Report from Paris
The European eAccessibility Forum is an annual conference on digital accessibility, arranged by the national organisation of visually impaired in France, BrailleNet. This means there is usually a focus on visual impairments, but the aim of the event is to be quite broad, at least when it comes to print disabilities.
This year the overall theme was culture, which I am very happy about. Being part of this and other program committees on accessibility conferences, I feel the more enjoyable parts of life are often forgotten. Usually, the right to education and work is more in focus, and from a policy perspective it sometimes seems like paying taxes and communicating with public sector bodies are the most important things in life.
Anyway, Paris was extremely sunny and hot when the conference took place in June and there is always a friendly atmosphere despite the almost empty venue at the Museum of science and industry in Paris.
The panel I was chairing had the very fitting topic of music. It was called ”Celebrating diversity and driving creativity through digital technologies”. Gawain Hewitt from Drake Music, David Lemoine and Antoine Capet of BrutPop and Ross Parry from Jodi Mattes Trust presented several interesting examples of music making for persons with disabilities. The most interesting aspect in my view is the underground perspective of BrutPop, where accessible instruments are made in a cheap and clever way using everyday materials.
Diversity also in the way inclusion is to be seen
An interesting discussion occurred between the different perspectives from persons who are born with a disability and persons who have become disabled as grownups. This difference is natural and common, but to have an engaged debate around this on stage is rather unusual – and refreshing. Even among persons with disabilities, there is a need to be able to recognise and acknowledge the challenges and needs of others.
It is obvious that the conference is held in the country of Braille. The discussions about how much resources should be put into production and training in Braille is much more alive here than in any other country I know. Again, the clue here is what actually helps the users. In our part of the world, the majority of persons with severe visual impairments will acquire these with age, and many of them will not learn Braille. It is much harder to learn a new alphabet when you are older and some might also have difficulties with sensitivity in the fingertips. But does that mean that Braille is no longer important? Of course not. Children and young persons who learn Braille will have a fantastic opportunity to read independently, and persons who also experience hearing impairments do not have the option of using audio.
An audio guide with a human being describing things can be much more appealing than the automatic digital voice heard in screen readers. ”I fall asleep if the voice is that boring, it can destroy the experience”, said one speaker. On the other hand, persons who are used to work with screen readers usually prefer the digital voices since they are possible to use on a very high speed, which is absolutely necessary to make it an efficient tool for navigation etc. Of course, providing audio with brilliant actors reading the content is making a book much more interesting to most users, but it will always be a question of cost if the digital voices are not being used. If the alternatives are either a few fantastic texts read out loud by humans or all text read with a digital voice, the choice seems easy from a democratic perspective.
Also very clear was the ever lasting but still interesting differences in how different people see where the rights and duties lay; with the individual, the government or the market forces. Or a combination? Even though most of the speakers and the audience are from France, there are clearly cultural – or indeed political – differences in how this is perceived. When Sandrine Sophys-Veret from the Ministry of Culture and Communication talked about providing extra services to visually impaired for free, one of the participants said that he wanted to pay the same as everyone else. "Making it free of charge for persons with disabilities is a kind of discrimination!"
All in all, the conference pointed out the importance of making culture accessible, to which all agreed.