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​HAKOM's 3rd International Conference "Accessible Future" Opened Numerous Questions About Accessibility and Opportunities Offered by Artificial Intelligence

Around 1.3 billion people worldwide, including 15 percent of the European population and 17 percent of the population in Croatia, have some form of disability. What can they expect from electronic communication services and the application of artificial intelligence?
ZAGREB, June 12, 2024 - The third international conference "Accessible Future" was held in Zagreb on Wednesday, June 12. As in previous years, the focus was on addressing the challenges faced by people with disabilities in modern society. The goal of the conference was to connect policymakers and regulators, industry and media, as well as experts in standardization and technology with users, particularly people with disabilities, and to raise awareness of this issue in society. Ensuring digital and physical accessibility for all in the network activities regulated by HAKOM is a primary goal, as well as sharing knowledge and experiences to create a synergistic effect for greater societal progress.
For the second consecutive year, HAKOM organized the conference in collaboration with Poslovni dnevnik as a project partner. The conference also included the final event of the project "Experience is Worth as Gold," which Poslovni dnevnik has been conducting since 2013 in cooperation with the main partner, the Institute for Expert Evaluation, Professional Rehabilitation, and Employment of Persons with Disabilities (ZOSI), the association Zamisli, and under the patronage of the Ministry of Labor, Pension System, Family, and Social Policy. This project provides students with disabilities the opportunity to gain work experience in leading Croatian companies.

17 Percent of Croatia's Population Consists of People with Disabilities

In the opening segment of the conference, Tonko Obuljen, President of the HAKOM Council and this year's Chair of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), emphasized the importance of ensuring accessibility and HAKOM's role in this endeavour. "Last year, I called for us to jump on the accessibility train, and this year the train is the conference logo, with a significant part of it dedicated to artificial intelligence. HAKOM has been working on accessibility issues since 2017, expanding our efforts to all areas we cover. Last year, we had a panel on the position of users with disabilities at BEREC's stakeholder forum, and this year we will try to push for the continuation of these efforts through our working group to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities," he highlighted.
Vladimir Nišević, Editor-in-Chief of Poslovni dnevnik, stressed that both HAKOM and Poslovni dnevnik transitioned from words to action several years ago when it comes to people with disabilities. "Through the 'Experience is Worth Gold' project, about 30 people have found permanent employment, and this conference is an excellent collaborative project," he said, inviting other institutions to join because society can achieve a lot for people with disabilities together. "This is a population that deserves it, which in many ways is better than us and therefore needs equal opportunities," he added.
Darijo Jurišić, Ombudsman for People with Disabilities, noted in his speech that 17 percent of Croatia's total population consists of people with disabilities. It is important to develop solutions to ensure that spaces, products, and services are equally accessible to them. Communication accessibility is crucial, and digital solutions improve the experience for all users, including those with disabilities. Digital accessibility is undeniably the only window to the world for many. An accessible future has long been more than just a wish; it is our obligation. Last year, a significant number of regulations for people with disabilities were introduced, and their implementation is possible precisely due to numerous digitalization processes.

Ivan Vidiš, State Secretary in the Ministry of Labour, Pension System, Family, and Social Policy, spoke about measures, support, and investments in employment. "My strong impression is that the quality of governance is reflected in how well it cares for those who are vulnerable and need support. We have a broad scope within which we need to make strides. While the focus on the labour market is essential, it is equally important that people are included and participate in the life of their community. Work experience and community involvement are vital for their quality of life. There is a growing trend of people with disabilities moving out of unemployment records. Trends are positive, but a greater leap is needed. People with disabilities need a comprehensive package without insurmountable barriers, otherwise, all measures will not be fully utilized," he emphasized.
The first part of the conference discussed the role of relevant authorities and the academic community in implementing accessible electronic communication services.
Sabine Lobnig, Director of Communications at the Mobile & Wireless Forum (MWF), an international association of companies interested in mobile and wireless communications, spoke about device compliance. One of MWF's main projects is the Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative (GARI). GARI's mission is to inform users about existing accessibility solutions in today's market and help them identify devices with features that best meet their needs. GARI has a website that helps users find the right product for their needs; the website is easily accessible and intuitive to use. "Today's technology offers highly accessible products, with our phones featuring over 150 accessibility elements. The problem is that 90 percent of users are unaware of these features or do not know how to find such devices. Sixteen years ago, our members decided to pool resources and create a unique source of information, GARI," she highlighted, inviting all interested parties to contact her for detailed inquiries.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Artificial Intelligence

