Digital Empowerment – Reaching the Invisible 1 Billion

As we have noted, a sound global development agenda can’t ignore disabilities. The UNDP actively promotes ICT4D as a powerful tool for economic and social development around the world. The aim of ICT4D is to bridge the digital divide between the majority and minority world. The rationale behind is that ensuring equitable access to up-to-date communication technologies will aid economic development, but it is evident that some people’s economic development will be excluded if the programmes themselves are not inclusive.

There is a commitment within the international community towards disability inclusive development programmes. Although the MDGs launched in 2000 failed to include disability as mentioned, the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which came into force in 2008 is an indication that we are heading in a good direction. But the question is: how to turn rhetoric into action that will make a practical difference in people’s lives?

Development-inclusive ICT4D, what is at stake?

ICTs have the potential both to enhance access for people with disabilities but can also contribute to creating barriers. This is true both in the majority and minority world. But in this blog, we want to look specifically more towards the majority world through the concept of ICT4D.

ICT4D is concerned with both access to technology and the ability to use that same technology. However, ICT4D programmes and global commitments to ensuring universal access to ICT have all too often failed to sufficiently address the specific needs of people with disabilities. This although they are the ones who could benefit the most. As ICTs are becoming increasingly important and the number of ICT4D programmes are increasing, so is the need to ensure that they are inclusive. Unless technologies are made accessible to all, they will inevitably lead to inequalities. Those who have access and are able to use them will be better off than those who cannot.

There is a need to understand the practical issues that people with particular disabilities face when accessing and/or using technology. Evidently, if you have a smartphone, but can’t use the technology to its full potential because you are blind, then what is the added benefit to having one.

What are the challenges and opportunities?

The opportunities offered by disability-inclusive ICT4D are plentiful. These not only include the wider benefits ICT4D can bring to development, but inclusive programmes can also contribute to digital empowerment of persons with disabilities. ICTs are not supposed to act as a substitute, but could add another layer of communication and inclusion of the 1 billion in the wider society.

An overall challenge though is ensuring accessibility. Accessibility is key in ensuring the social and economic inclusion of the invisible 1 billion. Removing barriers to accessing ICTs will secure opportunities for people to participate fully in the information society and, with increasing prominence of e-government and e-health, also have adequate access to public services. 

In terms of achieving disability-inclusive ICT4D, cost is often a main challenge. There are a number of pervasive barriers, as mentioned in a report by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). These barriers are pervasive as they affect all areas of development. As the reports points, the most pervasive barrier is the cost of assistive technologies. This does not only refer to the cost of purchasing technology, but also to costs of assistive technology assessments, and for training and support services. Even where technology is free, there might be a lack of experts or trained rehabilitation professionals, who can make use of the technology and its features.

We also need to be careful in talking about the 1 billion as one homogenous group. There are a wide range of accessibility barriers that people with disabilities face, and therefore their needs may vary radically. It is evident that persons with mobility, sensorial, or cognitive disabilities all can face different types of challenges. Overall, people with disabilities have many different accessibility, needs and there are different ways to make technology accessible. An added challenge is that as technology changes and upgrades, new accessibility needs emerge.

Localising and contextualising programmes are needed as there is not a one-size-fits all solution. In order to maximise the potential benefit of ICTs, a proper understanding of the full range of challenges and barriers faced by persons with disabilities in each local context is required. Evidently users also need to be involved in planning of activities and programmes.

So, how do we turn rhetoric into reality?

I think this depends on how we define the problem. Is the problem purely due to lack of funding, or is there just a lack of awareness? Or is it in fact a combination of the two?

Irrespectively of how we define the problem, focus needs to be on how we turn rhetoric into practical actions that will have an impact on and empower people’s lives. Disability does not equal inability, but to avoid this equation to happen we need to ensure accessibility.

I’m interested in hearing what do you think? Are ICT4D programmes disability-inclusive by design? What are the challenges? And do you think there is a way of making existing ICT4D programmes disability inclusive, if they are not already?

A screen for the fingers

written by VM