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Growing the Internet 19 October 2017

Accessibility Needs to Be at the Heart of Internet Policy, Planning and Design

By Dr. Muhammad Shabbir AwanMember, Internet Society Board of Trustees

The Internet Society’s 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future shows that new digital divides are emerging. It’s not just about accessing the Internet, but our ability to make the most of it.

One only has to look at the UN DESA 2015 Global Status Report on Disability and Development to start putting the pieces together. Not only does the report show a significant gap between people with and people without disabilities when it comes to things like education, employment, and health, but also, that those who are doubly disadvantaged (women, refugees, indigenous communities) experience the lowest level of inclusion and participation in society.

What does this mean for the Internet and information communication technology (ICTs)? They’re tools that help us bridge space and time, can start a business with the spark of an idea, and help kids stay in school.

If we want to build a digital future where people come first, accessibility needs to be at the heart of Internet policy, planning and design.

This means accessibility is first in. Not last out. It is always smarter, less expensive, and more functional to build accessibility into technology at the start rather than as a second-class add on. Anyone, regardless of their abilities, should have access to the same technology at the same time, and at the same price.

I’m here at the International Telecommunication Union’s World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC-17) in Buenos Aires this week to tell policy and decision makers from around the world that, together, we can make this happen.

All stakeholders should collaborate and encourage the transfer of accessibility-related technologies for Persons With Disabilities (PWDs), particularly from developed to developing countries, in order to make ICT accessibility a reality. This collaboration is necessary because, although ICT accessibility for PWDs in developed countries remains a challenge, it’s multiplied several times in developing countries due to various social, economic and cultural barriers. Like everyone else, people with disabilities are equally capable and should, therefore, be given the same opportunities to take advantage of ICTs.  For people with disabilities, accessibility means the ability to use products or services in the same way that those without disabilities can. However, there are challenges that need to be addressed. These include the availability of technology, its cost to consumers, and the willingness of the industry to adopt accessibility standards.

These are not things that happen when accessibility of Internet and ICTs is an add on.

What We’re Getting Wrong

Accessibility standards are vastly misunderstood to just benefit people with disabilities. In actual fact, adherence to these standards is the panacea to most ICT challenges for people of all backgrounds. How? Just think about improved access from mobile platforms in low-bandwidth environments as well as significantly better content usability.

Some Personal Reflections

During the last week or so, I have come to know and appreciate that world leaders who have done a lot of work for PWDs. Yet more needs to be done, particularly in developing countries. For me, the opportunity to participate as an Internet Society Fellow at WTDC-17 has enabled me to experience and observe the policy development process in the international arena and to make a stand for what I believe needs to happen.  It is enlightening and exciting to see and observe the ITU development agenda taking shape along with the politicking and negotiations being done at an international forum.

Being a visually impaired participant, there were and are a number of challenges to make the experience an utmost success. These range from the accessibility of the contributions prior to the conference, the accessibility of the texts being discussed during the sessions, mobility between the sessions and sometimes using the equipment within the conference rooms. But, thanks to the wonderful cooperation and excellent support of fellow Internet Society delegates and to some extent ITU staff, a number of the aforementioned challenges have been overcome or where possible, an alternate way has been found to reduce the impact. 

But Now It’s Time for Action

At the WTDC, and conferences like this, the time for talking about issues is done. We need action.

When it comes to accessibility we need clear resolutions that we can measure. Where are we going and what will tell us, by the time the next WTDC comes around, if we accomplished what we set out to do?

To do this we need to increase participation of PWDs and their representative organizations in ICT Policy Formulation, planning, design and implementation processes.  Pakistan’s National IT policy 2017 titled “digital Pakistan” can be considered a case in point: People with disabilities were not only invited for discussions, but a complete section was dedicated to addressing their needs.

Additionally, a truly inclusive meeting requires that PWDs should be enabled to actively participate in much the same way as people without disabilities. Just consider the range of resources and tools available that ensure active participation at such a meeting. For example: Accessibility of tools being used to navigate, sort and access the documents prior to and during the meeting; accessibility of texts during the deliberations; ease of mobility between the sessions; and, accessible equipment within the conference rooms – to name a few.

To sum up, why do I say that accessibility for people with disabilities should not be considered an add-on venture?  Each and every one one of us can benefit from accessibility. Every day, every time.  During this very conference, I overheard participants asking to change the background color of the screen, change text font and/or size, and witnessed postponing the discussion on the documents because some of the delegates were not able to access the document under discussion. So, ICT accessibility is something that we all need and considering the unpredictable nature of the future, may end up needing it sooner or later.

Read more about Digital Divides in the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future.

Take action! Help shape a digital future that puts people first.

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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