fostering unity in diversity: the social value of european research on media accessibility

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

In 2000, the European Union adopted “in varietate concordia” (united in diversity) as its motto. According to the official webpage, the expression “signifies how Europeans have come together, in the form of the EU, to work for peace and prosperity, while at the same time being enriched by the continent’s many different cultures, traditions and languages.” The strength of the European project lies precisely in the aim of creating a community by embracing the diversity of its members. Unity in diversity means promoting the value of the vast human variety expressed by all its citizens, whether they be children, women, migrants, linguistic minorities, persons with disabilities, or the elderly. It entails fostering reciprocal understanding, inclusion and equitable opportunities for all.

The Shifts of Accessibility

When it comes to promoting inclusion and equitable opportunities, a term has been increasingly popping up on the screen, shining and blinking in bold letters: accessibility. Accessibility calls for leaving none behind in any aspect of life, for the loss of even a single individual is a loss of society as a whole.

Traditionally, accessibility has been addressed by adopting so-called particularist, maker-centred and reactive approaches. It means that, for a long time:

  • accessibility has been interpreted as related exclusively to some specific group, often persons with disabilities
  • that maker’s knowledge was considered sufficient to successfully tackle accessibility problems
  • and that accessibility concerns were considered as an add-on, that is, as an afterthought once the main product or service were already created.

Decades of research and real-life situations have proved these approaches to be unsuccessful. Trying to make an artefact accessible after it had already been developed, and doing so exclusively on the basis of the developer’s interpretation of the needs of some specific group and without any, or at most, very late involvement of users and accessibility experts, has led to a graveyard of failures. Addressing accessibility as an afterthought and with no involvement of users and experts has proved to be a costly process, or at worst, sometimes not possible at all. It is like trying to add carrots into an already baked cake to make it into a carrot cake. In order to have a proper carrot cake, the only way is to add the carrots at the very beginning of the recipe, together with all the other ingredients.

Fortunately, over the past decades, we have witnessed a shift towards new approaches in all the areas interested by and in accessibility, which have led to the emergence of a new research area called Accessibility Studies. The previous assumptions have been replaced by universalist, user-centred, and proactive approaches, that:

(a) view accessibility as concerning all human beings, and not only some specific group
(b) value users’ knowledge and experience to be fundamental to design successful artefacts
(c) and address accessibility concerns from the earliest stages of creation of an artefact, through the active participation of users and accessibility experts in the design process.

The Expansion of Media Accessibility

Information and communication technologies has been pervasively changing our society. A 2004 document published by the UNESCO highlighted, as one of their most disruptive effects, the “reconfiguration of access”. The information revolution has been radically reshaping of the ways in which we access the world, others, and ourselves, as echoed a decade later by The Onlife Manifesto published by the European Commission. Media content and technologies have been and are playing a pivotal part in this process. They are transforming old and creating new products, services and environments and causing the research area called “Media Accessibility” to shift from a niche within Translation Studies to one of the liveliest and fast-growing subdomains of Accessibility Studies. Media Accessibility concerns access to both media and non-media products, services, and environments through media solutions for all persons who cannot or would not be able to, either partially or completely, access them in their original form. Think about the extended use of subtitles (media solution) to make a film (media artefact) accessible to those who do not speak its original language; or consider the sharp increase in the development of mobile apps (media solutions) to offer new ways to enjoy archaeological sites (non-media artefacts).

The Accessibility Turn of European Policies

The pivotal role of Media Accessibility in promoting inclusion and equitable opportunities has been on the agenda of different European actors for quite some time. We can find mention of this in a vast array of very different documents, such as the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020, the Strategic Implementation Plan on Active and Healthy Ageing, the New Framework Strategy for Multilingualism, and the Digital Single Market Strategy. This widespread presence shows how many European actors have acknowledged that Media Accessibility impacts not only the lives of the 80 million people with disabilities, but all European citizens, especially those at risk of cultural and social exclusion, such as the elderly, children, and language minorities.

This awareness has made Media Accessibility strategic to achieve the most pressing priorities of the European Commission. If we look closely at the past twelve months, we can bear witness to how this has been boosted to such an extent that we can speak of a veritable accessibility turn in European policies. The past year has witnessed

(a) the publication of the update of the standard for “accessibility requirements for ICT products and services” (EN 301549:2018)
(b) the adoption of the implementing acts under the Web Accessibility Directive
(c) the release of the standard on “Design for All” (EN 17161:2019)
(d) the publication of the revised version of the Audiovisual Services Media Directive
(e) and most importantly, the approval of the European Accessibility Act.

From the Present to the Future of European Research

Given the attention to Media Accessibility in European policies, it is no surprise that the European Commission has been funding a number of projects to address some of its most pressing issues, mostly within the Horizon2020 programme. This special issue of EuroScientist collects articles that present and discuss some of these projects. The vast range of topics covered by the articles thoroughly present the magnitude of Media Accessibility’s impact on different aspects of society. Topics span from accessibility solutions in immersive environments to crowdsourcing platforms for sign language; from accessible distributed social networks to new avatars for sign language; from training programmes for interlingual live subtitling and easy-to-understand audiovisual content to digital accessibility for young adults; and from understanding quality in Media Accessibility to accessible technologies to foster migrants’ integration.

The effects of the information societies will increasingly make Media Accessibility, and Accessibility Studies in general, evermore crucial research areas. This special issue should be first read as a testimony of the efforts of the European Commission to promote accessibility through the investment of public funds to address some of the major challenges related to accessibility, in order to promote a more inclusive society.

The projects discussed in this special issue focus exclusively on Media Accessibility. Sometimes referred to as the (media) accessibility cluster of EU projects, they represent just a fraction of those funded by the European Commission on accessibility. Taken all together, the projects on accessibility make up a small part of all EU funded projects. The vast majority of EU funding calls still does not include accessibility as a requisite. The risk is that of investing resources in the development of technologies, products and services that are innovative, even ground-breaking, yet not accessible. This special issue should also be read as a call to European actors, primarily the European Commission, for the need for widespread and mainstream accessibility through all its funding programmes. The accessibility turn of European policies represents a significant step towards an inclusive society. Yet, in order for it to truly take shape to become effective, one further, decisive step is needed: to promote the adoption of universalist, user-centred and proactive approaches in all EU funding programmes. Making accessibility a central concern in European funding would encourage the development of technologies, products, and services that will respond to the specific needs of all European citizens, provide them with equitable opportunities, and let them build unity through embracing each other’s diversity. Accessibility will thus serve to further consolidate the European project and make Europe a community where no member is left behind.

By Gian Maria Greco (gianmaria.greco@poiesis.it) from the
Autonomous University of Barcelona (Spain)

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