1998 Conference Proceedings

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Egidio Ballabio
Head of Unit, Disabled & Elderly Sector
Telematics Application Programme, DGXIII/C5
Rue de la Loi 200, B1049 Brussels, Belgium
Telephone +322 299 0232
Fax +322 299 0248
Email: Egidio.Ballabio@bxl.dg13.cec.be 

Michael Underwood
Disabled & Elderly Sector
Telematics Application Programme, DGXIII/C5
Rue de la Loi 200, B1049 Brussels, Belgium
Telephone +322 299 0243
Fax +322 299 0248
Email: Michael.Underwood@bxl.dg13.cec.be


Starting in 1993 with the pilot phase of the TIDE Programme (Technology Initiative for Disabled and Elderly people), the European Union (EU) has been funding collaborative research into the application of technology to combat the effects of disability and improve the quality of life for disabled and elderly people. This line of research is now incorporated into the EU's framework programme of Research, Technological Development and Demonstration activities, which is agreed by all member states as addressing issues of common interest. Planning is now underway for the Fifth Framework programme, which will run from 1999 to 2004; exploitation of the results is likely to occur in the timescale 2005 onwards. This paper describes some of the challenges zin planning a research programme that will address the requirements of disabled and elderly people in the rapidly evolving Information Society.

Fifth Framework Programme

The Fifth Framework Programme encompasses all the major EU funded research for the next five years at an expected cost of around $15B. The research will be focused on four main themes of economic and social significance to the member states of the European Union. One of these themes is concerned with "Creating a user-friendly Information Society". This theme will address both applications-driven research as well as the more conventional technology research involving Information and Communication technologies. The issues of ageing and disability have been identified as one of the research areas in a key action concerned with systems and services for the citizen. Currently, the plans for the Fifth Framework Programme proposed by the EU executive body, the European Commission, are being discussed by two other EU bodies, the European Parliament and Council of Research ministers. Approval of the programme is expected during 1998, with initial projects starting during 1999. The ideas advanced in this paper were developed during a consultation exercise in 1997, and are due to be refined further before the first call for proposals at the end of 1998.

Planning for the Information Society

All aspects of today's society - lifestyles, wealth generation and distribution, work and government - will change radically due to rapid technology convergence and globalization occurring in the fields of computing, entertainment, communication and consumer electronics. This is the reason why we in Europe refer to these wide-ranging changes as the Information Society rather than the Information Highway. We want to stress the social impact of the introduction of these technologies, rather than the technology itself.

Whilst is not difficult to extrapolate technological developments in a given time-frame, for example processing speed or communication bandwidth, it is much more difficult to predict the impact and rate of uptake of technological developments. The obvious example is the continuing rapid and evolving growth in the use of the Internet.

The starting point in planning applications-oriented research is to look at the requirements of society and individuals to ensure that the evolving technology is developed and deployed in the best way to meet human needs, both current and anticipated. Applications-oriented research is driven by user needs, involving all the appropriate actors, not least the ultimate end-users of the technology. This approach continues the TIDE tradition of active involvement of end-users at all stages in the product life-cycle, from concept through to market release. This involvement, which is so essential for handling disability is now becoming established as the model for all Information Technology (IT) systems development, to ensure that products meet the needs of their users, and that the ever-increasing complexity of products is usable and delivers real benefit.

An Ageing Society

During a consultation exercise with users, researchers, industry and service providers, the following key trends were identified that set the focus for planning the research.

The traditional view that older people and disabled people are dependent and passive is being replaced with a new focus on their equality, independent living and active participation as consumers and citizens. By 2020, 25% of the European population will be over 60 years old, compared with 18% in 1990. Thus we can anticipate the increasing significance of older people as a major consumer segment with greater spending power.

The proportion of the population aged over 80 that is at risk from frailty and disability, currently standing at 3%, will double in the next 20 years to around 18 million people in the EU. This will give rise to increased pressure to contain the already significant economic costs of providing social care and financial support. One possible approach will be the use of technology-based solutions for products and services that support independent living for older and disabled people.

