and Older Persons, and Standardization Activities

People with disabilities have needs for information in various situations including physical care, movement inside and outside the home, traffic, education, work, leisure, participation in mental activities, participation in economic activities like trade, and participation in the civil life or community. Again, to exchange information between oneself and society is life itself.

When the committee started, some members with no disabilities never thought to include information as life itself. They believed that they only had to solve problems of information equipment such as computers, telephones, FAX machines, and websites' contents.

As people advance from childhood to old age, the functions of vision, hearing or physical abilities tend to decline, although they may vary individually. Are the products or the services, which relate to the information, easy to use for these older persons? In addition, are they easy to use for people with disabilities, as well? Some thought that the environments of barrier-free information would be realized only if these problems were solved.

However, the more we discussed the more we understood the needs of people with disabilities. Even if we mainly thought of the problems of hardware and software, we had to understand information in a broad sense, and aim at totally barrier-free information. This was one of the conclusions of the Committee.

People with hearing loss strongly want text captions for television broadcasts. What is required is a technology standard about transmission of text captions or indication. When people with physical disabilities use input devices instead of mice, technology standards for input devices and computer interfaces should be prepared so that the devices work with any kind of computers.

First, it is necessary to replace the needs of people with disabilities with technology words, and making technology standards will be started. The needs of people with disabilities are satisfied only after products or services are provided in accordance with this technology standard.

People with disabilities and older persons are users of products and the services that are followed by technology standards, but are not necessarily the ones who make technology standards. Therefore, the needs of people with disabilities and older persons have to be transmitted properly to the standardization activities. People with disabilities and older persons may participate in the activities directly, or someone who understands their needs can attend them.

Engineers tend to solve problems by technology at any cost. However, even if it is technically imperfect, it might be all right as long as people with disabilities and older persons are satisfied. When discussing information in a broad sense, a feeling of satisfaction may become more important. At that time, specialists of arts and society such as cognitive science and/or behavioral psychology will be needed. Related to this, there was an opinion that people with hearing loss had mental burdens to tell someone about their hearing loss. Therefore, specialists from various fields should attend the standardization activities in order to understand barrier-free information.

There were some interesting opinions about information in a narrow sense.

One opinion was that if technology standards, products and services were prepared for people with disabilities, these people could choose information processing as professions. Related to this, one member said that it was necessary for people with disabilities to participate in the development of the products or the services for the barrier-free information from the early stage. Information processing is suited for people with disabilities because working at home is possible. Ideally, we can ask people with disabilities to participate in the standardization activities as technology specialists. As for input assistance technology like the substitution of mice, if the products are provided in the market at low prices, they will help people with disabilities to choose occupations. To have these occupations means to get closer to the position of sender of the information. The problems to be solved would be more difficult and complicated, because the problems are not limited to the convenience as receivers. However, the Committee decided to carry the standardization activities in that direction. People with disabilities cannot have such occupations until education is given to them, so proper education systems should be built.

A lot of needs were introduced in the Committee in the field of computers, telecommunications equipment, or indication of the websites. Let me avoid introducing each matter because of limited space of the report. However, I would like to introduce some examples from other fields.

Audible signals are devised in each country for people with low or limited vision to walk pedestrian crossings easily. But there is no technology standard for now. Some said there were needs for advanced systems such as telling crossing directions or width of roads.

I already referred to text captions in broadcasting. This need equally applies to voice provided via Internet. Some members said that the warning sound or the click sound of computers had to be visually displayed before that the sound. Another member said that knowledge for the declines in seeing and hearing functions of older persons were needed. We have to know the character of humans first in order to produce products that are compatible with humans. Now, a research group is collecting data on human body forms, and measuring physical functions such as vision, hearing, and abilities of movement across a wide age group and creating a database. As for seeing functions, data are collected about vision or distinguishing colors from a wide range of Japanese including more than 400 old persons.

