Digital Accessibility for Young Adults in Europe: tools, training and participation

This article is part of a Special Issue on The Social Value of European Research on Media Accessibility.

Digital technology continues to play an ever-increasing role in people’s lives, and has become an indispensable tool in many arenas, such as education and training, seeking employment, interacting with government bodies and companies, gaining an awareness of current affairs and issues faced by humanity, and communicating with others on digital platforms such as social media. Citizens have varying levels of physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities and disabilities—indeed, it is estimated that 80 million Europeans have a disability—and it is of vital importance that all have full and equal access to digital technologies. Moreover, digital accessibility is not just about facilitating access for the passive consumption of digital content, but crucially, it also involves “access to creation”, enabling users with varying abilities and disabilities to become prosumers, or in other words, fully participating, active agents and co-creators in digital production processes.

In many ways, the rapid development and widespread availability of sophisticated digital technology have opened up new possibilities for people with disabilities to access information and to communicate with the world. Moreover, digital accessibility is now recognised as a human right and a legal obligation by international and European legislation. It is covered by Articles 9 and 21 of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and is being implemented in the European Union via legislation such as the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, the European Accessibility Act and the Web and Mobile Accessibility Directive. In terms of web accessibility, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has been working to make the Web accessible to all since 1994. To this end, W3C created the Web Accessibility Initiative to develop web accessibility standards, the most recent version of which are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, which are recognised and followed worldwide.

However, despite these advances, and the enormous potential for digital technology to be truly accessible to all, the digital revolution is also reinforcing existing barriers and inequalities and creating new ones, leading to systemic discrimination. One of the main causes is that all too often, companies producing and purchasing digital technologies pay little attention to accessibility, and neglect to implement even readily available accessibility solutions.

Moreover, while now there are a great many training courses and materials on making digital media accessible aimed at producers of digital technologies and content, there is much less in the way of freely available training specifically designed for users with varying abilities and disabilities. Software packages, apps, and devices, etc., do usually come with their own accessibility user instructions, and some user associations provide training on specific technologies or focusing on specific disabilities. However, there is a lack of comprehensive training which takes a holistic approach, consolidating knowledge of a range of accessibility tools, bringing together people with varying abilities and disabilities, raising awareness of learners’ rights to digital accessibility and how to exercise them, and facilitating opportunities for learners to create their own digital content.

To create such training is one of the principal aims of Digital Accessibility for You (DA4You). Funded through the Erasmus+ programme, DA4You is a two-year EU project on media accessibility for young adults, aged 18-30, with varying sensory and/or learning abilities and disabilities, who have not studied at higher education levels. The project includes three partners: Mediehuset København, a Danish media company, Funka, a Swedish accessibility company, and the University of East Anglia, in Norwich (UK).

One of the main objectives of the project is to create customised training courses to help young adults understand their rights in terms of digital and web accessibility, to learn about the digital accessibility tools that are most easily available to them, and how they can use them to create media content, to apply for jobs, or exercise their rights.   

The training activities of the project comprise three main areas: legislation, digital accessibility and digital media production. The legislation activities aim to make the target group aware of their rights as users and to foster engagement with and participation in the democratic debate on accessibility in Europe. The digital accessibility activities will introduce learners to a range of digital tools and raise awareness of how new technologies can be used in different ways to access and create digital media content. The digital media production activities will educate and support young adults in the use and creation of digital media content (video, audio, social media, web). DA4You also aims to bring together and make all educational materials freely available to individuals, associations, educational institutions and libraries, etc., on an open and shared public service platform.

In this way, DA4You aims to contribute to meeting the need for digital accessibility training for young adults with varying abilities and disabilities across Europe, and to help them feel better equipped and more empowered to communicate with all audiences.

Sharon Black* and Carlos de Pablos-Ortega
University of East Anglia
Corresponding author: Sharon.Black {at} uea.ac.uk

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