Memorandum submitted by Royal National
Institute for the Blind
RNIB is concerned that:
The Government has not given any
priority to the needs of visually impaired people in either the
development of communications policy or in pre-legislative consultation.
Two million visually impaired people
in the UK remain largely excluded from ICT and digital broadcasting,
with the situation deteriorating.
OFCOM must be fully representative
of disability and visual impairment issues and invested with a
more proactive role as advocate for excluded consumers.
The market has produced ICT equipment
and services that are not usable for blind and partially sighted
Legislation and regulation must ensure
enforceable industry standards and license conditions as opposed
to the currently envisaged emphasis on voluntary codes of practice
and general authorisations.
Digital switch-over will immediately
exclude between one and two million people from digital television
various potentially beneficial interactive citizenship services
at a stroke.
To give expert technical and evidential
policy testimony to the Committee on these issues.
Examples of services and equipment
which blatantly exclude people with sight difficulties.
Design and up-stream solutions.
The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB)
is the largest organisation representing the interests of the
almost two million visually impaired people in the UK. RNIB offers
a wide range of direct and indirect services in many sectors.
Our mission is to challenge the disabling effects of sight loss.
RNIB challenges all barriers in the path of blind and partially
sighted people and works to ensure their access to services and
information on an equitable basis.
RNIB is in touch with thousands of blind and
partially sighted individuals and local groups who have been expressing
increasing alarm about being excluded from the digital revolution,
with specific concern being expressed around digital broadcasting
and internet access.
ICT, broadcasting and visually impaired people
Two million people in the UK have
a serious sight problem which cannot be corrected by glasses.
A further nine million people would
struggle to read standard 12 point print on a LCD display.
RNIB uniquely understands that the enormous
growth of screen based technologies threatens to deny blind and
partially sighted people the benefits of the communications revolution.
Digital television and radio, EPGs, WAP mobile telephones, PDAs,
the internet, public information kiosks and ATMs could all easily
be made accessible to blind and partially sighted people but overwhelmingly
Future converging technologies will have even
greater capacity for screens or other visual data output devices
and therefore there will be an even greater danger that they will
exclude people who have restricted sight.
The relevant industries have demonstrated, by
and large, that despite intense lobbying they are not prepared
to put the research and development resources into designing inclusively,
and they feel that there is no statutory regulatory requirement
for them to do so, or even standards for them to follow. The previous
propensity of markets in the medium to long-term to develop common
standards is rendered obsolete by the pace of change. In this
context public sector leadership is vital, especially as people
are being excluded now.
OFCOM PAVING BILL
RNIB supports the creation of a single regulator
for the converging information, communication and broadcasting
industries. We recognise the huge potential of convergence for
deepening and extending the social, economic and cultural inclusion
of disabled people but caution that many are in danger of being
excluded from the benefits altogether.
It is RNIB's contention that the paving Bill
should spell out the principal objective and general duties of
the Secretary of State and the new regulator. We would want something
akin to the principal objective set out in the Utilities Act 2000
which marries protection for consumers with the promotion of effective
competition and includes specific reference to the Secretary of
State and the regulator's duty to have regard to the interests
of disabled people, pensioners, people on low incomes and individuals
living in rural areas. Visually impaired people fall under each
of these categories with, for example, 90 per cent being over
the age of 65 of whom nine in 10 live on an income of less than
half of the national average. Ideally we would want reference
to promoting full access to communication services for all disabled
As we understand it the plan is to have a Chairman
and the rest of the board in place by next springbefore
any principal objective and general duties have been established
and before the detail of the Communications Bill has received
any scrutiny. Key appointments will be made without reference
to any principal objective. Unless it is clear what the primary
objective of the new regulator is we fail to see how the right
appointments can be made. It is essential that the board know
at least in essence what their overarching purpose is and how
consumer protection features. In any case, a commitment to disability
equality and a real understanding of the access issues for disabled
people in relation to the different technologies should certainly
figure among the criteria for appointments. RNIB would argue that
one member of the board should be required to have personal experience
of disability and hold a brief to represent the interests of disabled
We are concerned that there is no reference
in this paving Bill to the principal objective of the new regulator,
no intention to create a shadow consumer structure and no provision
for disability access or representation.