As I have explained, the needs of people with disabilities and older persons are diversified. In this standardization activity, specialists from many fields have to work together. But there is a limit in the number of specialists and funds. Therefore, the needs for standardization have to be prioritized, and then handled in order.

4. The Efforts of Companies and Public Bodies
Some companies have started to develop products or services to realize barrier-free information.

One company created intra-office accessibility standards, and made all partner group companies in the world follow the standards. Another company organized an accessibility center or a computer accessibility promotion group, and assigned specialists to check whether the products comply with the standards and also to develop the new products.

Let me introduce some advanced cases. One company developed a device that transmits patients' intentions, after one employee began suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. 50 and 60-year-olds are susceptible to this disease. This is an incurable disease in which the motor nerves atrophy gradually, limbs become stiff, and one's talk and breath are lost.

However, brain function is normal, and patients know what family members or care workers are saying. But patients cannot indicate their intentions nor communicate well with other people, and as a result, they get irritated. The intention-transmitting device is a computer system in which a remaining function, like the blink of the eye, becomes a switch. The employee, who developed this system, received an e-mail of gratitude from a patient, saying, "I would lose the will to live without this device."

Another company developed various laptop computer devices for accessibility. For example, lighting up the keyboard to raise visibility, placing the volume switch in the front (it is usually placed in the side), and making the black keys and the white characters in sharper contrast. These ideas are adopted a lot. Software that allows reading of website contents developed by a team including a person without vision as a leader is now used widely in domestic markets. The company has remodeled the software for foreign languages, and partner companies overseas have put it on their markets.

This company is a multinational enterprise, with a head office in the United States. This company does business by mainly targeting the United States, which has made exacting demands on accessibility. This attitude might make the company advanced.

Another consumer electronic maker tried to realize barrier-free information in consumer electronic products by making intra-office standards, manuals and guidelines. As a result of these efforts, the maker produced a remote control easy to use for people with disabilities and older persons, and a user friendly VCR. These were the trials of barrier-free information in a broad sense. This company asked a group of people with disabilities and older persons to be consumer test panels, and improved the products in cooperation with them.

So far, these activities are being developed as a social responsibility, not to pursue profits. Where social requirements are strong like in the United States, companies will fail unless they cope with these requirements. Companies will engage in barrier-free information more seriously if it relates to profits and losses. However, we hope that companies will not only focus on seeking profits.

JEITA (Japan Electronic Information Technology Association) has a website called "Kokoro Web (Heart Web in English)". This website provides a service in which volunteer specialists reply to questions from people with disabilities and older persons about information processing technology. In addition to this service, the website has a list of more than 600 products that take accessibility into account. The main products are devices assisting computer operation, but there are some other assistant devices. If the number of the products in the database increases, more users will access the site. If more users access the site, the company will provide more products in the database. A good spiral is expected.

The Japanese government and local public bodies have introduced broad trials and actions for decreasing information barriers. It is good that people concerned became conscious of barrier-free information due to enforcement of a barrier-free traffic law. The number of Internet websites has been increasing rapidly as a means of offering administrative information, because these sites can be created at a low price. Nevertheless, many websites have new problems because of their lack of understanding of barrier-free information. Websites should allow access from browsers that read text only, or change screen colors or font sizes, or standardize basic operation part positions. But unfortunately, very few websites meet those requirements.

In November 2000, the Information Technology Strategy Council indicated that ministries and government offices had to improve websites. The truth of the matter is that most websites had some kind of problems at that time. Among local governments, cities in Fukuoka Prefecture have websites that take accessibility into account. But in general, few websites are satisfactory.

Why are there problems in websites that public bodies provide?

Most people in local governments understand barrier-free information needs of websites from the viewpoint of the public interest and fairness. However, one member said, when the person in charge shows the design plan to the boss, the boss often says "make it showier" or "start it anyway". Other factors are that people can create websites easily with advanced software, and outside suppliers do not have enough skills.