Prof. Mihael Mišo Mudrić, from the Faculty of Law in Zagreb, who has been involved with artificial intelligence for the past ten years, spoke about AI office tools and their potential to enhance productivity. He illustrated the practical functioning of AI systems and highlighted their benefits and drawbacks. "These systems are not cognitive, do not understand the questions asked of them, nor the output content they generate, and are unaware of social values and norms," he explained, emphasizing the necessity of human oversight. He mentioned that such tools accelerate the work process and facilitate preparation with relatively specific information, expressing his belief that all professions will soon need to use these tools to increase efficiency.
Freddie McBride, Director of the European Emergency Number Association (EENA), discussed the importance of equal access to emergency services through urgent communications. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.3 billion people have significant disabilities, which is 16 percent of the global population. In Europe, this accounts for about 15 percent of the population, or 100 million people. Approximately 430 million people have hearing impairments, some disabilities are acquired later in life (due to accidents or illness), and the likelihood increases with age. McBride highlighted a concerning issue: many emergency services are still only accessible via voice calls, and only a small percentage of Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) offer multimedia access channels. To make communication more accessible, PSAPs need to be equipped to use text, sign language, video, and voice. Additionally, training personnel to communicate using various media types, employing sign language interpreters for video calls, and ensuring that PSAP equipment, public networks, and end-user devices have compatible and functional hardware and software to support multimedia emergency communications are essential steps.

What Do People with Disabilities Expect from Electronic Communication Services?

Daniel Casas, from the European Disability Forum, introduced this organization, which closely collaborates with European institutions. He emphasized the importance of accessibility and equal access, noting that while technology can empower people with disabilities, it can also exclude them from society. "Electronic communication services are extremely important in our daily lives," Casas said, outlining that users with disabilities expect these services to go beyond traditional voice calls and enable other means of communication, such as complete conversations and real-time text (both in primary and emergency communications). Artificial intelligence holds significant potential for people with disabilities, offering welcomed benefits. However, it is crucial to carefully assess the risks and establish appropriate safeguards. Collaboration between disability organizations, service providers, and regulators is essential, he added.

FER and HAKOM's Vision for an Inclusive Society

The second part of the conference focused on topics related to the collaboration between the academic community, regulators, and industry, aiming to share experiences and plans to achieve greater accessibility and use of artificial intelligence. Ivo Majerski presented the collaboration programme with the academic community and HAKOM's accessibility programme, which started in 2018. He highlighted key initiatives that have been implemented so far:
The "Quiz" application, designed to raise awareness among users and developers of accessible applications.
Improving the accessibility of websites and mobile applications, with methodologies for their development.
The game "Encounter," aimed at educating and raising awareness about proper communication methods.
Workshop materials on the topic of people with disabilities for elementary schools.

Enhancing accessibility during train travel.

Majerski stressed that HAKOM's ultimate goal is to contribute to the creation of an inclusive society where everyone has an equal opportunity to use public services.
Prof. Dr. Željka Car from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing (FER) presented this year's collaboration and joint project between FER and HAKOM. This year, efforts will continue on initiatives that enhance accessibility and raise awareness about the needs of people with disabilities and reduced mobility in our society. This year's project will particularly focus on continuing efforts to achieve accessibility in rail passenger transport, with an emphasis on communication accessibility and exploring the application of generative machine learning/artificial intelligence models to enhance real-time communication accessibility for users with disabilities. This project represents not just a step forward in accessibility but also in the use of advanced technologies to ensure equal access to information and services for everyone, she highlighted.

SignAvatar Brings a Major Change to the Lives of People with Hearing Impairments by Translating Speech into Sign Language

"Using Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Accessibility during Travel: SignAvatar - Speech to Sign Language Software," was the topic presented by Đorđe Dimitrijević, who, along with his colleagues, developed the SignAvatar software. This software brings a significant change to the lives of people with hearing impairments by translating speech into sign language. It is currently used by railways and an airport in Serbia, with plans for implementation in other countries. "The native language of people with hearing impairments is sign language, and there is no direct translation for everything, which our solution helps address. There are differences between languages and spoken language, and our solution helps every traveler get accurate information," he said.

During the session, a panel discussion titled "AI and Me" was moderated by Ana Smoljo (Carnet), featuring participants Alma Zulim (Association of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing of Istria County), Bruno Tot (Croatian Association of the Blind), Marija Livajušić (Center UP2DATE), Danijel Balažić (UPIT Osijek), Andrija Tabak (SUMSI), and Renata Šimunko (Carnet).
From various perspectives, the panelists discussed the advantages of artificial intelligence. They highlighted the potential for greater independence for children in schools, reduced need for interpreters, more detailed travel information, and the translation of text into sign language for people with hearing impairments. It was noted that smart devices already significantly ease the lives of visually impaired individuals. AI's benefits were especially noted in virtual assistants, which could narrate events and serve as visual companions. Wheelchairs could function like robot-taxis, transporting users to their destinations. The scope for innovation is boundless, and people with disabilities can make significant contributions. "Nothing is impossible if the problem is approached correctly," the panelists emphasized.

