Disability and Information Technology - Varney

Disability and Information Technology: A Comparative Study in Media Regulation

Eliza Varney, Cambridge Disability Law and Policy Series, Cambridge University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-521-19161-6. 288 pages

Catherine Easton [1]

With public and private institutions increasingly relying upon technology to provide services to end users, any group of people unable to access this technology will, in turn, find itself increasingly marginalised. This premise is at the heart of this important and timely publication which focuses on access to information technology for people with disabilities. Despite anti-discrimination law existing for decades, inaccessibility persists in the delivery of many services and this leads to the author's commendable and practical decision to focus the debate not only upon the law but also upon the relevant wider regulatory framework. While accepting that there is inaccessibility across the broad spectrum of information technology, Eliza Varney has chosen to address these issues in relation to digital television and "the televisionlike services transmitted via the Internet."

In a fitting reflection of the pervasive nature of information technology, the author passionately and deftly places her evaluation into the framework of citizenship and active societal participation. Exclusion from these spheres through the continuing persistence of access barriers can fundamentally damage the ability of individuals to participate within a democratic environment. In the light of these considerations, the author strongly argues that the regulatory framework must move beyond a focus on economic issues and on to social and political as " the interests of citizens cannot be left at the mercy of the market players." This premise runs throughout the book as the author, while placing the debate squarely within the social model of disability, makes a call for social rather than monetary considerations to shape regulatory responses.

The concept of universal design is drawn into the debate, highlighting how it differs from the notion of accessibility. In essence, universal design requires a fundamental shift of priorities in favour of all aspects of the environment being developed with inclusion as a priority from the outset, rather than requiring retrospective and potentially costly adjustments to an inaccessible norm. The author deals with the relevant technical requirements comprehensively but also in a clear, succinct manner, providing context for subsequent debate.

After the introductory analysis, the book moves towards an in-depth examination on a case study basis of the law and policy in a number of jurisdictions: Canada, the EU, the UK and the USA. These chapters provide a detailed analysis of the relevant legislation, jurisprudence, soft law and policy with the aim of drawing comparisons and identifying key challenges. The legal framework then provides the context for an evaluation of the extent to which the regulatory framework upholds the rights of persons with disabilities. Each chapter includes a "call for increased protection" which can be read as an appeal to policymakers, thereby increasing the potential impact of the recommendations. It is within this analysis that the decision to focus on one particular aspect of information technology, digital television, could be seen to constrain the debate, as the evaluation could be broadened through an in-depth comparison to other services.

The final section of the book draws together key themes from the case studies. These are placed within the context of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). This international convention specifically enshrines a right of access to information technology and, in this way, provides a much-needed legal response grounded strongly in the protection of the individual. This, as highlighted by the author, is crucial given that the case studies shed light on a common theme in that " regulatory frameworks confined to a perception of the public as economic actors…rather than citizens tend to overlook the wider social implications of access to information technology, including participation in society ." Due to this imbalance, Eliza Varney calls for the embedding of citizenship values into regulatory responses to avoid the pervasive, marginalising effects of unequal access. Crucially, the importance of the participation of people with disabilities in the development of technology law and policy is outlined and drawn back to the UNCRPD which itself was drafted following an innovative participatory model.

The decision to shape the observations from the case studies around the UNCRPD works well, as it serves as a strong rights-based framework against which to analyse responses which have often favoured economic considerations, while also enabling practical observations to be made on the nature of the Convention itself. In this respect, the book provides a unique perspective on the application of the Convention, drawing upon its rights-based provisions to appeal for a much-needed shift the information technology regulatory focus in order to enhance social considerations. In this way, the author has created an engaging, well-researched, prescient and thoughtful work that will appeal to researchers, activists, policymakers, lawmakers and students alike.

[1] University of Lancaster