In order to solve these problems, barrier-free standards for websites should be prepared for public bodies and these bodies should be encouraged to follow the standards.

People with disabilities and older persons are not the only group that has difficulties accessing information. As society becomes internationalized, more foreign people come to Japan to live and look for information. As for the Roman alphabet indication, the Hepburn and romanization systems exist, and the domestic indication system is not standardized. There is confusion as for whether to use Mt. Fuji or Fujisan, and ABC Avenue or ABC Dori. One reason is the fact that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs uses the Hepburn system and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology uses the romanization system. The Geographical Survey Institute uses "Fujisan" and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport uses "Mt. Fuji" on maps. It is tragic that problems occur in barrier-free information because of barriers among government offices. These problems have to be solved as soon as possible.

5. Political and Social Trends in Europe and the United States
The fundamental law, which prescribes the rights of people with disabilities in the United States, is ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) enacted in 1990. It is an epoch-making law in that it expresses employment and access as rights, and breaks away from the viewpoint of protective welfare of people with disabilities.

Information security of telephones is featured mainly in the fourth chapter of ADA. Though it was not necessarily a regulation about present information processing technology, this became the base of the later law in indicating security of information for people with disabilities.

ADA's views were reflected in the revision of the Rehabilitation Act in 1998. In Article 508 of this law is a provision of prohibition that says that in case federal offices purchase or lease electronic products, employees with disabilities are able to use them like employees without limitations. This article asks Federal offices to secure accessibility in a reasonable range, and makes it possible for people with disabilities to state his or her dissatisfaction. Computers, software, or office equipment the Federal Government buys or websites it has to be accessible to both employees and citizens.

This revised Rehabilitation Act 508 article may greatly change the method of doing business in the United States. Actually, Japanese companies, exporting many information communications products to the United States, now have to deal with it.

Article 255 in the Federal Communications Act revised in 1996, asks telecommunications enterprises or manufacturers to secure accessibility of communications products. When accessibility cannot be secured with the body, substitutive formats can be provided. People with disabilities are requested to participate in the development of products. It will influence Japanese companies from now on.

As I explained above, the United States tried to realize barrier-free information for people with disabilities and older persons by enacting laws.

In Europe, a policy of each country and that of the whole European Union influence each other, and develop activities of barrier-free information. I now would like to explain trends across Europe.

A research and development program conducted by the European Commission started in the beginning of the 1990s with the aim of creating a big market for accessibility in all of Europe. Though at first only an argument from the viewpoint of equal opportunity, an argument on the technical side has begun with the start of this research and development program. Standardization has become a focus point recently.

A European Union Directive was announced last year for equal opportunity for employment. Under this Directive, when people with disabilities are refused the request of employment, they can ask employers for explanations, and each employer has a duty to explain the reasons. Europe regards this equal opportunity Directive as an important matter, and many people have negative attitudes toward obligating accessibility.

The important issue is how to allow people with disabilities to participate in technical activities such as standardization or research and development. The committee to discuss this subject is organized in the European Commission, and a report was published in 2000. This report emphasizes how important education is. With the support of the European Commission, the education program has been given to people with disabilities who have abilities equivalent to a bachelor's degree by correspondence studies, e-mail, and short-term seminars. About 50 people in total participate from each country.

As for the standardization activities, CEN (European Committee for Standardization) and ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) have started to prepare guidelines of information/communications fields together.

Efforts by all of Europe toward information-oriented society are expressed as the eEurope plan. This plan mentions improvement of websites provided by each public body as soon as possible. It is worth mentioning that EDF (European Disability Forum) has an important role for connecting European Commission or standard bodies and people with disabilities. EDF was established in 1997 with the support of the European Commission. The members of this organization are the disabilities-related groups of each country. Activity fees are mostly provided from the European Commission. The semi-cabinet ministers take part in various meetings with the EDF, and maintain cooperation across Europe. When participating in the standardization activities, its participation fee is free, and the European Commission supports the traveling expenses.