These omissions reinforce our concerns that
the digital communications agenda is being driven forward with
a lack of practical commitment to securing the full inclusion
of visually impaired people.
Now is the time to make that commitment. The
White Paper indicated that OFCOM would be required to give due
weight to the need for improved access to communications services
for people with disabilities. Rather than take this on trust,
Parliament should ensure that it is built into the new regulatory
framework from the outset.
Since the board is apparently to play a key
role in setting the vision for OFCOM we think it essential that
Parliament gives them a clear steer in this Bill. As things stand
parliamentarians are effectively being asked to entrust appointees
with the vision for OFCOM.
Furthermore if there is going to be an argument
about the principal objective, and in particular what giving "due
weight" to the need for improved access to communication
services for people with disabilities means it should be had now
before we get into the detail promised in the draft Communications
Bill. There is a pressing need to ensure the shadow framework
has a clear overall purpose if the needs of visually impaired
and other disabled people are not to be an afterthought.
Shadow consumer structure
It is perfectly sensible to set up OFCOM in
a shadow form and make arrangements for a smooth transfer to the
new regime once the main Communications Bill has been enacted.
However, the same principle should have been applied to the consumer
structure. Energywatch was set up in shadow form and overlapped
with the outgoing gas and energy consumer structures. There is
no reason why the same approach should not have been used here,
especially in view of the pressing need to put disabled people
in the picture. Our fear is that the absence of such a structure
for communications signals a relatively weak consumer regime.
We would argue for a shadow, independent consumer panelwith
appropriate representation for visually impaired and other disabled
people and strong powersto be put in place sooner rather
RNIB has many current concerns about the course
of consultation and legislation. We would like to know
What high-level discussions Ministers
and officials are planning to initiate with disability organisations
on the scope and detail of the draft Bill?
Will arrangements be put in place
for ensuring alternative format versions of the draft bill and
any accompanying consultation papers are readily available and
effectively publicised to individual visually impaired people
and other disabled people and their organisations? What is the
Will the consultation process involve
proactively seeking out the views of visually impaired people
and other disabled people across the UK?
Are there plans to organise fully
accessible regional meetings/focus groups to discuss the proposals
with stakeholder groups?
Full parliamentary scrutiny will be vital.
We welcome the fact that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee
is already launching a further inquiry on the issue and see a
vital role for a Joint Committee of both houses to subject a draft
bill to rigorous pre-legislative scrutiny. The more the Joint
Committee can engage with stakeholder groups during its consideration
of a draft bill the better. This of course will have implications
for the length of the consultation period.
Government's overall objectives
RNIB welcomes the prospect of swift legislation
and the opportunity for consultation, and urges the Government
to continue to make contact with us on the technical issues around
visual impairment and converging technologies.
RNIB feels that the Government is in grave danger
of failing to ensure that services are accessible to visually
impaired and other disabled people. RNIB wants universal design
standards for service providers (eg EPGs) and manufacturers (equipment)
to be included in license conditions. We also want government
to specify short-term measures to ensure access if full access
is technically not feasible.
The promotion of inclusion can only be achieved
if it is evidentially based. The regulator must prioritise studies
of the user profiles of disabled and older people who are currently
excluded, examine future demographic change and put the business
case to suppliers and service providers.
Public service broadcasting
The market alone will not provide a universally
accessible and affordable system of PSB, especially to visually
impaired people. The White Paper recognised this, but failed to
suggest a solution. Access to public service channels is a key
concern for visually impaired people, and should be central to
RNIB is extremely concerned that digital broadcasting
is leaving blind and partially sighted people behind. The two
chief ways that people with sight impairments could enjoy TV programmes
are audio description and text manipulation. Yet
Only 45 blind households have been
given the equipment that can receive audio-description.
There are currently no plans to produce
any more of this equipment.
The government is using the fact
that there will be no equipment as a reason not to require more
programmes to be audio described.
The number of audio described programmes
is pitifully small compared to those that are sub-titled for deaf
At present blind viewers cannot use
digital television because of the inaccessibility of on-screen
There is no requirement that future
digital television sets include equipment for audio description
or accessible navigation features.
Many of the people who could benefit
the most from shopping, voting or communicating through interactive
television could be deprived of the opportunity.
