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The Access Line
Fifteen West African Countries Meet to Explore ICT Accessibility Strategies and Compare Experiences
Opening Session - (L-R): Dr. Choguel Kokalla Maiga (General Director of the Committe of the Regulatory Authority for Telecommunications, (Comité de Régulation des Télécommunications - CRT); Mr. Malcolm Johnson (Director of the Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, ITU-T/TSB); Mr. Sékou Diakite (Ministre du Développement Social, de la Solidarité et des Personnes Agées); H.E. Mrs Diarra Mariam Diallo (Minister for Communication and New Technologies, Republic of Mali); Ms. Andrea Saks (Convener, ITU-T Joint Coordination Activity on Accessibility and Human Factors, JCA-AHF); Mr. Abdoulaye Dembele (SOTELMA)
It was a very positive experience to spend a week in Bamako attending the workshop organized by the International Telecommunication Union on ICT Accessibility with so many motivated leaders of the disability movement, telecom regulators, government officials and wireless service providers. Despite the economic and development challenges still facing many African countries, making ICTs accessible is as important as anywhere else in the world, perhaps even more so since many aspects of African society in both urban and remote areas are increasingly depending on their use. As ICTs are spreading differently in African and developing nations, new challenges but also new opportunities to leapfrog traditional accessibility solutions emerge including for wireless services, shared Internet access or broadcasting.
In his opening remarks, FEMAPH President Moctar Bâ (picture) addressed this issue head on by mentioning that too few Internet cafés or community centres were accessible to disabled persons. Indeed, in Mali as in many African countries, shared Internet access centres have become the largest source of Internet connections, following other developing nations lead such as Brazil or India. Cell phones and television are the two other omnipresent ICT interfaces that most people use, even in very remote areas.
Cell phone subscribers have reached 300,000,000 this year in Africa and continue to grow. As a result, the mobile platform is seen by everyone as the ICT platform of choice for Africa, leapfrogging other traditional PC centric communications tools. Making the mobile platform accessible is therefore of high interest to African disabled persons and policy makers. During its session, G3ict shared experiences from around the world showing existing accessibility and assistive features for cell phones. Several African regulators and disabled persons organizations discussed possible options to entice operators to make accessible handsets available in their respective countries. Also on top of the list of priorities was captioned TV for the deaf and sign language for news and other live programs.
PC based Assistive technologies occupied a large portion of the workshop proceedings. Whereas making cell phones, TVs or even Internet Cafés accessible is an objective which many see as achievable with the appropriate policies and incentives, the deployment of PC based assistive technologies applied to education, the workplace and rehabilitation services represent significant investments in equipment, capacity building and the creation of appropriate support services. The potential to use open source software or commodity solutions, such as the most impressive Qualilife application presented by Claudio Giugliemma, was discussed at length. Successful experiences in Burkina Fasso, Senegal and Mali, made possible thanks to international financial support, show successful African experiences in teaching assistive technologies to blind users with no prior PC experience. But it still remains a daunting challenge to make mainstream PC based assistive technology equipment and services available in large numbers in most situations.
With those challenges in mind, G3ict reviewed during the final Toolkit training session the potential to leverage mobile platforms to offer inexpensive and easy to use text to speech, voice recognition, scanning and character recognition and other assistive features to persons with disabilities, which till recently, required the use of a personal computer. With multiple stakeholders looking at the options in a cooperative fashion, Africa may well leapfrog other regions of the world in fully leveraging new mobile technology as a cheaper, mass produced assistive technology platform. And with 3G networks progressing rapidly, high end services such as digital library with cell phone based readers may be available relatively quickly with applications for many disabled persons from school to work and family life.
In this context, an informed dialogue among persons with disabilities, telecom regulators and wireless service providers in Africa is essential. The Bamako workshop definitely started such constructive dynamics.