Finns Work for e-Accessibility

Article of the month

Helsinki, 1 October, 2002 — The hot topic in Finland in October is eAccessability. It is increasingly important to make the services and products of the information society accessible to everyone, including elderly people and people with disabilities, and in different situations, including mobile access.

It is increasingly important to make the services and products of the information society accessible to everyone, including elderly people and people with disabilities, and in different situations, including mobile access. Best practices for this need to be documented and disseminated, and good examples and working models need to be developed. This was emphasized in the presentation by Erkki Liikanen, the European Commissioner for Enterprise and Information society, in the official kick-off event of the Finnish Design for All (DfA) network on September 23rd, 2002. Among the national parts of the European Design for All e-Accessibility Network (EdeAN), the Finnish network has the best coverage of expertise, and it already has activities including the preparation of online courses and other materials, seminars, brochures, and work on creating accessible eLearning environments.

Web Accessibility Explained

A guide to Web accessibility and Design for All has been prepared at TIEKE (Finnish information society development centre) and published on the Diffuse pages. Diffuse is a joint project by TIEKE, IC Focus, and The SGML Centre, funded by the European commission, and it publishes guidance and reference material on information society technologies and their standards.

The guide explains how accessibility of the built environment has counterparts in information society services and products and why these aspects, e-accessibility, are increasingly important. Information technology can help people overcome physical and other limitations; but unless designed properly, Web pages and other IT services can be inaccessible to a large number of people. To take a simple example, the rather common approach of constructing the main page of a Web site from images makes its completely inaccessible to the blind, unless the simple precaution of providing textual alternatives to each image has been taken. The guide also discusses the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines and the problems and approaches of implementing them.

The guide describes how solutions that make things more accessible to people with disabilities also help all people in temporary or situation-dependent problems. For example, anyone using a portable computer in a moving bus encounters problems similar to the effects of motoric disabilities (difficulties in e.g. moving one’s hand with precision). In such situations it is essential that the user can handle all input using the keyboard only. Similarly, “fluid design” on Web pages, allowing the page to adapt to various dimensions of the display area, helps people with a limited field of vision but also people using modern small devices. — Such aspects are especially important in Finland, where the use of mobile technology is widespread and has a high status. At the level of people’s attitudes, it is important to associate the concept of Design for All both with the needs of disabled and elderly people and with modern technology and modern lifestyle. The image on the right symbolizes this; it is actually from the Mobile user’s ABC published by TIEKE in Finnish and in Swedish in 2001.

At the national level, an online brochure on Web accessibility has been prepared in Finnish in co-operation between several organizations that now belong to the DfA network. The guide has been published on the TIEKE pages, which also contain extensive technically oriented material on implementing accessibility. A compact version of the brochure was prepared and published in printed form by TIEKE and Stakes, the National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health, which acts as the co-ordinator of the Finnish DfA network.

Web accessibility is of course just part of digital (electronic) accessibility. For example, as CD roms become more and more important, partly replacing books, it becomes crucial how accessible they are. But the Web is very important for two basic reasons: it has a huge amount of information and services, and it is an environment where accessibility techniques can be developed, tested and implemented much more easily than in most other media.

Finnish DfA Network: the Model Students

After entering the European Union in 1995, Finns have tried hard to be model students, and have largely succeeded. The DfA network is no exception: it includes a large variety of relevant organizations, with preparedness to work together, and the Finnish way of setting up a national network has been used as an example and a model for other countries in the European network. The partners of the Finnish network already had contacts and co-operation with each other, so the idea of a network of “Centres of Excellence”, as they say in Brussels, was not taken as yet another bureaucratic maneuver from the European Union. Rather, it was taken as an opportunity to create more stable forms for co-operation, to launch new activities, and to create contacts with other experts in Europe.

Among the already initiated activities which now have a wider context and supporting organization, the “Essi” project is strongly based on co-operation. It will create an online course on designing Web content, especially teaching material, so that it is accessible to all. The use of modern e-Learning technologies in Finnish educational institutes make it necessary to support content producers in making the content accessible to anyone. This implies, among other things, the need for adaptivity to individual differences in ways to study and to learn. The course material is being produced in a distributed manner. Naturally this requires quite some co-ordination and checking, but this approach is needed to achieve the ambitious goals. The project is coordinated by Hannu Puupponen (of open university activities of the University of Jyväskylä).