The proportion of the working to non-working population will further decrease to around 2.5:1 in 20 years giving rise to labour market pressures encouraging older people to remain in the labour force, working either full-time or part-time, or in other flexible ways.

Finally, legislative environments are being created that require the elimination of discrimination and the adoption of active measures to ensure that all elements of the Information Society are accessible to disabled people. Prime examples are the US Telecommunications Act of 1996 that requires that all telecommunication products and services be accessible by disabled people and of course, the American Disability Discrimination Act. With the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997, the EU introduced an anti-discriminatory clause into its founding treaties. However, its application might prove to be difficult due to the fact that it requires a unanimous vote by all member states. For this reason, Europe will have to rely much more on standardization than the US. Our over-riding goal however, is to ensure that no new barriers are created.

The Vision: Towards an Information Society for All

To create a new generation of Information Society products and services that ensure full access, participation and equality for all citizens, especially for older and disabled persons; to open up new markets and extend existing ones for European industry; and to implement new and cost-effective solutions to the social and economic challenges posed by the ageing of the European population.

This vision requires that research is carried out to address the needs of both the end-users and the organisations concerned with supplying them with products and services. In the European context, with its proportionately higher expenditure on social spending, it is essential that both demand and supply issues are fully addressed, to maximise the benefits from publicly-funded research.

Design for All

The Fifth Framework Programme of the EU, with its emphasis on creating a user-friendly information society provides a unique opportunity to adopt a new approach to assistive technology research. Instead of fighting a rear-guard action to overcome the customs, attitudes, and discriminations of the past, there is an opportunity to create new social systems, new ways of education, work and leisure and even government itself. This requires that all new systems and services must be designed from the outset to be accessible by as wide a range of people as possible - Design for All. This approach is also likely to result in larger markets for product and service providers. One of the major challenges here is to show that designing a more flexible product addressing a larger market is more cost-effective and profitable than designing several less flexible products for smaller markets.

In the long term, Design for All is likely to be the most effective way of integrating older people and disabled people in society, and providing them with the products and services they need.

The development and marketing of modern sophisticated products and services is driven by a number of economic and technological considerations at each stage during the product life-cycle. Whilst some companies are beginning to design their products to be usable and modifiable by those with disabilities, much work remains to be done in three main areas. Firstly, there is a lack of awareness regarding what can be done, and the potential socio-economic benefits of adopting a design-for-all approach. Secondly, the increased awareness needs to be accompanied by a change in attitude of the decision-makers in organisations. Finally, the approach needs to be supported with appropriate methods and tools.

Research activities have been identified in all these areas; to identify and promote examples of good practice, to identify the cost benefits through the use of carefully costed demonstrators and continued developments in the methods and tools. The research community that has been working with disabled people are the right people do this work as they have the understanding required. However, the results of this research will be used by the marketeers and designers of mainstream product and service providers, and so they also need to be involved in the research as users. The ultimate target audience of end-users, disabled people and older people will benefit only when Design for All has become an accepted part of mainstream product design as user-centred design is now becoming.

Assistive Systems and Services

In circumstances, where it is not economically feasible to apply the Design for All approach, or where the need falls outside mainstream products, (for example, hearing aids) it is necessary to research specialist assistive solutions. Our consultative group identified three major categories of user need, which are explained below. However, a fundamental requirement for these specialist systems is that they are fully inter-operable with mainstream products and services. To do otherwise, would continue to create unnecessary barriers for the users, as they would have to struggle with an increasing range of incompatible products and services.

