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Christine Mugimba

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12/10/2009

Accessible ICTs, What Does It Mean?


An African  Regulator Perspective on ICT Accessibility: Following the ITU-G3ict workshop in Mali October13-15, 2009, Christine Mugimba, Manager Research and Development with the Uganda Communications Commission shares her perspective on why developing countries ought to carefully prioritize ICT accessibility in the context of e-inclusion and be used as a tool of empowering people to find solutions to their problems, including through access to information on basic services. Christine Mugimba also stresses that ICT accessibility policies and programs should be based upon the participation of Persons with Disabilities, openness, acceptance, empowerment and sustainability.

[This article contains the author's perspectives on accessible ICTs as it relates to Persons with Disabilities specifically emanating out of discussions and presentations[i] made during the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Workshop on Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities held in Bamako, Mali from October 13th to 15th 2009]

AUTHOR: MRS. CHRISTINE MUGIMBA, MANAGER RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT WITH THE UGANDA COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION

Preamble

At the International level it has been recognized that Persons with Disabilities do have rights to access not only basic services such as education and health but through the United Nations (UN) Convention on Human rights for persons with disabilities they have rights to access ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies).

The UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the fastest negotiated human rights Convention, was adopted in December 2006 and became effective on 3rd May 2008. It paved way for the international recognition and action to address the needs of persons with disabilities.

This Convention is a legally binding agreement that contains a number of Articles that address ICT accessibility for persons with disabilities by ensuring barriers are not created as ICTs spread and use of technologies improved. 14 out of 32 of the Articles mention the obligation of States related to ICTs. The main areas of Convention's application include facilitation of assistive technologies to the extent that it is achievable and affordable, support of ICT vendors and promotion of Research and Development for universally designed products and services. As of November 2009, 143 states including Uganda, have signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities[ii].

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN Agency committed to connecting the world through its work in telecommunications standardization and infrastructure development activities, has put in place a special initiative unit; and as one of its key thematic areas is promoting inclusive ICTs through the concept of accessible ICTs.

This concept from the perspective of Persons with Disabilities has been driven mainly from the fact that ten percent of the world's population are persons with disabilities[iii] and therefore also constitute a large population that must be addressed when making ICTs accessible to population. According to the ITU[iv], a disability is a condition or function judged to be significantly impaired relative to the usual standard of an individual of their group. The term is often used to refer to individual functioning, including physical impairment, sensory impairment, cognitive impairment, intellectual impairment, mental illness, and various types of chronic disease. This usage has been described by some disabled people as being associated with a medical model of disability". However at national level this definition may defer based on local situations. In Uganda for example, disability is defined[v] as "a condition which denies a person a normal economic and social life, which has lasted or is expected to last 6 months or more. In Uganda, cases of epilepsy and rheumatism are classified as disabilities while internationally, they are not".

So what should the concept of Accessible ICTs entail?

Accessible ICTs should;

a)     Address access of ICTs from the user perspective; that is from the way equipment is designed, to its use and where it is located or placed.

b)     Ensure that technologies do not stand as barriers to access to information, by discriminating usage based on abilities resulting from physiological and or physical impairments; this is in recognition of the fact that other sectors of society, other than persons with disabilities, such as elderly, young or children, illiterate also benefit from this concept.

Accessible ICTs however have other salient issues which result from socio economical factors such as poverty. Therefore although it is important to consider accessible ICTs in light of inclusiveness, it should also be considered in light of bridging the access to ICTs gap or divide. This is especially so for rural, remote and marginalised communities.

However there is still an underlining question of whether bridging the access to ICTs gap means addressing inclusiveness and whether the two can be addressed in tandem.

Accessible ICTs from gap perspective

Accessible ICTs from the access to ICTs gap perspective is often seen as universal access, and may be regarded as the first important steps of addressing accessible ICTs.

a)     This ensures that ICTs cover a wide area (availability), without necessarily addressing whether they are actually usable (i.e., without limitations) by all people.

b)     The other facet of accessible ICTs is the affordability facet; which provides as many users as possible with a choice of where, how and from whom they access the ICTs.

A number of governments, in developing countries, in order to address efficient and competitiveness in providing ICTs to its people, have encouraged private sector led investment, leading to partial or full privatisation of previously government owned public utility companies such as telecommunications companies. Governments have further in order to attract further investment in ICT industry, fully liberalized the provision of particularly telecommunications service provision, including installing of infrastructure. Whereas privatization and liberalization has its merits, private sector thrives on profits and returns on investments and as such from the commercial perspective cannot entirely address availability of ICTs. Therefore governments still have a role to play and this has been demonstrated through special initiatives such as funds (commonly referred to as universal service or access funds) set aside to leverage provision of communications services in commercially unviable or remote areas.

Furthermore, in prioritization of developmental areas, it remains a challenge for governments in developing countries to rank access to ICTs high on the development radar when still grappling with high poverty levels, war ravaged areas, epidemics, low access levels to social services/basic services such as water, education and health. The extent to which accessible ICTs are prioritized in a country may therefore be dependent upon the level to which ICTs are perceived as a contributor to poverty reduction.

The approach, therefore, would be to promote ICTs as an enabler or facilitator of meeting global and national developmental targets such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)[vi] and national development priorities.