Analogue TV switch-off
Unless action is taken now the switching off
of analogue television will force the 94 per cent of blind and
partially sighted people for whom TV is the major information
and entertainment conduit to struggle with:
small print and poor contrast screen
audio-description which is either
rare, expensive or non-existent;
and interactive features for which
they have already paid financially (by purchasing the set, or
package) but cannot use.
The Government has announced plans to launch
small-scale pilot projects offering free conversion to digital
television, including access to free-to-air digital channels and
interactive services, including the internet. However, none of
these trials include people with sight problems.
Clearly there is much pressure on the government
to provide incentives to encourage people to switchover. The Government
is keen to discourage speculation that it will give away free
set top boxes for fear of damage to the market and will need to
provide other incentives. However, people with sight problems
face a huge disincentive that not only will they not be able to
benefit from opportunities that digital TV brings but will find
it harder to change channel and find out what is on next.
The government could provide incentives for
people with sight problems by ensuring access to audio described
TV programmes and access to interactive services like the internet.
The internet is a powerful gateway to the world of communication
and information, and if people with sight problems could access
information about health, benefits and other services this would
increase their independence.
Internet access for blind and partially sighted
people is contingent on website accessibility, screen readers,
access software, training and affordability.
The internet promises the ability to receive
health and emotional support without having to travel to be in
the same room as the professional. These services delivered cheaply
and quickly could enormously benefit the section of the community
that is less mobile and less independent. It also has very pertinent
applications for those without useful sight.
The ability to shop, talk to a care worker,
vote, check the TV listings, book a taxi, pay bills, or write
to a relative through a digital television would revolutionise
the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens who are currently
unable to easily undertake these tasks on their own without added
RNIB wants clarification that "universal
access to the Internet by 2005" will mean access for everyone,
not just those who (feel confident that they) want it. Blind and
partially sighted people are largely technologically disenfranchised
and have the right to be sold the benefits of getting online and
to be aware of how they will be excluded if they are not online.
Legislation must not overlook the crucial aspects
of training and on-going support. Visually impaired users must
also be helped to upgrade their equipment so they stay connected.
RNIB believes that access to higher bandwidth
services will be crucial for blind and partially sighted people
and calls for representation on the group looking at future strategy.
RNIB agrees that the market will not deliver
universal affordable high speed connections, and that older visually
impaired people in rural communities will be particularly excluded.
Note that high-speed access is still very limited (and expensive
at £40 per month). Many rural areas not yet covered. The
availability of equitable and accessible library services for
blind and partially sighted is crucial to countering this excluding
RNIB respects the moral and economic elements
of copyright, and the entitlement of creative artists and of those
who add value to creative material to be fairly rewarded for their
endeavours. However, we see it as an abuse of copyright to use
it in any way that denies print disabled people, including visually
impaired people, equitable access to information.
For this reason we welcome the Government's
commitment in principle to introduce an exception in copyright
law for the benefit of blind and partially sighted people. We
very much hope to see legislation passed during the current session
of Parliament, and trust enough parliamentary time can be made
available. While it is the DTI which leads on copyright legislation,
the support of members of the Culture, Media and Sport Select
Committee would be most valuable.
The proposed legislation would eliminate the
need for permission to be sought prior to the production of alternative
formats, but would not deal with technical blocks to access, as
Technological developments mean that copyright-protected
material is increasingly presented on the Internet. Various rights
management systems are employed to regulate access to this material.
Unfortunately, they are often designed (no doubt inadvertently)
in such a way as to render the material inaccessible to blind
and partially sighted people. The display cannot be enlarged or
transposed into synthetic speech. The fundamental answer to this
problem lies in better design, and RNIB is actively involved in
influencing bodies such as the Open Electronic Book Forum.
However, blind and partially sighted people
also need a legislative framework which guarantees them alternative
means of access to material which is technologically blocked.
It is therefore essential that the European Copyright Directive
(Article 6.4.) is effectively implemented and that rights holders
are obliged to co-operate in overcoming these barriers. A draft
statutory instrument on the implementation of the directive will
be published by DTI this Spring. We hope it will face the issue
RNIB believes that the current enquiry would
benefit hugely from the evidence of an organisation representing
the interests of a large section of the community whose sensory
impairment present particular ineluctable structural challenges
to communications legislation and regulation. We remain hopeful
that the Committee call upon us to give oral testimony.