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This session highlighted barriers, practical solutions, and future recommendations for the inclusion, access, and engagement of people with disabilities (PwDs) through information and communication technologies (ICTs) worldwide. Session moderator, Ms Salma Abbasi, chairperson and CEO at eWorldwide Group, posed six questions for the panel to address. Abbasi noted that the session should produce recommendations and asked about barriers for PwDs in engaging in the information society: how can they be mitigated, is there enough inclusion of PwDs in national policies, and do the sustainable development goals (SDGs) address it? According to her, there is a lot of rhetoric on the issue, but the implementation of clear policies is sporadic. Mobile technologies can help reach out to communities in their cultural context, which helps overcome social biases.
Mr Haidar Fraihat, director at Technology for Development, UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA), made three points. First, when considering PwDs, it should be clear whether we are referring to an individual or to the collective. 'Statistics indicate that PwDs encompass 10-15% of all societies', said Fraihat. Second, PwDs should be an included and productive part of the whole society, and the solutions to their problems should reflect that. Last, negative ramifications of new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) that can help PwDs should be acknowledged and dealt with.
Ms Nirmita Narasimhan, director of The Global Initative for Inlcusive ICTs (g3ICT), said that challenges vary from the lack of assistive technology to questions of compliance and standardisation. A survey that g3ICT carried out showed that the majority of PwDs could not access screen readers. That is why they developed a project working on open source text to speech conversion. In her opinion, there is a lack of awareness of what technology exists, and a noticeable information gap. In national and international policies, standards are adopted, but implementation is often lacking. There is neither a follow up, nor monitoring for compliance. Narasimhan said that the sustainable development goals (SDGs) complement strategies such as the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD). As recommendations, she listed stronger policies, assistive technologies, procurement policies, training on awareness, and technical skills.
Ms Andrea J Saks, chairman of the Joint Coordinating Activity on Accessibility and Human Factors (JCA-AHF) at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), stressed that governments have to be involved. Education, financial difficulties, and lack of awareness about the PwDs are just some of the barriers. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) initiates standards that help governments, schools, universities and other parties to disseminate information about their work. 'It is important not to lump people with disabilities together, but to address their particular needs', Saks said. Early education on accessibility can raise awareness on how interoperability is crucial for PwDs. Universal design approaches need more attention, and there should be an SDG dedicated solely to PwDs. Saks emphasised that accessing universal funds could provide a good start for PwD inclusion projects, and called for companies such as Apple, IBM, and Microsoft to adopt interoperability.
Ms Roxana Widmer-Iliescu, senior programme officer at the Special Initiatives Divison of the ITU, singled out accessible capacities as the biggest barrier for PwDs in being a part of the information society. ICTs are an enabler because they change the interface from one that PwdS cannot access, to one that they can. The ITU is assisting governments with policy and regulation, the industry with new projects, and academia by developing training. Widmer-Iliescu pointed out the EU Disability Act as a good development. According to her, SDGs seek inclusion across all spheres, and it is better not to have a specific SDG for PwDs because it could be limiting. SDGs 1, 4, 8, 10, 11, and 16 mention PwDs. After agreeing with other panellists’ recommendations, she noted governmental procurement as a crucial enabler for PwDs, because governments are the biggest buyers.
Representatives of governments from the audience engaged in the discussion speaking on behalf of this stakeholder group. They agreed that policies are a crucial first step and that every government has to include PwDs in their sustainable growth strategies. Without PwDs there is no inclusivity. However, governmental agendas often prioritise in a different way, leading to lack of implementation.
By Jana Mišić