Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 325 - 339)




  325. Good afternoon, Mr Twitchin. It is very good of you to give us your time and come before us. We will run for just over half an hour, if that is all right with you. Thank you for the paper which you have supplied to us in advance, which we have all had time to read. We also have a paper from the RNIB, to which you made reference, so it is possible you may want to pick up on some of their points as well as some of your responses. Turning to the eEurope paper and their activities in Europe, I wonder if you would like to prioritise for us, as you see it, the major issues which should be pursued.

  (Mr Twitchin) I find it very hard to pick out priorities but I think there are three which really strike me as being absolutely key. One is the issue of taking account of the requirements of older people. I think that is a very serious omission and perhaps I can come back to that in more detail. The other top priority I would see is making sure that the requirements of students with special requirements or disabilities are taken account of in a project about young people. The third one I would say would be the making of websites, the adoption of the website and accessibility criteria. Those would be the three[1].

  326. Thank you very much. May I take your third one first of all and ask if you could develop that a little bit further, because I spotted it in your paper and in the RNIB's paper. I am not fully conversant with all the aspects of it.

  A. This is one particular project. The Web Accessibility Initiative has actually done a lot of work in looking at the criteria that enabled people with sensory and mobility problems, obviously particularly people with visual impairment, to be able to understand the information that is being presented on a screen essentially. One of the problems is that recent research on the World Wide Web, which was done in America, suggested that probably only about 10 per cent of sites were reasonably intelligible to somebody who was actually having to use a reader to interpret what is on the screen, which they are not able to see. This is a difficulty for people being able to understand the information and being able to bring it up in a format which they can read; the possibility of putting things into large print and so on.

  327. Has anybody tried to do any work on this either in America or Europe?

  A. Yes. The WAI, which is referred to in the RNIB paper and which we have quoted, there is a lot of work being done on this. There are some very good standards which are being produced and guidelines for web compilers, but there is a great need for the sites to be looked at and revised to come into compliance with those standards.

  328. This is a topic which we might explore ourselves as a possible area to support.

  A. Very much so. Yes.

  329. Could I, before I open it up to my colleagues, move on to the issue of accessibility and standards for disabled people. At present, most access is through PCs. The word is that increasingly we will be using mobile telephony and also using TVs for going on to the Internet. My eyesight has deteriorated in recent years at about the same pace as the size of mobile phones has decreased. If this is to be possibly the major modem of entering into the Internet in the future—for most people certainly it is a way in which people across all classes can probably get easier access to the Internet than having to buy PCs—how will this affect the disabled people, unless there are standards laid down there which make them easier to handle?

  A. There are two issues. There is the issue of standards, which is absolutely key: that it is possible for the information, which is being presented in these formats, to be then reinterpreted and produced in other formats. Perhaps the obvious one is that output which would have come out in text. There is an interface so that this is able to be printed in braille to put to a braille reader. That is one example. So there has to be those protocols to enable that to be done. There is another issue, which is a very great weakness at the moment, which is the availability of suitable terminal equipment for people, particularly people with sensory impairment, to be able to access these services. It is a great weakness of all the current provision that access seems to stop at the socket in the wall for fixed services. There is no powerful requirement for there to be equipment (within the range of terminal equipment) which meets the needs of disabled people.

  330. What about mobile phones then, about the size? They are very much fashion items these days. Has any work been done to try to ensure that they are user-friendly for people with disabilities?

  A. I would not say that no work has been done but certainly I do not think that satisfactory results have been obtained. Take one example. There are only a very small number of mobile phones which have keyboards, which would obviously be of tremendous assistance to people who use text phones. With one of those mobile phones with a keyboard it was possible for that to inter-work with the text phones, which are the normal means for people with severe hearing impairment communicating, but you had to buy software for this phone which cost another £250 in order to be able to inter-work with text phones. There is a real gap here which is not being met. Could I perhaps expand on that slightly because an argument, which is often used, is that if there is a niche, the market will exploit that niche; will meet that need. But I think the problem with mobile phones—and this applies to quite a lot of parts of information technology—if the market is expanding so fast there is no need to go for difficult areas of the market unless there is an obligation to do so. We are going to be in that situation for some while. So I distrust arguments that there is no need for regulation. There is a considerable need.

  331. This is an area where we might spent a little bit of time thinking about it; where there might be some case for lines being laid down for manufacturers.

  A. Yes. One of the difficulties in the way in which current European legislation has been put together is that it has separated out the provisions of terminal equipment from the provision of telecommunications services and so it has been very difficult. A large number of groups have been trying to work to get provision made, but it has not been possible. We have been doing a lot of work with the DTI and so on, but the work we have done so far has not extended as far as mobiles. Mobiles have been excluded from the current area but even in terms of the fixed line communications we have not yet been able to sort out the terminal business.

  332. But mobiles are supposed to be the coming thing, are they not?

  A. Yes, absolutely, and are particularly important in terms of security links. I think if you were trying to identify groups of the population for which mobile phones could be very important indeed, disabled and elderly people would be those groups.

