Mainstreaming Disability – ICTs for an Alternative Account

In my first post, I have been writing on the three As focusing on assistive technologies for people with disabilities. In my second post, I have been switching perspectives, considering how ICTs can be a helpful tool for aid workers in performing inclusive interventions.

Today’s post is again changing the vision as if we would put the different aspects of disability, ICT and development into a kaleidoscope. This post will focus on how ICTs can become a platform for alternative accounts of disability offered by disabled people themselves thus challenging the perspectives and opinions many people have about disabilities.

Have you heard about the strategy of Mainstreaming Disability?

What is Mainstreaming Disability?

So what is meant by Mainstreaming Disability? From a more academic perspective, The United Nations is promoting the strategy of Mainstreaming Disability for the following purpose:

“Different entities need to ensure that their respective spheres of responsibility provide the necessary opportunities and access to persons with disabilities, on an equal basis with others. If any one element of the network fails in this obligation, persons are not able to reap the benefit from the other elements. In order for them to be integrated and included in the development agenda, a comprehensive and holistic approach is required.”

It is thus a strategy that aims to include disabled people in the entire array of development aspects. Two aspects are especially important about the mainstreaming disability strategy: its cost-effectiveness and its “practical pursuit of non-discrimination and equality of opportunity”.

Departing from this rather static definition, I would like you to have a look at this TED Talk by Dylan Alcott. At a first glance, there is no evident connection to ICT4D in this video, yet he shows how important it is to mainstream disability and to change the way in which disability is framed and treated within society.


I consider that the European Disability Forum underlines the idea of mainstreaming disability quite well with its slogan: “Nothing about us without us”. I argue that these are the accounts that are important to take into consideration, when we start reflecting about disability. However, we also need to realize that videos sharing testimonies of disabled persons from developing countries are promoted through organizations’ webpages (often for funding and reliability purposes) and therefore already carry a subjective message – disabled people as aid/care receivers.  How can ICTs support disabled people to gain agency and to present their alternative accounts?

Skimming through different projects around the world, I came across a comprehensive project run by the Ecuadorean government to improve the inclusion of disabled people nationwide. One of its social aims is to challenge the rejection towards disabilities within the nuclear families and environments of disabled people.  The project’s societal analysis puts a strong emphasis on discrimination, exclusion and stigmatization that had by then hindered integration of the disabled community in many aspects. In many countries around the world, disabled people are severely stigmatized and often even discriminated against by their own families.


Something that becomes quite evident from the TED Talk taken together with the capability approach is that we do often speak for people with disabilities instead of starting to provide platforms in which disabled people can speak for themselves about what they consider important as a message, something that is not pre-framed, for instance, by organizational videos etc. We all know that it will be the most marginalized and poorest that will have the latest access to ICTs although, as in the case of disabled people, that could be their platform to challenge both discrimination and stereotypes. Or viewed from the other perspective, this could be their platform to voice the type of integration and inclusion they favour as in “Nothing about us without us”. It’s the option of giving an alternative (their) account challenging discrimination that the invisible 1 billion is lacking.

The strategy of mainstreaming disability is stemming from the idea of gender mainstreaming. Looking deeper into gender studies, it can provide many insides into the disability inclusion debate and analysis as to understand discriminatory factors and practices, access etc. O’Donnell and Sweetman in their introduction about Gender and development and ICTs, emphasize how important it is “to recognize how digital content affects our attitudes, beliefs, and ideas. Some digital tools offer potential to network and organize, to challenge the structural inequalities that constrain human beings, perpetuate inequalities, and prevent just and sustainable human development.” It is the idea that ICTs rather than enhancing the digital divide should be implemented as a tool for enhancing agency of the most marginalized and participation in civic spaces.

From theory to practice:

To switch from a more theoretical perspective to the practical side of implementation, let us come back to the project by the Ecuadorean government. Here, it is necessary to state though that there is no explicit connection made between awareness raising and eradication of discrimination and the use of ICTs. It only states indicators for measuring how disabled people will be valued as integral part of their families with active roles. Unfortunately, the implementation of ICTs generally remains marginal in the logical framework of the project. It is here though that platforms for exchange etc. can be beneficial for both disabled people and their families to help finding roles and exchanging testimonies to counter discrimination.  By 2014, the project had not been able to implement any information strategy on how to use assistive technologies or ICTs in general, reaching 12 consultancies on assistive technologies and ICTs nationwide by 2016.

At a rather global perspective, there is a report issued by the UN relies on the mainstreaming disability strategy. I knowingly draw on this report from 2011 on best practices, as I think that it better highlights the three dimensional gap between reports, reality and time (time as in today and then). The report states that by 2011 there have been relatively few development projects comprehensively and sustainably benefitting the disabled population. As we have seen in our recent blog posts, there have been projects implemented, however mainstreaming disability as a strategy and long-term sustainability remain to be questioned. The report makes again reference to the importance of accessibility to ICTs; however, ICTs are not mentioned as tools for the other best practices as for instance: “Increase awareness and understanding of disability at organizational, community and institutional levels so as to promote positive attitudes towards disability, since stigmatization is considered one of the major causes of exclusion.” As shown in the aforementioned article by O’Donnell and Sweetman, it is here that ICTs can play an important role in offering spaces for self-expression and alternative accounts voiced by disabled people themselves.

“Nothing about us without us”

Underlining the aim of this blog, the idea is to enhance visibility of the invisible one billion. It is for this aim that we need to make sure that ICT4D is not only understood in a strict developmental sense, but for instance, as claimed with this post as a tool to question discrimination and to give disabled people the opportunity to make their own claim and not to be spoken for, since this rather enhances the passivity and stigmatization of disabled people.

I want to highlight however that this post is not neglecting the necessity of accessible assistive technology or tools for aid workers, but it sheds light on the same necessity of being broader in not only focussing on daily necessities and development issues at stake, but to challenge perspectives, by giving disabled people a voice and a platform. It is a complex combination of both that is necessary.

If you are interested in learning more about ICTs and mainstreaming disabilities, I recommend you having a deeper look into the aforementioned best-practice report by the UN.

written by JW