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Innovating with Lobna: Why should accessible technology matter to us?

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It is estimated that 1 billion people live with some kind of disability around the world. ICT accessibility advocate Lobna Smida (@s_lobna) explains that though there have been transformative innovations in technology for people with disabilities, there is still a long road ahead before we have a truly inclusive information society.

I would classify myself as a regular 20-something: I love my job, I have friends all around the world, and I enjoy travelling. But being a person with a disability, these things do not come easily to me. I was born with severely reduced mobility, only having independent use of my mouth. Growing up, I relied on my parents for everything. I would feel lonely; I would watch my cousins and friends play hopscotch, encouraging them as they leapt across the playground while playing along in my imagination.

For me, a world without accessible technology, is an isolated life. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) give me the opportunity to be like everyone else; like you. But we must ensure that the environment is prepared – that both legislation and technology are in place to facilitate the needs of people with disabilities.

ITU and Accessibility

ITU is committed to making ICT accessible to persons living with disabilities and achieving equitable communications for everyone. Throughout the world, persons living with disabilities are already benefitting from the advantages of ICT-enabled applications. But more needs to be done. To extend the benefits of ICTs to all, ICTs have to be made accessible to persons living with disabilities, so these technologies constitute an opportunity and not a barrier. Read about our work in the field of accessible communications here.

Early Life

I have never let my disability hold me back – it is not a source of pity or limitation. My mother would always tell me that I was a special person with a big intellect – though maybe all Mums say that their children are extraordinary! When I was a child, my parents would have guests visit from all over the world and I was soon able to speak Arabic, English and French fluently, avidly listening to their stories of magical far-off places.

Though they knew it would be difficult, my parents pushed for my integration into ‘normal’ society from an early age and searched for a school that would accept me. But no junior school headmaster in my area wanted to take a disabled child; as I was the first child to try entering a ‘mainstream’ school in my area, they didn’t have the resources necessary to facilitate my education. One day, my Dad bumped into an old headmaster friend by chance and explained my situation. He accepted me into his school without hesitation.

Though I loved school, it wasn’t always easy. As I am unable to use my hands or feet, back then, I would write my notes and homework using a pen in my mouth. When drawing circles for calculus, I would put the compass in my mouth. It was very difficult and I would sometimes get painful paper cuts in my mouth and on my face, but it did not deter me – and I went on to become the top student in my secondary school.

This experience of rejection and triumph was a determining factor in my decision to become an advocate for people with disabilities after I finished my studies.

ITU Resolution 175 and Connect 2020

ITU is committed to making ICTs accessible to persons living with disabilities and achieving equitable communications for everyone.

This commitment was mandated by our Member States at the 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference, both through Resolution 175 and the newly adopted Connect 2020 Framework.

 

Continue the Conversation

Follow Lobna Smida on Twitter: @s_lobna
Read her blog here: http://lobnasmida.blogspot.ch/

Transformative Technology

I got my first laptop from my parents when I was writing my Master’s thesis, and this technology has since completely changed my life. I would put a pen in my mouth and use it to type the letters on the keyboard which made university papers exponentially easier to write and submit. As a reward for my excellent degree, I was sent to the UK by my university and given a laptop equipped with a voice recognition programme and trained in how to use the technology. It was incredible to see my words pop up in front of me and not get paper cuts in my mouth!

Without My Laoptop

Later, we got the Internet at home. This opened a whole other world to me. I experienced a freedom that had previously been unparalleled. My wheelchair made me partially independent by giving me physical mobility, but my laptop lets me travel all over the world from my room with the click of a button: I can talk to my friends around the world and visit exciting places like Italy and Switzerland – but unfortunately, I can’t eat the chocolate! I can easily share my thoughts, articulate my arguments and communicate with the outside world, promoting the rights of people with disabilities. Through Facebook, I am a representative of associations and organizations around the world from Switzerland, to Lebanon and Libya, which aim to help people with disabilities, an opportunity I would not have without the Internet.

ICTs are also integral to my ability to do my job. I have been working as an Administrator at the Presidential Palace in Tunisia for six years, and perform various roles: I translate reports from French, English and Italian into Arabic and vice versa, and I welcome groups from all over the world to the office. I also travel around Tunisia to assess the needs of people with disabilities and their families. I then write reports and present my findings to the relevant ministries to ensure that the government is supporting these families and following national guidelines. With the help of ICTs, I can send emails and submit my work from anywhere with an internet connection, so I don’t have to go to the office all of the time which can be rather cumbersome with my wheelchair.

But mine isn’t a solitary case. In the United States, I saw how the Mayor’s Office in Chicago use technology to help deaf and visually impaired people to collaborate and work together. If you help and encourage disabled people to work, we can make active contributions to the workplace.

