The language of accessibility

The language of accessibilityMore and more language professionals provide language solutions for people who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind or who have low vision. They describe images, interpret in and out of a sign language, develop speech technology etc.

The general public knows the work of these language professionals mainly from film and television. Blind and partially sighted people get to hear a description of what is happening on the screen for more and more Flemish movies . And on television, many programs are available with subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Who are the users of all these language solutions? What explains that more and more language professionals earn their living with these language solutions? What is the profile of those professionals? And why is this whole evolution also interesting for you?

In seven articles, I will take you on a walk through the world of accessibility. We look at the users and what they need, at the language professionals, and the techniques and technologies that help ensure that everyone has equal access to information, public services, culture, leisure and social interaction. Finally, we'll also have a look at the market. The demand for language accessibility solutions is perhaps larger than you might expect.




Tim is in a wheelchair. He wants to ask a construction permit at the Town Hall, an old castle with stairs at the entrance. A ramp resolves that problem. The door of the office, where he is expected, is open. But before he enters, an official stops him. Tim doesn't understand the officer. Why is he not allowed to go into the office? He can only guess.

The information in the office is clearly not available to everyone, even though the door is open. Physical accessibility does not automatically include access to information.


Accessibility from past to present

According to the Dutch language bank of the Institute for the Dutch language (INT) 'access' has been used since the about 1200. "Toegaen" means to enter somewhere, access a place, and the "toeganc" is the literal road by which you enter a building.

Up until about 1500, entering somewhere is central to the concept of access. That way, a disease gets "toeganc" to the body. And the sunset is a "sun toeganc".

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the movement is still at its starting point. However, the language bank adds at each of the meanings that it can also mean figurative movement. In addition, around this time, the lemma "accessibility" also appears. That also gets a more abstract interpretation, like "accessible", "enter" and "visits", such as access to courses, performances etc.

The contemporary Van Dale dictionary describes both physical and figurative accessibility. According to Van Dale, access means "go somewhere, the ability to go somewhere, or the road that leads somewhere", but also" the ability to use; to consult, etc.". Van Dale remains rather vague about that last part.


Accessibility as physical availability

But how does the man or woman in the street define accessibility in 2016? To figure that out, I go into the centre of Ghent on a sunny Friday morning. I ask people in Dutch, English and Spanish what they think of when they hear the word accessibility.

What turns out? On my trip I especially hear the word 'wheelchair'. About two in three people said this word. Most people spontaneously think of accessibility as physical accessibility, the oldest meaning of the word access.


Access to services, information and communication?

Of course accessibility still includes physical accessibility. Without the ramp,Tim wouldn't be able to enter the Town Hall. But the second obstacle that he encounters is the limited access to services, information and communication. This accessibility problem is often still underestimated.

In 2001, the most recent socio-economic survey in Belgium was taken (SEE 2001). This showed that there are 319,000 blind or visually impaired people in Belgium, and 561,000 deaf or hard of hearing. On the other hand, the number of wheelchair users was 'only' 44,000. The data is already a few years old, but there is no reason to believe that the numbers have changed drastically.


Access to culture?

So far we mainly discussed access to information, services and communications. However important it may be to be able to apply for an identity card and to know when the garbage is picked up, life consists of more than practical matters.

Culture is an indispensable part of our society. Literature, theatre, dance, television, film and other forms of visual arts and culture give a community its own character. They should therefore also be accessible to all members of the community.

The Flemish Government agrees with this. She attaches importance to the accessibility of culture, even for those who do not see or hear (enough). Since 2012, she imposes quotas on both public service broadcasting and commercial channels for the accessibility of their programs. In addition, the Government has been making sure that there the Flemish Audiovisual Fund provides extra funds to make films more accessible.

The regulations from the Flemish Government are confined to the television and film landscape. But that does not prevent other people from making other forms of culture accessible as well. Theatre performances, dance performances, art exhibitions etc. are increasingly accessible to all.


Access to social interaction?

Social interaction is another essential part of our lives. Man was not made to be alone. We do many things together, for example at work or in a club. That is why a lot of people also deal with the accessibility of social interaction. That's why the Scouts and Guides Association of Flanders created the team 'Akabe'. This team looks at how people with disabilities can get a real scouts experience. They try to be as inclusive as possible.

In the virtual world, the gaming industry is also taking steps in the direction of a more accessible social interaction. A lot of video games are played online with other players. By making the games accessible, players who do not see or hear everything become part of this interaction. But also games that you play on your own, are leading to social interaction more and more often. You want to follow other gamers and talk about your gaming experience online, afterwards on the playground or at work

The gaming industry feels that video games are already a form of accessibility in themselves. Games allow you to do something you can't do in 'the real world'. It is therefore logical that games should try to be accessible to as many people as possible.


How can language provide access?

It is clear that accessibility is more than putting up a ramp, but what do we have to do with it as language professionals?

Whoever provides language services, is, in a sense, already helping to build a more accessible world. A literary translator ensures that the reader has access to literature outside his own culture. The Wablieft-newspaper makes news accessible to all readers with its bright language . Using voice technology, illiterate people can still send an e-mail. All these language services and products, developed by language professionals, ensure a world in which everyone can function more or less independently, and can enjoy all the (language) aspects of life.

But not all language services are equally suitable for everyone. People who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind or who have low vision, have other needs and desires than the more 'traditional' buyers of language services. That is why more and more language professionals are developing custom language solutions: applications that convert speech to text and vice versa, subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, descriptions on film images, at events or in a museum etc. These language professionals deliver linguistic services for the eye and for the ear. That way, those who cannot (sufficiently) see or hear, or are missing something for some other reason, can fully enjoy their right to access to information, services, culture, leisure and social interaction.

It is these language solutions and the professionals behind them that I would like to find out more about. Together we will look at the users and their needs, at who provides the solution, and at techniques and technology. Finally, we look at the market for accessibility.

Are you in a way involved with language accessibility solutions? Would you like to add an article about an initiative or innovation? Would you like to say your opinion? Please feel free to contact me. Your contribution can also be published, and we can make accessibility even more accessible. Mail to or call + 32 (0) 9 269 04 66.

Overview of the articles

The language of accessibility

The importance of accessibility

Accessibility meets diverse needs

Integrated language solutions: inclusive approach pays off

The accessibility professional

The language solutions of the accessibility professional

Accessibility is business

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Author: Eline Van der Jonckheyd

Machine translation: SDL BeGlobal

Post-editing: Quick Post-Editor 7

Source language: Nederlands (nl)

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