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G3ict Assistive Technologies Ecosystem Workshop and Brainstorming Session
  • Brussels, Belgium
  • November 17, 2009
  • Microsoft Executive Briefing Center for European Innovation
  • Hosted by Microsoft Corporation

Transforming the Assistive Technology Ecosystem:

A dialog among industry, government and NGOs


In November 2009, some 30 European policy makers, experts and representatives from the ICT industry, standards organizations and NGOs met in Brussels for a workshop organized by G3ict, the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs, in collaboration with Microsoft. The aim of the event was to facilitate a high-level multi-stakeholder dialogue identifying and addressing the many current challenges faced by the assistive technology (AT) sector and its capacity to provide accessibility solutions for mainstream information technology (IT) technology in the European Union and globally. In particular, they discussed how to promote greater interoperability between IT and AT.

Introduced by Axel Leblois, Executive Director of G3ict, the workshop was entitled "Transforming the Assistive Technology Ecosystem: A dialog among industry, government and NGOs". The attendees recognized that although the IT and AT industries already deliver excellent computing solutions to people with a broad range of impairments and disabilities, the interoperability between mainstream technology products and AT products must be improved. In a wide-ranging, lively and enlightening discussion a number of key themes emerged:

  • Improved AT/IT interoperability benefits everyone. For AT vendors it simplifies development and speeds up time-to-market. For mainstream technology developers, it makes achieving accessibility compliance in their products easier. For consumers, it makes more relevant and up-to-date AT products available.
  • The AT market in Europe is highly fragmented and operating far below its potential, with consumers under informed and mainstream manufacturers treating AT as a CSR issue rather than a business opportunity.
  • The AT ecosystem needs to be transformed from a cottage industry into a mainstream business. Progress is being made through a number of projects and programs but in the short term, the sector should increase the use of APIs for facilitating AT/IT interaction.
  • Collaboration between companies with very different priorities and a framework of effective institutional cooperation are essential to solving long-standing AT/IT interoperability challenges.
  • Development of AT products is not the main mainstream industry challenge at the moment. Lack of understanding amongst both developers and users is the greatest impediment to the wider uptake of AT in the mainstream industry.


The workshop

The expert attendees engaged in a lively and varied discussion of the issues. The introduction outlined the challenges facing efforts to implement the digital accessibility agenda and also highlighted the critical need to improve cooperation, collaboration and connectivity between mainstream IT and AT, both at the company and product levels.  The participants agreed that promoting a healthy and competitive AT/IT industry is vital for Europe to comply with the requirements of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Digital Accessibility Agenda. This international instrument mandates concrete regulatory measures guaranteeing the accessibility of ICTs and the promotion of the AT industry and is therefore an important benchmark for the 133 signatory governments.

Following the introduction there were three key presentations and roundtable discussions.

Paul Timmers, Head of the European Commission's E-inclusion Unit, gave a realistic and hard-hitting presentation on the state of Europe's AT industry. His major points included:

  • Most of the AT market is made up of micro enterprises, which are driven by personal dedication rather than business imperatives and acumen.
  • Many of them are only achieving a tiny part of their potential and often lag behind mainstream technology by 5 years or more. Many also lack the funds or confidence to enter into the mass market.
  • AT consumers have little knowledge of which AT solutions are already available and therefore largely rely on mainstream products.
  • Some mainstream manufacturers treat AT as part of their CSR activities rather than as a profit-making opportunity, leading to a lack of funds for R&D and a limited take up of the "design for all" concept.
  • There are hopeful changes taking place in the industry. Of particular note is the new concept of "open innovation", which allows disability organizations to bypass traditional innovation cycles, to partake in new technological combinations and to move into the mass consumer market. Additionally, there is indication that venture capital is being made available for AT market.


Mr. Jose Angel Martínez Usero, of Technosite at the ONCE Foundation talked about the various ways of transforming the AT ecosystem from a cottage industry into a mainstream business:

  • There are a number of projects underway to achieve help transform the AT industry, including: INREDIS, EASTIN, Keeping Pace with (Assistive) Technology and the GATEWAY Project.
  • Specialist AT companies are forced to focus on their basic survival because of the existing barriers to growth and penetration of the mass market.
  • There is positive progress thanks to the increased combination of open source and proprietary solutions, more awareness raising activities and active dissemination of best practice.
  • In the short term, the sector should increase the use of APIs for facilitating AT/IT interaction.
  • In the medium to long term the industry should explore the possibility of AT/IT interoperability through some kind of universal accessibility API, such as Microsoft's UIA, Java Accessibility API, GNOME accessibility API, IAccessible2, W3C's WAI-ARIA or the Macintosh Accessibility Framework.


Rob Sinclair, Director of Corporate Accessibility at Microsoft, presented a framework for addressing some of the challenges raised in the discussions and outlined potential next steps. His key points were:

  • Fostering a vibrant AT ecosystem and improving access to information and education around AT solutions is critical to allowing everyone to benefit fully from ICT.
  • Rather than introducing new accessibility APIs, tools and methodologies, significant progress can be made by encouraging IT and AT companies to support and implement existing accessibility APIs and by ensuring interoperability among them.
  • The Accessibility Interoperability Alliance (AIA) is a first step in this direction, bringing together companies with very different priorities to collaborate on the design and delivery of solutions to long-standing AT/IT interoperability challenges.
  • Development of AT products is not the main industry challenge at the moment. Priority should shift to areas that impede uptake of accessibility solutions. Specifically, AT vendors need support in raising awareness and widening product availability. And there needs to be increased focus on the education of software developers and increased support for customers to improve their understanding of and capacity to use accessibility products.
  • Progress must be coordinated by the industry as a whole, rather than being seen as the sole responsibility of AT vendors. And this progress must be delivered within the framework of effective institutional collaboration.


Survey results

As part of the workshop, participants were asked to fill in three different surveys and the results were discussed in the final session.

Mr. Timmers gave an overview of the responses to the questionnaire asking about barriers to the realization of a thriving AT ecosystem and how they can be addressed. Strikingly, participants felt that as well as the lack of standardization and public procurement support, the main reason for lack of progress in recent years was mainstream companies' limited interest, awareness and willingness of to engage. This was seen as a particularly acute problem for smaller vendors.

Mr. Martinez Usero discussed the results of the questionnaire on the future of accessible technologies in the light of emerging areas such as cloud computing and mash-ups. Open APIs were one of the solutions offered to drive greater up-take of accessible technology. During the discussion it was also acknowledged that much more needs to be done to increase the awareness and interest of customers, in particular on the organizational level.

Finally, Mr. Sinclair discussed the responses around long term strategies to drive AT/IT innovation. Funding and cost of maintenance were two of the challenges discussed and once again the participants believed interoperable APIs were high on the list of potential solutions for driving greater use of modern accessible technologies.

The complete results of the survey and the points raised are available below:

Paul Timmers, European Commission
Transforming the AT Ecosystem

Jose Angel Martínez Usero, Technosite at the ONCE Foundation
Accessible Technology Ecosystem and Why it is Critical

Rob Sinclair, Microsoft
Challenges and Opportunities for Accessibility & Interoperability

Please contact Francesca Cesa Bianchi at fcesabianchi@g3ict.org for an accessible version of the survey. 

Please contact Axel Leblois at axel_leblois@g3ict.org for further survey information.