6. Trends of International Standardization Activities
What should we take into account for introducing a policy that comprehends the needs of people with disabilities and older persons in standardization activities? What happens if these needs are actually filled in the technology standard for each product and service? The guideline made by ISO/IEC shows how standardization activities should be in the former situation. More recent examples can be found in it as well. It was resolved to establish a working committee in COPLCO (ISO committee on Consumer Policy) by a proposal by Japan in 1998. The mission of this section is to prepare a document that prescribes fundamental rules and consideration matters for the methods of designing products and environments conformed to the needs of older persons and people with disabilities. The following plans were approved at the general assembly in 1999: "To make a policy statement for the particular needs of older persons and people with disabilities"; "To make a guide about universal design and accessible design"; "To specify the particular needs of old persons and people with disabilities". A policy statement was prepared as Guide 71 (guidelines for standardization to address the needs of older persons and people with disabilities). A Japanese member has become a leader, and has been active through completion in autumn 2001.

The main parts of the Guide's original plan are as follows:

  • This Guide provides guidance to the writers of International Standards to show how to take into account the needs of older persons and people with disabilities.
  • The purposes of this Guide are to provide information about how human abilities or impairment impact on the usability of products, services and environments; to outline the relationship between the requirements in standards and the accessibility and usability of products and services; and to raise awareness about the benefits of adopting universal and accessible design principles.
  • This Guide offers descriptions of body functions and examples of common limitations, and shows general guidelines about how these can be addressed in the design, use, and provision of products and services. It also provides a table to easily identify the disabilities, when developing standards that address the needs of older persons and people with disabilities.
  • This Guide offers a flowchart to ensure whether the standards fully consider the needs of older persons and people with disabilities.

Guide 71 is an all-inclusive guideline, which can be applicable to all activities for standardization, not specifying products or services. It is worthy of special mention that this guideline originated in a Japanese proposal.

The case of independent standards, focusing on the field of information processing technology, can be found in JTC1. JTC1, the joint Technology Committee of ISO and IEC, conducts standardization activities of interfaces between users and systems. It includes persons who have special needs. The main objects are "interfaces between users and devices such as keyboards, mice, pointers, pens, displays and forms to emphasize functions", "rules for system control by voice, vision, movement and gestures", and "expression of the way of operation by picture indication and icons". There are several other examples such as the Nordic Guideline made by North European countries in the field of computers.

The WAI guideline, which is made for the preparation of websites, is famous. There is W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) as a forum that makes technology standards for the Internet. WAI stands for Web Accessibility Initiative, and the group technically examines accessibility set in W3C. People with disabilities participate in and lead the activity. Three guidelines are made by WAI. The first one is a guideline of how to make a website accessible. The second one is a guideline for software that creates websites. The third one is a guideline for websites indicating software.

In particular, the first guideline is often used as a standard to check websites provided by public bodies. The improvement of websites in the eEurope plan will be done in accordance with this guideline. Government offices in Japan have begun to improve their websites as well, by the directions of the Information Technology Strategy Council.

Although international standardization activities have begun at the policy level and for each technology standard, various activities are not always being carried out harmoniously. There are contradictions and omissions, and cooperation among activities is expected in the future. In order to check and modify contradictions or omissions, policy like Guide 71 should be implemented in detail in the information telecommunications fields.

Guide 71 pointed out "size and style of font" at the top of the list as a point to take into account regarding vision abilities. What size of type is suitable? Should the size be changeable? In the beginning of the hearing functions, it says "simple, clear". What does this imply for the information field? This basic guideline should be applied to the information technology field, and creation of a guideline for the information sector should be discussed. This guideline should include the common standard among computers, telecommunications equipment, and other products and services. Additionally, it should be mentioned that people with disabilities participate in the process of standard making, as Guide 71 says. As for the former, it should be conducted by combining top-down and bottom-up methods, such as lining up the items from Guide 71 by top-down, and extracting the specific contents by bottom-up methods for each item from individual guidelines.