Systems to Support Social Integration and Participation in Society

At a personal level, the key aspects of integration and participation arise in work, education, leisure and representation (democracy). We have already referred to the need for changing patterns of work created by an ageing society. The current situation is that unemployment rates in the European Union are at least twice as high amongst disabled people as the rest of the community. Application research is needed into investigating new opportunities for IT-based work. Tele-working is an obvious example as it enables people who are house-bound to undertake productive work from their own homes. Further research is needed into how the work place can be readily adapted to meet the needs of disabled people. This need is likely to be driven by the impact of further anti-discrimination legislation

New jobs, new ways of working, responding to continuing technological change in turn require attention to life-long learning. Courses and course material will need to be designed to readily understandable by disabled and older people. The research need here is to understand how to structure and present information according to the cognitive and sensory characteristics of users. The advances made in this area, as in many other areas of AT research, may lead to benefits for the population at large, as we understand how to make information presentation methods better adapted to individual users needs.

Increased leisure time is likely to create its own demands for electronically assisted forms of entertainment, presented in ways that enable all to participate. An example from earlier TIDE research is a spoken descriptive service to accompany television broadcasts for the benefit of visually impaired people.

Systems to support Autonomous Living

Research is needed here to develop and evaluate systems that will enable individuals to live as independently as possible, and/or to give them access to a range of care services provided by either formal or informal care-providers. Successful research would lead to an improved quality of life for individuals, reduced dependency on carers and release scarce resources for hard-pressed social services. Topics to be addressed include telecommunications-based support services, integrated mobility systems spanning both the smart home and the smart neighbourhood, security and monitoring systems, tools for the analysis and adaptation of the home environment, social support and social intervention networks involving professional and informal carers, and providing better co-ordination between service providers, both public and private.

Adaptive or Assistive Technology Devices

This area is largely concerned with individual assistive devices and addresses a wide variety of impairments such as visual, hearing, mobility, intellectual and psychological, each of which poses its own requirements and needs different solutions. Combinations of impairment lead to additional problems, restricting the possible solutions even more. Successful research leads to products that have the potential to improve quality of life, with a higher degree of personal autonomy and less dependence on personal care by others. A number of key areas were identified for research including personal devices for communication, mobility and sensory support, direct bodily communication and connection devices, special peripherals and human-computer interfaces, and tools for the assessment and evaluation of assistive technologies.

Long Term Research

To complement the application-oriented work described above, some long-term research actions have been identified that are not expected to yield exploitation in the 2005 timescale. These actions are to address gaps in our fundamental knowledge about human characteristics, developing specific technological capabilities addressing disability or gaining a better understanding of the interaction between technology and society. The intention is that this long-term research will provide the necessary under-pinning for applications-oriented research in the future, outside the time-scale of the Fifth Framework Programme. As this work is less focused on immediate exploitable application, it will need to be managed in a different way from the applications-oriented research.

Accompanying Measures

Past experience has shown that a number of associated actions are required in this area if the results of the research are to have the greatest benefit. These are allowed within the context of an EU framework programme. A wide range of such actions is envisaged to deal with issues such as awareness and dissemination, improving product and service delivery, identification of legal and regulatory issues, training, and technology transfer. Socio-economic studies are also required, both at the programme level to inform national and regional decision-makers and at the individual project level.


The proposed programme of research is expected to yield two kinds of benefits. Firstly, the research will lead to new systems and services addressing the needs of disabled and older people, thereby improving their quality of life and integration in society. Previous experience indicates that some of these developments will result in benefits to all citizens, not just the disabled and elderly. Secondly, the primary socio-economic benefit will be a good understanding of the role that advanced technology can play in ensuring a better care and quality of life for older people and disabled people. This will enable decision-makers to make more informed decisions regarding the challenges and problems of an ageing society.


This paper has outlined some of the thinking behind future EU-funded research that will address the needs of disabled people and older people in the Information Society. Much of the research effort in the past has gone into the development of dedicated assistive technology products and services. As we start to create the Information Society for the twenty-first century and beyond, the new focus is to ensure that no new barriers are created that deny people access to essential systems and services. Our goal is to undertake the research that will help build an Information Society for All.

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