Closing the ICTs gap for persons with disabilities

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Closing the ICTs gap for persons with disabilities


Ms Pauline Shamola, serving Mr William, a disabled beggar at the Safaricom Customer Care shop in Nakuru on October 25, 2016. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has permeated every facet of society. It is now difficult to imagine our lives without the conveniences brought by access to various communications services.

However, even with the profound transformation that keeps unfolding, segments of the population, like persons with disabilities (PWDs), the elderly and those with low literacy levels, still face practical challenges in accessing and exploiting the full potential of ICTs.

The global digital divide is notable in developing countries like Kenya, which are still grappling with how to ensure digital inclusivity from a triple A (accessible, assistive and adaptive) perspective.

Although inclusivity enhances social progress and economic growth, the world is still far from fully enabling accessible, assistive and adaptive technologies so that PWDs can fully leverage the immense benefits from the use of ICTs while leaving no one behind in the digital transformation journey.

Globally, various mechanisms are being explored to make inclusivity a reality. One of these is the ICT Opportunity for a Disability-Inclusive Development Framework by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which at its core is the principle that ICT opportunities for PWDs can be better assessed by analyzing how each type of assistive technologies contributes to the different dimensions involved in the social and economic inclusion of PWDs.

Internet users can participate in a range of activities such as professional, lifelong education, employment, economic, government services and consumer activities.

To foster inclusion, these services and content are made accessible for PWDs through both computer-based and web-based accessibility applications such as screen readers, speech recognition, video communication (for sign language communication and video relay interpretation), voice to text services ( open and closed captioning, both real-time and embedded) and visual assistance.

Consequently, websites can provide visual, audio and text output on demand and offer multimedia input opportunities to users. Websites and web applications have a greater impact in improving access to socio-cultural information, educational and economic activities by PWDs.

It is worth noting that accessibility of websites incorporates infusion of accessibility technologies for personal computers and devices used to access them as well as the accessible design and planning that goes into the development of websites.

Mobile devices and services have by far the greatest impact on independent living for PWDs. At the basic level, feature phones provide the means for on-demand communication for users through both SMS and voice calls.

This in itself can enable independent living by ensuring that emergency services, family members, personal aides, assistive and everyday services are a call or text away.

Significantly, some smartphones are rated for hearing aid compatibility. This means consumers can enjoy open or closed-captioned multimedia content and use face-to-face video chat applications or dedicated video relay services to communicate via sign language.

The other enablement is ability to access content non-visually through screen reading applications, customized alert settings to use a combination of audible, visual and vibration alerts.

Furthermore, users can take advantage of voice-commands, adjustable font sizes, predictive text and a range of other innovative features, accessories, and third-party applications. Given that mobile devices are also generally portable, they increase the quality and independent living for PWDs, not only because of the various services that can be accessed, but also the access to emergency services in time of need, anywhere within the network.

The World Bank encourages innovators to continuously think beyond the mobile apps, and capitalize on many web-enabled services which offer targeted assistance for PWDs.

This may include remote live captioning for meetings and webinars, remote sign language interpretation, and video relay where a sign language interpreter assists in the communication between people who are deaf and people who are hearing and vice versa.

Moreover, crowdsourcing platforms now offer new opportunities for PWDs to learn and inform others about accessibility of restaurants, hotels, tourist destinations and other public sites. This reinforces the disruptive nature of ICTs which have profoundly changed the form in which people can access technology.

Significantly, the contribution of radio and TV services, enable the social inclusion of PWDs. The radio, for instance, deserves a special mention, as it has long been an indispensable means for people who are blind to access information. Even with the digital age, digital radio broadcast services have a great potential to maintain the relevance of radio for PWDs.

As far as television sets and broadcasting services are concerned, these technologies continue to provide visual, audio and text output through closed captioning. The digital TV broadcasting is expanding the range of features and functions that can be enabled for PWDs.

Locally, the ICT sector regulator, the Communications Authority of Kenya has initiated certain mechanisms to enhance access to information by PWDs.

This includes provisions of the Programming Code which obligate broadcasters to ensure PWDs have the same experience through sign language interpretation, and on screen captioning, as well as issuance of technical specifications for television decoders and digital TVs countrywide to incorporate assistive features for PWDs.

Marangu and Gimode are communication experts

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