“Experience is as worth as Gold 2024": Internships provided for 8 Students with Disabilities

As part of the conference, a ceremony was held for the Poslovni dnevnik project "Experience is as worth as gold” and certificates were presented to companies, institutions, and students selected for internships. The goal of this project is employment and equal social inclusion of young people with disabilities from the perspective of institutions and employers. The project was presented by Vladimir Nišević, editor-in-chief of Poslovni dnevnik, and Ivan Prgomet, director of the Croatian Institute for Expertise, Professional Rehabilitation, and Employment of Persons with Disabilities (ZOSI), who has supported this project since 2015 and received a special acknowledgment on this occasion. Awards and certificates were ceremonially given to employers and students, with eight students with disabilities given the opportunity to complete internships at Croatian companies this year. These companies are AD Plastik, Glovo Hrvatska, HAKOM, HT, INA, Končar, Roto dinamic, and SAFU.

Panel Discussion: "People with Disabilities in the Croatian Labor Market - Challenges and Opportunities"

The panel discussion on the topic "People with Disabilities in the Croatian Labor Market - Challenges and Opportunities" was moderated by Saša Ćeramilac (AlJazeera Balkans). Participants included Mirna Barbarić (ZOSI), Damir Sertić (Končar), Marina Cvirn Jurčec (Roto dinamic), Ivana Kovačević Vukas (HT), Goran Ferić (INA), Željka Perić (SAFU), Krešimir Mikulandra (AD Plastik), and Nina Gluhak (Glovo Hrvatska).
Employers discussed their motivations for participating in the project and the positive experiences they have gained over time. Their participation aims to impact society as a whole and raise awareness about people with disabilities who are participants in the labor market. Although there are not many applications from people with disabilities for job openings, there is a visible trend of increasing employment. The key to success lies in the support of employers and those responsible for providing support. People with disabilities have valuable skills, their work is positively evaluated, and they attend training sessions. Many companies have a tradition of employing people with disabilities, while some have just joined the project.

Concluding Remarks and Future Directions

In the concluding part of the conference, HAKOM director Mr. Miran Gosta emphasized that services in the markets regulated by HAKOM must be accessible to everyone. There are no solutions that will address all needs at once, but addressing them is our obligation as a society. He expressed gratitude to the co-organizers and partners, especially to the people with disabilities for whom this project is being carried out. He highlighted that the Law on Accessibility Requirements for Products and Services, which will soon come into force, imposes obligations on operators and service providers and grants new rights to users. By the end of the year, two new advisory mechanisms will be introduced: an advisory mechanism for accessibility, which will include people with disabilities, and an advisory mechanism for the protection of children and the elderly. The aim is to strengthen the rights of vulnerable groups.
To achieve an accessible future, collaboration is essential, Gosta noted, and announced further cooperation with ITU, Poslovni dnevnik, and FER. He invited other regulators in the region to share experiences, especially regarding sharing experiences and developing application solutions.
"Our goal is to recognize new market trends, monitor the possibilities of using AI, understand user needs, and include the elderly in the digital era of electronic communications," Gosta said, highlighting that HAKOM actively supports the work and promotion of products by people with disabilities. The postal services market will also be included in accessibility projects, he announced.

For additional information please contact:

Croatian Regulatory Authority for Network Industries (HAKOM)

  • Roberta Frangeša-Mihanovića 9 Street
  • 10110 Zagreb, Croatia
  • Tel. + 385 (0) 1 700 70 07
  • Fax + 385 (0)1 700 70 70

Media inquiries can be submitted online using HAKOM’s official website:

About Hakom

HAKOM - Croatian Regulatory Authority for Network Industries – ensures preconditions for a fair market competition, stable growth and environment for innovations in the electronic communications and postal services market. HAKOM protects users’ interests and the possibility of choice among various communications and postal services at affordable prices, defines sustainable competitive conditions for operators and service providers under fair conditions for return on investment, and provides support to economic growth, public services and the quality of life in the Republic of Croatia by using modern technologies. HAKOM’ strategic goals are: to promote regulation of the electronic communications and postal services market, to support growth of investments and innovations in the electronic communications and postal services market, to provide efficient use of limited resources, to accelerate the growth of broadband products and services, to provide affordable offers of communications and postal services, to provide protection and informing of users, to build an efficient and comprehensive information system, to define and implement efficient processes, and to acquire multi-disciplinary expertise in market regulation.