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Access to Electronic Commerce

Disability Rights

Access to Electronic Commerce For Older Australians And People With A Disability

Address By Graeme Innes

Deputy Disability Discrimination Commissioner

to the Conference Of The Roundtable For People With A Print Disability

22 May 2000

Graeme Innes


Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Roundtable about the Commission's e-commerce report. In the tradition of W3C universal design for access for all this will not be a wysiwyg   (what you see is what you get) speech -  there will be no overheads, slides or power-point presentations. It will be a wyhiwyg (what you hear is what you get) speech in my voice - only marginally easier to understand (some would suggest) than the latest automated eloquence of dectalk.

However, I've had my morning coffee so I'll do the best I can.

Let me begin, as any good lawyer will, with a few caveats. The first is that this will not be a presentation for the technically-minded or knowledgeable in this area, because this is an important but elite club of which I am not a member. In fact, as Tim Noonan and David Mason will testify, I was only dragged kicking and screaming to the use of a PC with a qwerty keyboard last September. I'm not saying I hadn't used notetaking and other devices in the past, but the last six months have been a steep learning curve and a revelation.

My second caveat is that I only intend to give a summary of the Commission's inquiry process and a brief overview of the issues to be dealt with in the e-commerce report. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the detail is on the Commission's website,  and has been for some months - I'll give you some tastes, but if you want the whole meal you should go to the site yourselves.

Secondly, the Attorney-General has not yet tabled the report, and so I must be somewhat constrained in what I can say.

My final introductory comment is to note the work of David Mason, the Director of the Commission's DDA Policy Unit, and to explain our roles in this inquiry process. Whilst one of the reasons that I was appointed as Deputy Disability Discrimination Commissioner was to assist the President, Alice Tay, in the conduct of the  e-commerce inquiry, David has had the major carriage of it, and authored most of the discussion papers during the inquiry, and the report itself. David is a better and quicker writer than me, and some suggest that I am a clearer talker, so perhaps our roles in the inquiry and today are appropriate.

45 minutes is set aside for this session, but I'm keen for discussion to occur, so I'll only speak for about half of that time.

The Inquiry Process

In August last year the Attorney-General  gave the Commission a reference on e-commerce. Interestingly, such a reference initiates one of the two ways in which the Commission can conduct an inquiry. The other is where we publicly inquire into, or investigate (to establish a distinction) complaints lodged under the DDA. This commenced some 12-18 months ago and is an expansion of the Commission's role which was formerly limited  to the private investigation of complaints. This more public form, used in appropriate cases where systemic issues are involved, has dealt with issues such as access to Summer Hill  Railway Station, impact of mobile phones on people with hearing impairment, captioned television, captioned movies, and access to the electoral process. The investigations are carried out on the net, which makes them possible with the limited resources we have. But these inquiries are not my topic today- however they are available at

To return to the Attorney's reference, it related to the implications for older Australians and those with a disability of development and use of new technologies; outlining their specific needs in these areas; looking at difficulties and restrictions in accessing and benefiting from them; advising on removing barriers; auditing internet sites; advise on education or training; recommending ways to improve access; and suggesting minimum standards. E-commerce was defined broadly, and we were to consult with all stakeholders. We were to report by 31 March this year (which we have done) but the report has not yet been tabled in Parliament.

The inquiry was conducted openly and on the internet. Many of you will have read the initial discussion paper published, as well as the various material written and gathered during theinquiry. If not, it's all on that website-

The Report In General

The report itself is really a summarised colation of all of that material. It recognises developments which have occurred during the inquiry, makes some recommendations for activities in other areas, and sets some directions for the future.

The report contains little which will surprise this audience. Its value will be in its setting out of the issues, raising awareness and focussing attention, and in providing a platform from which issues can be taken forward. Hopefully, such progress can occur on a co-operative basis. However, if government and industry do not grasp such an opportunity, it will provide a resource for the addressing of discrimination issues  by the legislative means available at Commonwealth and State levels.

Work for the  inquiry confirmed that physical barriers, affordability and equipment access barriers, and attitudinal and awareness barriers are preventing the subject group from having equally effective access to e-commerce and  other services using new technologies.  Many issues are common between older Australians and those with disabilities - ATMs, interactive voice response systems, and internet-based services. Disability  access issues are more accurately perceived as universal access issues - fixing them will improve access for all.

I cannot, of course, pre-empt the Attorney's tabling of the report by detailing contents and, more particularly, recommendations made. I can, however, outline the areas covered, and  express Commission views, some of which are  already on the public record.

Is there a problem?

This audience does not need convincing that there is a problem. It is clear that a much lower percentage of older Australians use the internet, ATM, phone banking and other similar technologies. Last year 73% of 18-24 year olds, and 16% of  people over 55 used the internet. This gap is mirrored, although not quite so largely for EFTPOS, ATMs, and phone banking. If this represents individual decisions not to use such  technologies this is not necessarily a problem. However, if exclusion is the reason, then this is a human rights issue. The removal of barriers will in some cases require a degree of effort. However, in the Commission's view, this is countered by the commercial gains to be made.

Barriers identified included: cost of computers and internet connection; limited public access facilities; limited resources and information on customised equipment; lack of awareness of available options; inaccessibility of web pages to people with vision impairments, slower connections and older equipment;  EFTPOS, ATMs and similar devices not accessible; safety and security concerns for atms; privacy and security concerns on the net; interactive voice response problems because of time, menu complexity, lack of human operators; lack or delay in provision of materials for copyright and other reasons.

