G3ict is the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs

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Axel Leblois

The Access Line


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11/21/2011

New Opportunities for Assistive Technologies


The idea that international treaties or the United Nations could have a positive impact on access to assistive technologies would seem bizarre at best... yet this is exactly what has happened on a global scale since the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) by the United Nations General Assembly.  No one could predict this outcome, but the Convention has been signed, to-date, by 153 countries - including the United States - and ratified by 106, which means that it is legally enforceable in countries representing more than 75% of the world population: a stunning success and one of the fastest rates of adoption of any international treaty in history.

So what's in it for AT users and vendors?

First, the CRPD establishes the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in a thorough and unprecedented manner.  It establishes the same level of obligation to make information and communication technologies accessible on par with the built environment and transportation.  In short, it is now just as much a legal requirement in 106 countries that Web sites and ATMs be accessible, as it is for public buildings to include ramps.  

Second, the CRPD makes "Reasonable Accommodation" a corner stone of disability rights, and the failure to provide it an act of discrimination against persons with disabilities.  

Third, the CRPD (article 4, g-h-i) specifically supports Assistive Technologies and requires that ratifying countries implement policies and programs to: 

  • "Undertake or promote research and development of, and to promote the availability and use of new technologies, including information and communications technologies, mobility aids, devices and assistive technologies, suitable for persons with disabilities, giving priority to technologies at an affordable cost;
  • Provide accessible information to persons with disabilities about mobility aids, devices and assistive technologies, including new technologies, as well as other forms of assistance, support services and facilities;
  • Promote the training of professionals and staff working with persons with disabilities in the rights recognized in this Convention so as to better provide the assistance and services guaranteed by those rights."   

Obviously, anyone in the assistive technology profession will read these lines with skepticism.  So much legislation remains ineffective, underfunded or simply not implemented!

Yet, major industry players have taken up the opportunity to proactively support the implementation of the Convention: IBM, Microsoft, AT&T, Sprint, Time Warner Cable, Deque Systems, Code Factory or SSB BART Group, to name a few, are companies whose thought leadership is helping policy makers, service providers and organizations of persons with disabilities around the world define new approaches to promote and lobby for assistive technologies and services. And ATIA's David Dikter has been a vocal advocate for the AT industry in all G3ict's activities from Brazil to Europe to Qatar.

So what is G3ict working to see accomplished? 

  1. Research & Development Funding: government funding of R&D, as suggested by the CRPD, should fully leverage the expertise of the AT industry.  In many countries, this requires creating the conditions for better public-private R&D partnerships.  Key to such an approach is to make sure that all tax payer dollars are helping marketable innovations which can actually benefit persons with disabilities.
  2. Human Resources: compulsory courses on accessibility should be criteria for the accreditation of computer engineering schools, similar to what is in place in many countries for schools of architecture. You can hold a master in computer engineering without having ever heard about accessibility, but cannot be an architect and not know about accessibility!   Also, the AT profession would greatly benefit from having its own certification program in place.  
  3. Public procurement of Assistive Technologies and subsidies for persons with disabilities: Various countries have experienced success with different channels such as education, workplace, rehabilitation centers, medical insurance policies, community centers.  Benchmarks and good practices must be shared including monitoring ROI for all stakeholders and orienting subsidies in the most effective way, including supporting innovative and more economical technologies. 
  4. Mobilizing Universal Services Funds: 125 countries have laws on universal access for telecom services, and many include Universal Services Funds.  Initially focused on subsidizing telecom services for underserved rural areas, those funds generate billions of dollars which can go unspent as wireless infrastructure now covers most rural areas around the world. A logical extension of their mission to ensure universal access would be supporting accessible and assistive technologies for persons with disabilities. In fact, 17 countries already fund AT programs with their Universal Service Funds, some related to telecom, some to education.  More countries can and need to include persons with disabilities and ATs in their Universal Services Funds charters and programs. 

With the advent of the CRPD and the dynamics of globalized markets, there is no reason for the AT industry not to benefit from greater support and economies of scale.  Fostering international cooperation and lobbying to leverage the dispositions of the CRPD can only help realize such objectives.

Axel Leblois is the founder and executive director of G3ict, the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs, an Advocacy Initiative of the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development. G3ict is exclusively funded by private sector and charitable organizations and works primarily with governments, organizations of persons with disabilities and industry to promote the full implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

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Related Items:

• Delivering Inclusive Access for Disablied or Elderly Members

• SENATOR EDWARD J. MARKEY (D-Mass.) TO ADDRESS THE M-ENABLING SUMMIT ON FURTHER STEPS TO PROMOTE DIGITAL ACCESSIBILITY FOR SENIORS AND PERSONS WITH DISABILTIES

• Accessibility: A New Frontier for Mobile Technologies

• Project F123.org Enables Access to Educational and Employment Opportunities Through Free and Open Source Assistive Technologies

• G3ict Special Session "The Wireless Internet Opportunity for Disabled Persons: New Horizons for Assistive Technologies," W2i Digital Cities Convention, Chicago, USA


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