ITU works to increase access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) for persons with disabilities: by raising awareness of their right to access telecommunications/ICTs; mainstreaming accessibility in the development of international telecommunications/ICT standards; and providing education and training on key accessibility issues.

ITU members, including policy makers, regulators and service providers have an important role to play to ensure that ICTs are accessible for persons with disabilities and to eliminate ICT accessibility barriers within radiocommunications, standardization and development.

 

The ICT Opportunity for a Disability-Inclusive Development Framework

ICT Opp Framework“Ensuring accessible ICTs for persons with disabilities and expanding access to these technologies, as well as to assistive technologies, should become a key element of global, regional and national strategies to remove the remaining barriers faced by persons with disabilities. In other words, ICT must be an integral part of a disability-inclusive development agenda.

We cannot miss the opportunity to use all available tools – including ICTs – to build an inclusive society for persons with disabilities. By working together across all sectors of society – public, private and civil society – we can finally ensure the inclusion of one billion persons with disabilities in the digital age.”

Extract from H.E. Ambassador Luis Gallegos’s foreword in ‘The ICT Opportunity for a Disability-Inclusive Development Framework’. Read the full report here.

The Road to a Fully Accessible Future

“For persons with disabilities (PwD), access to information and communication technology (ICT) is vital for their inclusion in modern society, enabling access to key public services such as healthcare and government services, access to the job market, communication and social integration. But this cannot be achieved unless ICTs are accessible. (…) I am proud to commemorate ITU´s longstanding history in promoting an accessible society through ICTs with July’s theme for ITU’s 150th anniversary, ‘accessibility and innovation’. Let´s continue working together to make every single ICT service, device and application fully accessible to ensure the empowerment of persons with disabilities to live an independent life.” Excerpt from ITU Secretary General Houlin Zhao’s ITU Blog, The Road to a Fully Accessible Future. Read the full article here.

Long Road Ahead

 

Even though ICTs have had a big impact on my life, and indeed on the lives of many persons with disabilities, they are not perfect. There have been incredible advances in technology accessibility in the past few decades, but there is still a long way to go.

The development of ICTs themselves have positively impacted my life. Smartphones and their associated application, for example, are truly fantastic: I saw a deaf person make a Skype call on the train using the video for sign language.

As technology’s reach has expanded so too has accessible software for persons with disabilities but significant challenges remain, namely universal availability and accessible hardware interoperability. It is true that there are many smartphone apps designed for people with disabilities: you can type brail, zoom in on text, learn sign language, and install speech recognition apps, custom keyboards, or augmentative and alternative communications (AAC) keyboards. But the button to lock the screen is often on the side which is difficult to push for some people with reduced mobility. As I have severely limited mobility, it is incredibly difficult for me to push two buttons at once, which is often needed for taking a screenshot. I love using SnapChat, but without the use of my extremities, I have to use my cheek – or sometimes my nose! – to take a photograph. What is the point of having accessible software, if we cannot use the hardware that it runs on?

Universal availability is another key issue. Everyone is forgetful sometimes. If I leave my phone at home and need to contact someone, it is not a case of simply borrowing someone else’s as more than likely, they will not have the necessary software installed that will enable me to use the device. This creates an unnecessary barrier for me. Yet interoperability means more than borrowing a friend’s phone when I leave mine at home. Price is another major barrier to accessible technology for people with disabilities. For example, if a laptop costs USD 1000, the same laptop developed with accessible technology can cost up to and beyond USD 5000. When I enquired about this glaring disparity in pricing, I was told that it is a case of supply and demand: fewer people require accessible technology, so it is more expensive. We need this technology: it helps us to communicate, to learn, to explore. But we can do none of that if we cannot afford it. We must think in terms of human investment, rather than an economic one.

All of these issues were addressed in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in December 2006. The 159 signatory states agreed “to ensure and promote the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities without discrimination of any kind on the basis of disability.”

Specifically stating their obligation:

“To undertake or promote research and development of, and to promote the availability and use of new technologies, including information and communications technologies, mobility aids, devices and assistive technologies, suitable for persons with disabilities, giving priority to technologies at an affordable cost.” (Article 4)

 

So why is this still an issue nearly 10 years later? We must remove the distinction between people with and without disabilities in technology.

A few years ago, I attended an ICT for All conference in Tunisia. Looking around the room, I saw that there was a significant lack of people with disabilities in attendance. This was an event designed to talk about accessibility, so where were we? Without us, the event can only be described as ‘ICT for Some’. We need inclusive conversations, we need to be the speakers. Yet conversation itself can only go so far – commitments such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities must be honored if we are to see any real progress in accessibility. One way to mobilize this action could be creating direct links between persons with disabilities, delegates and manufacturers in order to share ideas and promote informed ‘tried-and-tested’ best practices.