Benefits Of Access

Access to documents, goods and services through the internet, once initial barriers are overcome, can provide substantial gains for the subject groups. They include: removing the need for travel, removing the problem of turning pages, of seeing the material, or not reading written English. Also, people who do not speak English can use translators, e-mail for deaf people or those with hearing impairments, etc. A related benefit is availability at the same time - particularly relevant for vision-impaired people.         

Interactive voice response systems are increasing. They offer efficiencies in service delivery, and convenience because they can operate 24 hours a day. For people with a print disability they often remove many of the access barriers. However, being complete substitutes, rather than inherent features, causes access problems.

ATMs and EFTPOS initially provided more independence, as they could be used by vision-impaired people. However, with more complexity this is no longer the case. The same convenience and efficiency benefits apply to the community in general, but communications and physical access are problems. However, if universally accessible, they can avoid physical barriers in bank buildings, avoid travelling and carrying of cash, etc.

Initiatives And Developments

The discussion paper noted a number of positive initiatives, and the report further details these. However, in most cases, they need to be expanded or development needs to continue. The inquiry addressed a number of areas.

At November 1999 25% of Australian households had access to the internet. Whilst this figure is growing, and the cost of such access is declining, one of the major barriers for the subject group is cost - a higher proportion of this group is on low or fixed incomes. This could be addressed by access through community facilities. Such access could be resourced by all levels of government and big business. These were encouraged to make superseded equipment available, in partnership with community organisations.

The passage of the Electronic Transactions Act was welcomed throughout the inquiry. It will apply to a limited range of laws until July 2000, after which it will apply to all laws not specifically exempted. It will give electronic formats equivalent recognition to paper. Similar legislation is in process at State levels, where many more electronic transactions occur. However, it must be remembered that not all electronic formats are accessible.

My views on copyright law reform were set out in an opinion piece in the Australian several weeks ago. I commended the Attorney on positive reform proposals addressing copyright on digital materials, setting out a negotiation process for the provision of copyright, and establishing a tribunal for the resolution of disputes. However, I was very critical of the far more limited regime proposed by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which completely ignored the needs of people with a print disability, whilst cynically offering an exception for people living more than 4 days post away from their local library- but we  have, as a nation, a severe dose of rara fever - regional and remote Australia.  The average 6-8 week delay for transcription noted by the RVIB in its submission to the Commission was totally ignored.

Material on the commission's site deals in detail with webpage accessability. It notes the barriers for people with disabilities, older equipment and slower connections. It recognises the benefits of universal design approaches, and recognises W3C guidelines as the appropriate reference point.

The work we did on Commonwealth sites, also on the web, showed that there were significant barriers. Most are easy to remedy, but there is a need for agencies to test and fix their own sites.  We have not yet named sites, but we won't hold off forever. Further, such inaccessible sites are open to DDA complaints.

On 21 March 2000 Cabinet adopted specific accesability requirements for Commonwealth sites as part of its policy for use of the internet, and the Commission welcomes this. All sites must be audited against W3C accessability guidelines by 1 May 2000, all new contracted site work must include accessability benchmarks from this date, and all must meet these guidelines by 31 December 2000.

State governments are also setting out similar policies, but access to such sites is at least as patchy as Commonwealth sites. Specific targets here need to be adopted.

Similar access problems exist on private sector sites. Again we have not published details. However, business needs to focus on these issues. The Commission's advisory notes, largely adopting W3C guidelines, provide assistance in this area.

Two consultants reports on access to ATMs are on the Commissions site - one by John Moxon on physical access, and one by Tim Noonan on communications access issues. For physical access the admittedly small sample audited shows disappointing results. On communications access the need for flexibility, consistency, speech as well as screen output, better contrast and markings etc. Wells Fargo and Bank Of America are both rolling out speaking ATMs, so the technology is available. The Australian Standard on ATMs is way out of date, and needs review. Building access standards, whilst not perfect, are far more advanced and should be relied on by banks.

The most comprehensive review of EFTPOS issues is contained in Tim Noonan's report on accessible e-commerce in Australia, linked from the Commission's site. A major problem is that many units are touch-sensitive, forcing people with disabilities to breach the security of their pin. This and other universal access issues need to be addressed.

Information kiosks were considered in the inquiry, and there is much material linked from the site. Problems with access to these are widespread, with the use of touch-screens being one major issue. Whilst much of the information from these may be available from other sources, their convenient location and easy access cannot be overlooked. The data might be on the net, but you can't walk through tourist or similar sites carrying your laptop plugged into your mobile phone. Standards need to be developed and followed in this area.

Automated ticketing machines also cause access problems. Public transport and other service providers will need to ensure access, and international industry bodies can help in this area with standard development.

Service providers also need to consider the impact of various verification of identity mechanisms. All mechanisms cause some  people problems, and flexibility and alternatives need to be put in place. Discriminatory exclusion by the use of only one method has been the subject of a number of DDA complaints to date.       

Interactive voice response systems need to comply with international standards which will achieve more consistency. Longer waiting times, and access to human operators, will also be of benefit.


One of the major benefits of this inquiry has been the gathering of resources in this area, so that information can be more easily accessed. The area is constantly changing, and the Commission will attempt to keep this material updated.

Inquiries such as this serve as a platform for new initiatives. It is hoped that the information gathered, and the recommendations in the report, will direct co-operative efforts between industry and Australians who are older or have a disability towards achievement of more universal access. This will be the most effective way for government and industry to expand their market share by inclusion of these groups.

The alternative is continued exclusion, and the resorting by some to legislative enforcement mechanisms.

It is the Comstission's hope that the way in which the inquiry has been conducted, and the report presented, will encourage and facilitate the former rather than the latter.  Universal access to e-commerce has advantages for  providers and users, and these can best be achieved co-operatively.