Accessibility matters: dismantling the barriers of disability with technology

Digital World 2019 Daily Highlights Day 4

Technology can facilitate life for the disabled, but it has to be accessible, well-designed and available, with a clear focus on removing barriers in daily life, stated moderator Jose Maria Diaz Batanero, Strategy and Policy Coordinator, ITU – and we should bear in mind the adage that there is no such thing as disability, just a combination of individual circumstances and poor design.

Many technological solutions to dismantling barriers are already widely available – including captioning services such as Caption First, explained Roy Graves, Vice-President, Technology and Finance. The service provides real time captioning for the deaf, displayed word for word from an often remote audio feed, and is used in business meetings, conferences and schools. Interestingly, a solution originally developed to improve accessibility for the deaf has found many other uses beyond its target market, proving useful for all in interpreting different accents and providing electronic transcripts of conferences and treaty-making meetings.

Many such accessible services or solutions prove useful in the community as a whole, such as ramps designed for wheelchair access used also by mothers with strollers or anyone with a suitcase. The same is true of audio description providing access to media for the blind, communicating action, background and setting in the pause between dialogue. “The visual made verbal,” explained Joel Snyder, Director of the American Council of the Blind’s Audio Description Project, and President, Audio Description Associates, LLC, describes the service, enables the blind or partially sighted to be closer to culture, to take part in society, film and arts. Being more engaged with society often means more engaged individuals – and even more employment.

Turkcell’s range of apps, services and solution for accessibility start from the principle that disabled people are also customers, with a right to equal services.  Services include an app providing the blind with access to thousands of daily news, books and columns through audio description, which is also available in cinemas throughout Turkey. Indoor navigation technology offers users step by step navigation cues for indoor areas such as shopping malls and universities, enabling a more independent and active life. Other solutions include translation tech putting the written or spoken word into sign language, and educational games for games for autistic children to improve cognitive emotional and behavioural abilities and prepare for ordinary school.

 “The main outcome is improving the social environment in inaccessible conditions,” said Gamze Sofuoglu, Product Manager, Turkcell. If we remove some of the barriers, disability does not have to be disadvantageous. One of the challenges is lack of awareness on these services and benefits: educating decision makers on what is available, and encouraging innovation in the space, are key. The ancillary benefits and additional uses of many such services amongst the wider community are often not recognized. But if accessibility was built into technology by design from the very beginning, it would be embraced at scale – and new use cases would doubtless arise.

The big myth in assistive tech is that if you build it, they will come, said David Banes, David Banes Access and Inclusion Service. We need to think beyond technical solutions, and focus also on how users can be reached, how the solutions can be used and the users supported. It is a question of developing an ecosystem, linking research and development, distribution models, awareness programmes, training and support initiatives, he explained. Increasing accessible content, and taking solutions to scale must be driven by end user need and mapped in policies. Interestingly, many countries in emerging markets with no legacy issues use mobile devices as the basis of assistive products – lessons to be learnt, then, in developed countries where handsets and tablets are seen as consumer items rather than essential requirements for inclusion of the disabled.

Dilli ram Adhikari, Managing Director, Nepal Telecom underscored a critical point: none of these services or assistive technologies are available without broadband connectivity, the backbone infrastructure. Beyond this, there are challenges in affordability, local language content, digital literacy and awareness programmes. Only through collaboration between civil societies, government and industry will those challenges be met.

Capacity development is the key to getting people engaged, said Bernard Kirk, CEO, Camden Education Trust. This might start with digital skills and coding for children and young people, but the real legacy arises from training the teachers, who can then demand from the grassroots up that policy makers include digital skills as an integral part of school curriculum. Engaging with trainers on the ground can lead to solutions that really meet local needs and open up the conversation to government and education to implement. Proof of practice from one country often makes it easier to expand into other nations.

For Jaroslaw Ponder, Head of the ITU Office for Europe, ITU, connecting the stakeholders at regional and international level is the way to spread awareness and avoid reinventing the assistive technology wheel. Similarly, research programmes can create solutions with the power to really change lives, but cannot bring them to market if they are not affordable; or entrepreneurs cannot match the right challenge to the right customers. We need an ICT-centric ecosystem to bring together large tech companies and innovation in the field, to meet the difficulties of multilingualism and to join up the initiatives already taking place. Available research funds, policy advocacy and the engagement of countries in debates on accessibility are essential. The number of disabilities are increasing as the population ages in Europe, so the challenge is urgent – but is currently unrecognized and unaddressed.

Dili reminded the panel that there is a need to create demand – and awareness of the solutions that are already around. This includes transferring what is already available into other languages and cultures, drawing on best practices and innovative thinking around the world.

Most importantly, concluded the panel, involve the disabled themselves in the search for assistive solutions, enabling them to communicate their real needs and be part of the search for answers.

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