Every sector will benefit from increased accessibility. Tourism is a good example: I need a companion to help them physically when I travel. This means that by creating an accessible environment, tour operators can increase the number of visitors to the city by attracting just one person by making this simple change.

WSIS 2015 High Level Dialogue: Making Empowerment a Reality – Accessibility for All

ICTs help persons with disabilities (PwD) overcome issues of access, be that to education, employment, or physical mobility. The level of disability changes according to the environment: PwD are able to live a relatively independent and free life if the environment is enabling. Panelists agreed that PwD should not be an afterthought in technology adaptation, rather technology should be ‘born accessible’. Moreover, we need to move from the adoption of accessibility frameworks to their actual implementation. With this in mind, panelists called for four key elements to be adopted: accessibility for all, affordability for all, adequate for all; quality product for all. Learn more about the session here. Watch the event webcast here.

For the full WSIS 2015 programme, including further sessions on Accessibility, please click here.

Mainstreaming Accessibility: Deafblindness, Assistive Technology and Advocacy

“Once a person with a disability has overcome negative stereotypes, she or he will need alternative techniques for accomplishing tasks, often through the use of assistive technologies. (…) It is rare for me to use one single device. Often I have to combine two or three of them together. Unfortunately, some of these devices, like braille displays, cost several thousand U.S. dollars. Reducing the cost of digital braille would make these devices more affordable to deafblind individuals. Perhaps engineers could develop more affordable methods for producing digital braille, or perhaps organizations could provide grants to cover the cost of these devices to deafblind individuals who cannot afford them.” Extract from Haben Girma’s ITU blog, ‘Mainstreaming Accessibility: Deafblindness, Assistive Technology and Advocacy’. Read the full article here.

For more ITU blogs on accessibility, please click here.

Model ICT Accessibility Policy Report

The “Model ICT accessibility policy report is designed as a tool for national policy-makers and regulators to create their own ICT accessibility policy frameworks. It includes six modules focusing on different aspects of ICT accessibility (amendments to the existing ICT legal framework, public ICT access, mobile communications, television/video programming and public procurement of accessible ICTs) so that countries can prioritize implementation. In all modules the approach is to develop national policies in consultation with persons with disabilities.” Extract from BDT Director Brahima Sanou’s foreword in ‘Model ICT Accessibility Policy Report’. Read the full report here.

I am thankful to each and every inventor who played a part in making my laptop. Without technology, I am a woman of one room. With the help of ICTs, I have achieved and experienced more than I thought was possible. I have had opportunities to travel within Tunisia and to other countries, to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities around the world and do a job that I love. Technology has given me self-confidence. But I am still somewhat of a rarity; I am an example of what should be commonplace.

Though accessible software for persons with disabilities is becoming more readily available, its pace and availability is limited in scope, especially when compared to the rate of development for ICTs. We must continue to work to ensure that everyone has access to this transformative technology. I would love for the removal of the distinction between people with and without disabilities in technology. Maybe then, we will have a truly inclusive information society.

 

 

 

 

Follow Lobna on Twitter and continue the conversation – @s_lobna

“ICT accessibility means removing the various barriers faced by persons with disabilities so that they can easily access and use technology. Establishing an enabling environment is one of the key steps to make ICT accessibility a reality, just as nations have established enabling environments to authorize competition in the provision of ICT services. New figures released by ITU indicate that ICTs have grown in an unprecedented way over the past 15 years, providing huge opportunities for social and economic development.” Excerpt from BDT Director Brahima Sanou’s ITU Blog, Promoting National ICT Accessibility Frameworks. Read full article here.

“For as long as I have lived with my disability, I have been amazed by the spectacular advances that I have witnessed in science and technology which seem to proliferate with every year that passes. But technology to improve accessibility has struggled to keep pace with developments in other areas and appears to be stagnating.” – Lenin Moreno, Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General on Disability and Accessibility. Extract from Mr Moreno’s ITU blog, ‘The Importance of Information and Communication Technologies in Building an Inclusive Society’. Read the full article here.

Andrea Saks, Chairperson of Joint Coordination Activity on Accessibility and Human Factors, has been a driving force behind ITU’s work on ICT accessibility. ITU asked about her thoughts on the history of accessibility, and what still needs to be done to develop a truly inclusive society in ITU Blog, My Life Advocating for Accessible ICTs. Read the full interview here.

For more ITU blogs on accessibility, please click here.