ICTs – Providing Opportunities for the Invisible 1 Billion

We have briefly discussed how disability-inclusive ICT4D programmes can benefit people with disabilities. In this blog post, I briefly want to explore two ICT mediums, websites and mobile devices, in order to understand how they can facilitate access to social and economic activities for people with disabilities.

Websites – Facilitating access to socio-cultural, economic and educational activities

With the increased proliferation of web-based services, there is no doubt that the internet is an important part of people’s everyday lives. We use websites to browse and read news, connect with likeminded, do our banking, and look up all sorts of information. Websites can also provide visual, audio and text output on demand and offer multimedia input opportunities for users.

Through the internet, users can participate remotely in a variety of activities, ranging from education, employment, economic and government services, to consumer activities. There are also a vast number of opportunities for social participation through engaging in social networks, accessing video, audio and text communication, cloud-based sharing and other types of media interaction.  Websites, as such, are acting as critical facilitators for accessing social and economic activities. 

To ensure that no one is excluded, it is very important to make sure that people with disabilities have access to the same online content, and social and economic activities. Online services are made further accessible through both computer-based and web-based accessibility applications. This is made possible by using tools to increase the accessibility, which can include screen readers, speech recognition, video communication (for sign language), voice to text services, and visual assistance.

When accessible, websites and web applications have a greater impact in improving access for persons with disabilities  to socio-cultural, educational and economic activities than any other ICT, with the exception of mobile phones’ impact on independent living.

Accessibility to websites is enabled by a combination of accessibility technologies within the computers and devices used to access them, as well as, the accessible design and planning that goes into the development of the websites themselves. There is a wide diversity of people and abilities. It is important to be aware of the different and varying web accessibility barriers that people can experience because of inaccessible websites and web tools. There are a number of ways to make websites more accessible for people with disabilities in order to ensure that information is available and accessible.

Mobile devices – enabling independent living

In terms of independent living for people with disabilities, as mentioned, mobile devices have by far the greatest impact today. Basic mobile phones provide a means of on-demand communication for the user through both text messaging and voice calls, ensuring that emergency services or family members are just a call or SMS away.

Smartphones containing increasingly sophisticated functions and applications can address the unique sensory, cognitive and physical needs of users with disabilities. For example, there are smartphones compatible with hearing aids, applications enabling the use of close captioned multimedia and use face-to-face video chat services to communicate via sign language, and devices which can be controlled by voice commands. Another feature is the practicality of mobile devices as they are by design portable and easily carried by users.

For persons with disabilities, having a mobile device increases independent living not only because of the wide range of services they can access but also because of the immediacy with which the services can be used. This is of course also applicable to other groups in society, such as the elderly.

Susan Coe argued that if handled well, the rise of mobile phones in the developing world is a brilliant opportunity to accelerate inclusion into different aspects of social and economic life for millions of disabled people. Mobile phones can give access to lifesaving health information, local market information, and money transfer services. Disability accessibility needs to be built into the product design and dissemination, otherwise disabled people risk being further excluded.

Of course, ICT4D programmes always require contextualisation and localisation as we have pointed out. There is no one-size-fits all solution. Different solutions will be suitable to different contexts. In order to make use of text messaging functions or read websites, you have to also be literate. This can add another layer of complexity. In the design of programmes and services, we need to take into account the accessibility challenges that persons with disabilities may face.

Do you have an example of an ICT4D project that used any of the two ICT mediums above that failed to take into account the experiences of those with disabilities in its design, or on the contrary a success story?

written by VM