The “Digital impartiality” project is another strongly cooperative effort. It is especially oriented towards equal participation in interactive communication on digital media, including networked e-Learning and discussion forum environments. To quote the project description, it is “designed to result in a practical DfA model of Internet-based services for people with special needs. During the project, communication and knowledge management techniques that are typical for people with special needs will be pilot-tested on the Internet.” This will include collecting information on the requirements of people with special needed on Internet access with the aid of various equipment types like digi-TV and mobile technologies. Due to its approach and concreteness, the project has raised quite some interest in the Workshop in Relation to Design-for-All and Assistive Technologies for ICT, an activity at CEN, the European Committee for Standardisation. The project is coordinated by Petri Virtanen (of Avence Digital Oy).

Finns Face a Terminology Puzzle: “Design for All”

Expressions such as “Accessibility”, “universal access”, “inclusive design”, and “barrier free design” reflect more or less the same approach and goal as “Design for All”. In part, this multitude of terms reflects the variety of problems and solutions but also variation in emphasis and views. This is itself an accessibility problem! In Europe, the expression “Design for All” is becoming more and more common; it emphasizes the goal of making mainstream products suitable to all people, instead of separate versions for people with disabilities.

But there is no simple way to translate “Design for All” into a compact Finnish expression. On the other hand, there are good reasons use an expression that has a connection to European activities. Thus, the expression has been used as such, for now. This, too, is an accessibility problem; not all Finns understand English fluently. Besides, “design” is in fairly common use as a loan word in Finnish, but in a meaning that is much narrower than in English, basically just ‘industrial art’, which often has the connotation of expensive and thereby exclusive design!

No wonder, then, that Commissioner Liikanen encouraged Finns to invent a better, Finnish expression for “Design for All”. The ideas in the discussions that followed have largely revolved around Liikanen’s own idea “sopii kaikille”, which is Finnish for “suits everyone”. Maybe the solution to this linguistic puzzle, which is much more than an intellectual exercise, will produce some ideas and slogans that can be converted back to English and other languages.

Citizen’s Portal to Public Administration: suomi.fi

The Web site www.suomi.fi/ is the portal for Finland’s public sector services and related information. It is organized topically so that the user can navigate according to his needs, without knowing in advance which administrative organ deals with the affair. If you wish to know about fishing, you should be able to get to relevant information using that concept directly, rather than start by guessing whether such issues are administered by some municipal authority or some ministry. This is on aspect of accessibility: making information available so that it is organized in an easily understandable way and for the user, rather than for the information provider. But in addition to that, more technical aspects of accessibility were considered; and, as a result, the site adapts rather well to different browsing environments. By the way, there is also a section in English on the site, and it mostly contains practical information relevant to immigrants and emigrants.

There have been useability and accessibility problems with some public services on the Internet due to their requirements on obligatory registration of users and even requirements on reliable electronic identification of the user. The recent trend, affirmed in a recommendation by the ministry of finance, is that citizens must be able to access public information without any registration, and identification shall be required only when the nature of the transaction makes that necessary. In particular, the majority of Finnish legislation is now freely available on the net (at finlex.fi) in Finnish and in Swedish.

The Happy Triangle Drama: Citizens, Enterprises, Government

Work on accessibility has largely concentrated on the public sector. Although accessibility of public Web sites is increasingly important, it is essential to aim at overall accessibility that covers business sites and sites of the third sector (citizens’ organizations and individual citizens) as well. Currently national recommendations on accessibility have been given on public Web sites only, in a recommendation with code JHS 129, which presents guidelines for public sites in general and strongly emphasizes accessibility in accordance with WAI recommendations. So there is work to be done to find ways to promote compatible principles for private and third sector, in a manner that appropriately deals with the variety of purposes that Web sites might be set up for.

In particular, there is a considerable challenge to show the business benefits of accessibility, to create feasible strategies for implementing accessibility, which is often a long-term process, and to study and demonstrate how accessibility and esthetic visual design can be combined. This means that the Finnish DfA network will, among other things, act as a forum for defining projects and finding partners for them. Companies and individuals have started to understand that they need help from people who are experts on disability issues.

Finnish W3C Office

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the key organization in “Leading the Web to its Full Potential...”, to quote their motto. Specifically, the WAI recommendations, cited by everyone who deals with Web accessibility, have been prepared and issued by the W3C.

The Consortium has regional offices “to promote adoption of W3C recommendations among developers, application builders, and standards setters, and to encourage inclusion of stakeholder organizations in the creation of future recommendations by joining W3C”.

Jukka Korpela
Senior Adviser
TIEKE The Finnish Information Society Development Centre

More information
jukka.korpela@tieke.fi
http://www.stakes.fi/dfa-suomi/
http://www.e-accessibility.org/
http://www.diffuse.org/accessibility.html