The EECC and the Accessibility Act represent steps forward for accessibility, but Member States still need to implement the solutions. As we’ve seen, there are already some ad-hoc solutions in various countries. Although these represent significant progress, we must also consider their limitations. What options are available to countries committing to accessible emergency response?
In many European countries, such as Belgium, Italy and Ireland, emergency SMS services are set up specifically for people with disabilities. For those unable or finding it difficult to communicate by voice, the SMS service can be lifesaving in times of emergency, but it has its shortcomings. In many cases, people wishing to use the service must pre-register or request the relevant numbers from the authorities. Similarly, specialised apps for each country (or region), such as those launched in Malta, Spain and Portugal, also often require pre-registration and, of course, to be downloaded. People with disabilities therefore are not granted to same level of access as other end-users, who can simply call 112 at anytime, anywhere in Europe, without preparatory actions.
SMS also brings the challenge of locating the person in danger. 15 countries have already deployed Advanced Mobile Location, which locates an emergency caller using their mobile phone location services. This number is about to get a lot higher, as new EU legislation has made it mandatory for Member States to make use of mobile location during emergencies. But people who are unable to contact emergency services via voice call cannot benefit from this lifesaving technology. In countries where SMS services are used, some emergency organisations have even opted to ask callers to start with a voice call so that they can locate them.
The use of SMS services and specialised apps are a good start for countries in terms of improving accessibility, but we should not stop there. As we’ve already seen in France, options such as Total Conversation can transform the way people with disabilities request urgent help. Total Conversation means that people can communicate simultaneously using video, voice and text services in real time. Importantly, this service was developed and supported by the deaf and hard of hearing community, but it can also respond to the needs of a variety of disabilities, including speech and cognitive disabilities, allowing access on an equal basis to other citizens.