7. Domestic Trends
In 1998, JISC (Japan Industrial Standards Committee) established a Special Committee for older persons and people with disabilities. This Committee deliberated for about four months, and submitted a "Proposal of the Ideal Method of Carrying out Standardization Policy for Older Persons and People with Disabilities" to the Minister of International Trade and Industry. This proposal shows basic policy about "Fundamental Principle of the Needs of Older Persons and People with Disabilities" or "The Ideal Method of Carrying out Standardization of Older Persons and People with Disabilities". By this proposal, developments of products for both individuals without limitations and people with disabilities and activities related to the standardization have been started.

In 1999, JISC organized "Special Committee for Standardization Activities in the 21st Century". The Committee pointed out the importance of standardizing the method of product design (universal design, accessible design) and standardization of the collecting and measuring method of human data such as visibility of older persons.

Before the suggestions of the policy, guidelines have been prepared for each technology field. From 1974 to 1976, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI, currently changed to Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) entrusted "Investigation of Contribution Plan of Rehabilitation toward People with Disabilities" to the Japan Electronic Industry Development Association (JEIDA, currently JEITA after unification with Electronic Industries Association Japan). It became the start of long activities of the guideline preparation by MITI.

In 1988, MITI ordered JEIDA to investigate provisions against the super-Aging society to prepare "Electronic Products Accessibility Guideline" in order to promote the development of electronics industry, which was friendly to people with disabilities and older persons. This was realized as "Computer Accessibility Guidelines" in 1990. In 1995, MITI did a revision based on the above guideline, and announced Notice No. 231 "Accessibility Guidelines for Use of Computers by People with Disabilities". In 2000, it was revised and announced. In 1998, The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (currently Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications) announced "Description of Accessibility Guidelines for Use of Telecommunication Equipment by People with Disabilities" in Notice No. 515. In the same year, "Telecommunication Access Conference" was established for preparing a guideline with the basis of this description, having an office at the Communication Industrial Association of Japan. This Conference announced "Accessibility Guidelines for Use of Telecommunication Equipment by People with Disabilities (the first edition)" in 2000. MITI and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications are making two similar guidelines for computers and telecommunications equipment. This fact symbolizes the problems of the vertically divided bureaucracy. Along with the progress of technology, distinction between information processing and telecommunications becomes vague. If products are sold in different standards (but still look alike), consumers will get confused. People concerned should start activities for harmonization of this matter.

8. Conclusions and Suggestions
After taking into account the needs of people with disabilities and older persons and the trends, our Committee, which contributed to the realization of barrier-free information, made the following suggestions:

  • The activities of the Committee should be maintained, and its responsibility should be carried by INSTAC, the center of public standardization activities.
  • This Committee should make a sector guideline of information and telecommunications field based on ISO/IEC Guide 71, and develop the activities to be a domestic standard. As for the activities for making a sector guideline, it should be conducted by combining the methods of top-down and bottom-up, such as lining up the items from Guide 71 by top-down, and extracting the specific standards by bottom-up for each item from individual guidelines.
  • It is necessary to develop standardization related to the accessibility of each hardware technology and software technology. Prioritizing is indispensable because of limited resources. Discussion of the order of priority should be done in this Committee.
  • A policy should be developed to allow people with disabilities and older persons to participate in the standardization activities and the research and development. The government may need to prepare education programs, and corporations and academic communities should cooperate. It is important to ask specialists of arts and society to participate in the standardization activities in this field.
  • It is appropriate to cooperate with other organizations or government offices that conduct the same activities in this field. This Committee, expressing policy establishment as a sector, should be a starter.

Barrier-free information has to be realized. As I have explained, standardization activities, contributing to the information barrier-free, have just begun.

It is hoped that the suggestions of this Committee are adopted, and the activities of this field will be actively managed.

Hajime Yamada

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications