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The United Nations estimates that one in six people (in Asia and the Pacific) live with disability – that is a total of 650 million people. Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) often face barriers that restrict them from participating in society on an equal basis, including the access to, and use of, information and communication technologies (ICTs). These barriers  include none or very little attention to incorporating accessibility features for online content (including websites), limited adaptability in the functionality of products and services, and weak policy frameworks to support the provision of an accessible digital environment.  

Over the last 15 or so months, the Internet Society Asia-Pacific Bureau in collaboration with local stakeholders including government, industry and civil society, led a series of endeavours to help embrace digital accessibility in Pakistan – a country with approximately 30 million PWDs. 

These efforts started with a small workshop organized in December 2015, inviting PWDs to inform and educate us on their accessibility requirements, and the challenges they face while using the Internet and online services in Pakistan. In this workshop, PWDs served as our speakers and panellists, providing a unique opportunity for us to join forces in removing barriers to digital accessibility. This effort identified several keys issues, which were broadly characterised as:

-      Improving accessibility to local websites

-      Introducing policy measures

-      Educating developers and students

-      Developing mobile applications for PWDs

To work on these goals, an informal working group on ICT Accessibility was created which included representatives from several organizations working with PWDs – Special Talent Exchange Program, Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness and Pakistan Youth Federation of Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

The group then met with the Ministry of IT and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, seeking their cooperation in promoting accessibility at both the policy and practical level. With the active support of these government entities, we first helped make their own websites accessible, and then devised an incremental approach to implement accessibility standards and guidelines for all government websites.

The group was also successful in introducing (for the first time), a separate section on accessibility, usability and promoting digital inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, in the draft IT Policy of Pakistan – this will help to achieve broader digital accessibility goals in the country.

We also helped launch the Pakistan Mobile App Awards 2016 competition, which focused on mobile applications that address the needs of PWDs, and can help them be more independent in their daily lives. The group likewise secured local funding to organize ‘awareness workshops on ICT mobile accessibility’ in all major cities of Pakistan, targeting developers and students.

It was not a big surprise to hear from the developer community that they were not familiar with guidelines and practices that would make their products accessible -  in the case of PWDs, they are not able to view the process from a user perspective. This was then seen as an opportunity to bridge the gap, and the workshops did much to help in this regard. It also drove home the point that it is important to inform and educate developers (mobile applications, websites, etc.) to implement accessibility support as an essential part of their design, so all potential users (and hence customers) have equal access to their products.

Last week, winners of the Pakistan Mobile App Awards 2016 were announced in a ceremony graced by the President of Pakistan.

Interested to know more about the winning applications? Please watch this video (with English subtitles).

Walking this digital accessibility journey for Persons with Disabilities - with Persons with Disabilities - in Pakistan was truly inspirational. It also made us realise how important digital accessibility is – and more importantly how the Internet and ICTs can help better the lives of PWDs.

It is estimated that the Asia-Pacific region has 650 million people with disabilities – and they are likely to be part of the last billion to be connected. We hope that our digital accessibility work in Pakistan can serve as a model for a multi-stakeholder community-driven initiative that can help make a change.

To know more about the working group on ICT accessibility in Pakistan, please watch this video.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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