Standardization of Accessibility in the Area of Information Communications
-- Towards Barrier-Free Equipment and Services of Information Communications --
By Hajime Yamada (GLOCOM)
Various equipment and services of information communications surround our everyday life. Examples include personal computers (PCs), personal digital assistants, mobile phones connectable to the Internet, automatic teller machines of financial institutions, ticket machines and kiosk information terminals at railroad stations, and interactive digital satellite broadcasting televisions.
However, at the moment these equipment and services are not necessarily very easy to use for all users. For example, standard input means of a PC through a keyboard and a mouse cannot be user-friendly for people with difficulty moving their limbs. Also, people with visual disabilities may have difficulties to utilize web pages full of images. Improving such circumstances is called improving "accessibility."
Typical users with accessibility problems are the elderly and people with disabilities. However, they are not the only ones who have difficulties in manipulating information communication equipment such as PCs. Improving such accessibility will also have an impact on other users, which will result in better penetration of equipment and services of information communications into our everyday lives. Improvement of accessibility is an inevitable task for promoting information society. In this issue, I will report trends of standardization in Japan by focusing on the accessibility of equipment and services of information communications.
In Japan, activities started in the late 1980s to prepare separate guidelines for information processing equipment and telecommunication facilities. For information processing equipment, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) was in the center of activities. As a result, "Accessibility Guideline for Use of Computers by People with Disabilities" was announced by MITI in 1995. In 2000 it was substituted by a revised MITI Announcement titled "Accessibility Guidelines for Use of Computers by People with Disabilities and Elderly."
For telecommunications facilities, an accessibility guideline for use of telecommunication facilities by people with disabilities was announced by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in 1998, and a guideline for creation of the Internet web contents accessible by people with disabilities was jointly announced by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 1999.
It is desirable that guidelines currently established separately for information processing devices and for telecommunications facilities be coordinated as much as possible, because the distinction between information processing and telecommunication is becoming increasingly vague with progress of technology, and consumers will be confused if products with similar but different specifications are sold in the market.
In 2000 activities to create a guideline common to all information communications fields began. An inner organization of Japan Standards Association called Information Technology Research and Standardization Center (INSTAC) autonomously established the Standardization Investigation Committee for Realizing Barrier-Free Access to Information in September of 2000. Based on the Committee's conclusions, the Standardization Investigation Committee for Improvement of Accessibility Common to Areas of Information Technology and Software Products was organized in April of 2001 within INSTAC, and started its activities as a body to carry out investigations entrusted by the government.
This committee is characteristic in its system. First, the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications (MPHPT) and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) both participate in supporting the committee's activities. It is remarkable in Japan, where ministries tend to compete against each other, that the two ministries formed a system together in cooperation with understanding of the importance of providing Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS) for the elderly and people with disabilities. Second, many groups and organizations such as industrial associations that had been preparing guidelines and promoting relevant activities on accessibility as separate product groups joined together in this committee. Other than these ministries and organizations, the committee consists of accessibility experts and representatives from enterprises and societies for people with disabilities. So far, its activities are aimed at drafting and establishing JIS in the spring of 2003.
The structure of the JIS draft under preparation, aiming at the realization of common accessibility to all areas of information communications, is as follows:
It is titled "Guidelines for the elderly and people with disabilities - information communication equipment and services."
The preface reads as below:
With the development of information society, all of us will utilize more and more equipment and services of information communications. These specifications are prepared as guidelines of improved accessibility for the elderly and people with disabilities including people with temporary disabilities to use such equipment and services. Specifications intend to provide common guidelines for any equipment and services of information communications. Therefore, when they are applied to individual equipment or services, appropriate specifications should be selected according to the type of the equipment or the service and other conditions.
A paragraph of scope follows: "These specifications define basic matters that require attention as the guidelines for designing equipment and services of information communications, such as information processing equipment, telecommunications facilities, office machines, software and the Internet, in order to enhance accessibility of mainly elderly people, people with disabilities and people who are temporarily disabled."
This JIS draft requires all equipment and services to meet the following general principles: Number one is a need for as much consideration as possible in planning, developing and designing equipment and services of information communication for the elderly and users with disabilities. Number two is a need that the safety of provided accessibility functions is ensured.
Then, the JIS draft requests careful consideration for accessibility at the stage of designing of equipment and services by providing a list of conditions as follows:
The basic requirements necessary to improve accessibility of equipment and services for information communications are listed below. Each item shall be considered independently from the others.
1. They are operable free of sight.
2. They are operable free of hearing.
3. They are operable free of speech.
4. They are operable regardless of differences of physique and muscular strength.
5. They are operable by people with disabilities of the lower limbs and wheelchair users.
6. They are operable with a single hand.
7. They are operable by a limited movement of hands, fingers or artificial limbs.
Moreover, the JIS draft is composed to show designers of such equipment and services necessary conditions to be met for improved accessibility by providing requirements for manipulation, as well as the requirements for development, designing and specifications, among others.
Standardization by JIS will enhance the spread of equipment and services with consideration for accessibility. The government announced standard guides for general evaluation and contract method of computers and services as the government supplies in 1995 as an agreement among concerning agencies and bureaus. Because of a statement in the announcement that reads: "Items to be evaluated shall be established in conformity with the international and national standard," government supplies are required to have been designed with consideration to accessibility. If the market is expanded by this announcement, it can trigger an explosive spread of such equipment and services to private sectors.
The JIS standard under preparation is a common guideline for designing all equipment and services of information communications fields, which will be ranked higher than the existing guidelines for individual equipment. Once JIS is established, each guideline for individual equipment will be reconsidered based upon this common design guideline in order to be standardized as JIS.
Concerning the accessibility of web pages, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and the Ministry of Health and Welfare（at the time）announced a guideline for creation of Internet web contents accessible by people with disabilities in 1999 as described above. In accordance with it, a basic concept for providing administrative information through electronic means was decided through inter-ministerial meetings in 2001. From then on, web sites of administrative organizations are required to follow this guideline. The JIS draft is being prepared to become consistent with the guideline, as well as the guideline of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). JIS standardization concerning the web accessibility will be completed in 2003.
Similar standardization activities are also progressing in Europe and in the United States. From the point of view of promoting social participation of the elderly and people with disabilities, it is desirable that these issues are also taken into consideration in different regions. However, if the established standard differs from region to region, it will not only confuse users but also erect barriers to international trade. In the future, it is necessary to promote international activities in this field and to coordinate the standards of various regions through those activities.