Lord Skelmersdale

  333. You have already started to answer my question. Having a partially sighted, computer-literate brother-in-law, I am well aware of the problems of blind and near blind people. It is also perfectly obvious that if you have sensory impairment in your fingers, it will be difficult to use keyboards and mobile telephones. Nonetheless, voice recognition input is very much a fact of life although, of course, it is expensive because you need to have much more capacity in your machine. But voice recognition outwards, as yet, I have not come across. Does it exist? It obviously should exist.

  A. It exists in embryo. There is a lot of work being done. I would say we are still some years away from getting a really flexible system. There are systems now which will recognise a small number of words from different voices, or a large number of words from one voice with training. This is something that this is developing fairly rapidly, but I would say it is medium rather than very short term.

  334. In the meantime, what other problems are there, either with software or hardware, for the groups of disabled persons that you and I have not mentioned?

  A. The one glaring one we have not mentioned so far is the interference between hearing aids and mobile phones and also, we ought to say, digital cordless phones, which are becoming more and more frequent in office environments and so on. The current digital cordless causes a lot of problems. There is only one model of mobile phone I am aware of which has addressed this issue. You can purchase an induction loop to wear round your neck to enable you to use this model mobile phone, but the loop is £50 on top of what is a relatively very expensive model mobile phone, so it is expensive. One of the things which is quite frustrating is that if a mobile phone has the aerial at the other end, away from the ear piece, the interference is much less. There is one model which has the aerial at the opposite end from the earpiece. Apparently, hearing aid users find that is usable by them, but this seems to have been just a matter of a design fad. The needs of hearing aid users were not taken into account when this model was created. So it is serendipitous.

  335. The problems are principally hardware rather than software?

  A. I think apart from the problem we have spoken about earlier, this compatibility between the technology of keying on mobile phones and text phone working, I would say, yes, hardware is the main problem.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

  336. I wish I knew more about this area. Does your organisation deal with mental disability when it coincides with physical disability?

  A. Yes.

  337. I am simply relying on some experience I had once with the mildly mentally disabled, combined with physically disabled, who always seem to lose out in society. Is there a case for saying that a great deal could be done for the mentally ill and, if so, can you expand on that.

  A. I do very much feel that is true. Perhaps I could just briefly say that DIEL has a responsibility to advise the Director General of Telecommunications on the needs of all disabled and elderly people, which does very much include people with learning disability as well as people with all kinds of physical disability. Yes, there is tremendous opportunity for structuring both equipment and the way in which information is provided to help people with the learning disability actually to interact and get the information they need and to obtain the services they want. This is perhaps a slight digression but in one of the areas that is mentioned in the communication is smart cards. There is a tremendous possibility here for a smart card, which defined the kind of requirements of an individual, so that when the smart card was introduced to the system it realised that they needed a simple interface, or large print, or whatever it was—even down to symbols, perhaps, in some cases. I do think this is one area where there is tremendous potential. One of the points which has come up though, which is fairly basic, is a need for people to be able to access a human being easily if they need to. I think, just from the example of the kind of phone-in systems which are employed by organisations at the moment for elderly people, people with learning disabilities, people who have difficulty with communicating, people with manual problems in punching buttons, it is so frustrating when there is no option in your first half a dozen menus to speak to a human being.

  338. Leading on from that, rather as I remember the enormous difference which was made when the word "ineducable" came out of the language, it really had a dramatic difference, is this the same also with this category of mildly disabled who could, in one's own experience, probably have useful civilian lives but also be employed. A lot of these problems we are dealing with, e-commerce in this whole world, the problems we are talking about are not new. They are old ones. Is this category recognised as such? A group of people who seem to fall between two stools.

  A. In practice, yes. Certainly there is a continuum. That is an interesting point. It is an area probably that has not had an enormous amount of attention. In terms of using computers for education and training packages, a lot has been done to cover the whole spectrum, and particularly computer based learning can be very good for people who need more time to go through a process. So in that area quite a lot of work has been done, but one of the difficulties is linking it into this tremendous movement and making sure that what has been learned in those areas is picked up and applied in this whole area.

  Lord Cavendish of Furness: Very many thanks.

Baroness O'Cathain

  339. Thank you very much, Mr Twitchin. I think this is absolutely fascinating. There are two things I want to ask you. First of all, there is this Web Accessibility Initiative, which was referred to by my Lord Chairman in his opening comments, the WAI. Obviously this is in the category "a good thing". There are lots of things which are in that category "a good thing" and nobody does anything about it. If you had the ability to do something about it, what would you do? Instead of throwing buckets of money at it and making it available to everybody, do you in your work and in all the research you have done have a wonderful idea of what Governments or the EU or somebody or something could do to help on this WAI? If the world were your oyster, what would you do?

  A. First of all, I think one would make sure that all Government and Government-related sites adopted these principles. I would like to have, taking you at your word, something on the lines of American compliance ideas, that Government would deal only through sites which had these standards.

1   The witness subsequently added the following:

On consideration, I think my first priority should have been that the requirements of disabled and elderly people should have been specifically included in all the key action areas identified in the Communication. Targets for the inclusion of disabled and elderly people in the initiatives planned should be included in all the key action areas. This is the only way in which disabled and older people's needs will really become part of the main stream of e-commerce development rather than an afterthought.

There should, however, also be more specific and inclusive targets set for the specific action area targeted at disabled people. These targets are listed in my written evidence and that submitted by the RNIB. 

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