The following blog post was written by James Thurston – Director of International Accessibility Policy at Microsoft. James works with Microsoft’s global subsidiaries, NGOs, and governments around the world to develop public policies that support broad digital inclusion.

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Yesterday Microsoft co-hosted an important policy discussion with the European Disability Forum (EDF) at the European Parliament here in Brussels, Belgium. EDF is a non-governmental organization that is committed to creating a more inclusive Europe for persons with disabilities. The partnership between EDF and Microsoft was inspired by a shared belief that collaboration between civil society and industry is indispensable to achieving the common goal of a more inclusive society for all.

Yesterday’s discussion brought together accessibility thought leaders in Europe to focus on the important topics of accessible e-government and e-voting. Both topics are timely and noteworthy due to recent and forthcoming legislation (i.e. the Directive on Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites and the European Accessibility Act), the European Year of Citizens and the upcoming European elections.

Caption: MEP Pablo Arias speaks during the EDF-Microsoft panel discussion on e-government.

The goal of this event was to gather innovative ideas and share expertise from a broad range of perspectives – government, civil society, and industry.  We succeeded.  Here are some highlights:

  • Mr. Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, Member of the European Parliament and rapporteur of the Proposal for a Directive on Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites, made the important points that accessible e-voting is an issue of trust and that today we have the technology to bridge the gap that allows more independent voting for persons with disabilities.
  • Mr. Pablo Arias, Member of the European Parliament and coordinator of the Working Group on Digital Single Market, observed that in this digital age lawmakers also need to be more innovative and deal quickly with critical inclusion issues like e-voting and e-government.
  • Mr. Ask Abildgaard, Member of the European Economic and Social Committee and rapporteur of the EESC opinion on the Proposal for a Directive on Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites, talked about the importance of awareness and training campaigns to facilitate the effective implementation of new directives related to accessibility.
  • Ms. Inmaculada Placencia Porrero, Deputy Head of Unit, DG Justice, European Commission, summarized how the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has influenced Europe’s actions on accessibility.
  • Mr. Yannis Yallouros, Member of the executive committee of EDF and the former Vice President of European Union of Deaf (EUD), reminded us that in addition to ensuring a right to vote for all we must also ensure the right to be informed as voters through access to information and institutions.
  • Ms. Susanna Laurin, Chief Executive Officer of Funka Nu in Sweden, urged all the participants to look at accessible e-voting and government as a great opportunity and to move quickly to action.
  • Ms. Carlotta Besozzi, EDF Director and member of the steering group of the European Year of Citizens 2013 Alliance (EYCA), pointed out that one of the major challenges of pushing for more inclusive citizenship is to make e-government services more clear and easy to use by everyone.

That is just a flavor of the excellent discussion between the more than 40 attendees from yesterday.  Our next joint accessibility and inclusion policy dialogue with EDF will be early in 2014.