On the economic front, accessible ICTs should aid businesses to become more competitive, cut costs, and realize more profits in the long run; Accessible ICTs should address the distance, time and speed factors related to business(such as transaction costs) and socio economic aspects. This means addressing the entire business production to supply cycle and on the socio economic front; access, availability and affordability of basic services such as education, health and water through use of ICTs.

Accessible ICTs- from the Inclusive perspective

Despite the challenges of accessible ICTs from the gap perspective - the association with development goals notwithstanding, the inclusive perspective should make the subject of Accessible ICTs even more attractive to governments and private sector.

 Accessible ICTs from the Inclusive perspective should therefore mean;

a)     That those Persons with Disabilities are not simply recipients of services but participate in the design, development, and evaluation of ICT services and products that are universal in nature.

Inclusive ICTs therefore introduce a dimension of ownership, relevance and subsequent sustainability of the ICTs amongst the target group or community.

b)     Developing countries or societies and emerging economies can get it right from the start and leapfrog the challenges that other privileged societies have had to address by going step by step, that is, from narrowing the access to ICTs the gap to addressing inclusiveness.

Accessible ICTs therefore from the inclusive perspective should encompass:-

a)  Participation; Involvement by persons with disabilities whether in standards development and implementation or actual community initiatives and projects design and implementation

b)  Openness in terms of breaking the stigma to Persons with Disabilities in society, being all embracing, allowing all persons regardless of status (including economic status) to access and use according to their requirements (including costs) ICTs; From the technology perspective, it means open protocols, interfaces that allow flexibility in services and applications that can be developed according to user specific requirements without comprising standards, quality and safety.

c)   Acceptance in terms of products and/services that can be used anyway in the world because of their adherence to recognized basic specifications and standards, that can be verified through conformance testing; and from a social perspective recognizing that having disabilities does not mean lack of competences and skills.

d)  Empowerment: Accessible ICTs can be used as a tool for Persons with Disabilities to be empowered through access to information on basic services such as health and education.

e)  Sustainability; allowing for independence from technology and source of technology through training, technology transfer and awareness among others;

The following practical steps that embrace the principles of participation, openness, acceptance, empowerment and sustainability can be taken to address accessible ICTs from the inclusive perspective:-

a)     Initially governments must sign and ratify the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This should also be translated in national laws that address the specific needs of Persons with Disabilities.

 

This can further be demonstrated by ensuring that all government funded projects (such as e-governance projects, web based projects) are compliant with accessibility requirements, and that private sector is made aware of the need to address this group of persons. This means that standards such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) web accessibility standards, ITU-T accessibility standards should be recognized and enforced particularly in provision and procurement of public services and goods.

b)     Shift of perspective from the accessible ICT-gap perspective to accessible ICT- Inclusive perspective.

c)      Find out as accurately as possible;

                                                               i.      What bracket of a country's populations is affected and what their needs are

                                                             ii.      What resources are available regardless of whether there are within public or private domains.

Pull these resources together coordinating initiatives or specialized funds or modify existing similar initiatives such as universal access funds to contribute to accessible ICTs /inclusive ICTs.

                                                           iii.      Whether what is already existing in terms of ICTs can actually be used by persons with special needs such as persons with disabilities

d)     Harness new technologies and the devices that they bring with them such as mobile phones and accessibility features to the extent that is practicable, among others. When necessary use assistive devices and technologies

e)     Use the strengths of government and private sector to address inclusive ICTs

However it is important to note that Persons with Disabilities often times also fall in the bracket of those people in society affected with poverty[vii] which is more of a social public concern than a private concern. So how does one bring the private sector led investment of ICTs to focus on accessible ICTs from an inclusiveness perspective?

For private  sector to address ICTs from inclusive perspectives they need to realize that universal design principles that are part of inclusive ICTs enable mass production of ICTs products and services thus enabling private sector to meet economies of scale.

On the other hand when ICTs are used to meet the day to day needs of society( with the focus on participation, acceptance, empowerment and sustainability) including needs of persons with disabilities ranging from basic needs of food, shelter and clothing to needs to communicate, then ICTs become all embracing, inclusive and thus accessible.

In summary, accessible ICTs should thus be viewed from the inclusive perspective and thereby be used as a tool of empowering people to find solutions to their problems, through access to information on basic services among others. This process should focus on participation of Persons with Disabilities, openness, acceptance, empowerment and sustainability.


[i] ITU-T workshop on Accessibility Programme, Bamako, Mali 13th-15th October 2009http://www.itu.int/ITU-T/worksem/accessibility/200910/programme.html

[ii] G3ict, The Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs, Digital Accessibility Report October/November 2009,

[iii] Workshop report; ITU Regional Workshop on ICT Accessibility For Persons with Disabilities for Africa Region, Lusaka, Zambia, 15-16 July 2008http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/Sis/PwDs/Seminars/Zambia/Documents/ accessed 24th /11/2009, 4pm

[iv]International Telecommunications Union,  http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/sis/PwDs/index.html, accessed 25th /11/2009, 4pm

[v] ICT accessibility for persons with disabilities in Africa region: Uganda's country report, 30th June 2008; http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/sis/PwDs/Seminars/Zambia/Documents/, accessed 24th /11/2009, 4pm

[vi] Millennium Development Goals, United Nations Development Programme; http://www.undp.org/mdg/basics.shtml, accessed 24th /11/2009, 4pm

[vii] World Health Organisation, Disability and Rehalbilitation team, http://www.who.int/disabilities/media/events/idpdinfo031209/en/, accessed 12pm, 4/12/ 2009

 

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