Standards in support of assistive technology and accessibility – important but hard to find

A report from the AAATE/SIG workshop on “Standardisation” (S13N) in Bologna, August 2019

There is no doubt that standards are important for both assistive and accessible technology (AT). However, it has become very difficult, if not almost impossible to have a good view of all applicable standards. Additionally, not all standards that should include AT and accessibility aspects do so and the contribution of persons with disabilities to the elaboration of these standards is often not possible. A group of 20 AT and accessibility experts gathered this August in Bologna to discuss a possible way forward.

The standardization landscape is rich and complex – or in other words, it is really hard to find and contribute to relevant standards. On one hand, we deal with a great variety of standard development organizations (SDOs) and a multitude of stakeholders, who often invest incoherent efforts resulting in incompatible outcomes. One case in point is the development of symbol sets for augmented and alternative communication (AAC), where we have several sets of symbols from different SDOs which are incompatible with each other and create confusion among users. Such examples there are many.

“We need standards”, was the unanimous conviction among the workshop participants, and “we need people to use standards!” – people in the latter case referring to industry and organisations. However, even if the good will to do so exists, there is great difficulty in finding the applicable standards, because the AT sector does not have a standardization eco-system.

Assistive technology is very diverse. It includes a number of different user communities as well as societal stakeholders (persons with disabilities, elderly people, social workers, families etc.), relates to a wide range of technologies (from accessible mainstream hardware and software to highly specialized AT), and must consider multiple aspects such as the users’ health, individual impairments, affordability, emerging applications eHealth, eEducation, smart cities and so on.

All of this diversity must be catered for in AT and accessibility related standards. Some suggestions of how to effectively push the integration of accessibility related aspects in standards, was to select standards that are in of update, get involved in the review of the standard and contribute specifically aspects related to accessibility as well as references to other related accessibility and AT standards.

If we want people with disabilities involved in this work, we will need to establish a low-level entrance and simplify the complexity in standardisation work. This can be done by creating a platform where the associations provide access to the necessary documents and take away the organisational difficulties in getting engaged in the SDOs. We would need a team of people that identify the standards open for revision, then make a call for experts from the AT and accessibility sector who are invited to annotate, make comments, provide references to related AT and accessibility standards, and help them submit their comments. This would be a good first step to feed the theme of accessibility and AT into the general standardisation process. An activity that would match the mandate of AAATE’s Special Interest Group (SIG) on Standardisation.

However, there is an additional aspect: “The main problems are lack of information on new standards, little knowledge of standards to be applied, proper understanding and applying of standards, obtaining certificates of compliance with standards and inability to take part in drafting new standards.” While Claire d’Esclercs, Director for Membership Development at ETSI was referring to Small and Medium Sized Enterprises when she mentioned this in a 2019 presentation, it holds true for a broader number of stakeholders in the AT and accessibility sector.

To be truly effective, AAATE’s Special Interest Group would need to tackle both: the active involvement in pushing accessibility and AT related information and references into and through the standardization processes, as well as educate stakeholders about the existing standards, the need for their application and the need for stakeholders to get actively involved with the standardisation bodies.

And the SIG’s work will not be limited to that. Standardisation starts with the vocabulary and there are currently a number of different definitions for assistive technology around – depending on a societal, policy, technological perspective… In the future, content will also need to be interoperable – not only between languages but it will need to be conceptualised as content gets new dimensions with new emerging technologies (automated lip-reading, text to speech etc.). We will need a methodology for that.

A humongous task for which the SIG will need support, which may come in form of collaborations with like-minded organisations such as RESNA, RESJA, IEEE, W3C, OASIS and really anyone interested in AT and accessibility related standards. 

The workshop concluded with the participants’ agreement on the importance of improving or even creating the AT and accessibility eco-system, as well as with a call for interest for wider participation in the activities of AAATE’s Special Interest Group.