UNESCO promotes universal access to digital information for persons with disabilities at the COSP9 in New York
On 15 June 2016, UNESCO, in collaboration with UNDESA and OHCHR organized a side event entitled “Universal Access to Information using ICTs with Disabilities: Digital Empowerment for Inclusive Development” during the ninth session of the Conference of States to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (COSP9) at United Nations Headquarters in New York.
The lives of persons with disabilities can be transformed through better access to information, technological solutions and communication devices. There are encouraging signs – around 40% of people in the developing world have subscribed to mobile services which include a range of accessibility features including for persons with disabilities. This is important because sustainable and inclusive development can only be achieved when persons with disabilities are empowered and fully integrated in society. Thus, the full empowerment and inclusion of persons with disabilities depends on how digital solutions harness and leverage on the principles of Universal Design for All. This was a point emphasized by Dr Irmgarda Kasinskaite-Buddeberg from the Knowledge Societies Division of UNESCO. She also elaborated on the current programmes that UNESCO has implemented in order to empower persons with disabilities to access information and knowledge by using ICTs. Thus, access to digital information in cyberspace using ICTs by persons with disabilities should be seen as an integral part of the human rights framework in the digital age particularly as concerns freedom of expression and right to information.
Mr Shuaib Chalklen, Chairperson of the African Disability Forum and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Disability, South Africa spoke primarily about access to information using ICTs in Africa. By citing the rapid growth of mobile phone technology and the rising usage of it in the developing world, he stated that the usage of smart phones in Africa could be even higher if the cost of the device was affordable for all citizens.
Subsequently, Professor Klaus Miesenberger from the Institut Integriert Studieren, Johannes Kepler Universitat in Linz and member of the International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs, ICCHP, Austria explained why education is crucial for people with disabilities and all those who build our information society. Accessibility should be a part of all the curricula, it has to become part of our culture. This was closely aligned to UNESCO’s vision about the need to formulate disability inclusive policies and create accessible training materials, and provide an accessible learning environment in educational institutions.
Mr Facundo Chavez Penillas, Human Rights and Disability Advisor of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) gave a broad overview of how ICTs offer an integrated solution for persons with disabilities. ICTs are an encompassing feature of our daily lives and must not be seen as beneficial only to end users. Rather, according to the speaker, ICTs cover all of our lives and public procurement ruled by accessibility standards can change the course of education and employment at the national level. His emphasis on creating accessibility standards, observing and enforcing them was timely. Accessibility standards, when implemented holistically and comprehensively, can have the transformative effect of empowering children, youths and adults who suffer from one form of disability or another.
Finally, Ms Sara Enright presented an ongoing collaboration between Business Social Responsibility and Qualcomm Wireless Reach, who have partnered in the development of a mobile application that responds to the most pressing needs affecting the BVI (the blind and visually-impaired) community in China. Ms Enright said that The See4Me app and accompanying volunteer based service aims to increase BVI users’ ability access products and services, as well as to better participate in the economy and their communities.
The event raised great awareness about how persons with disabilities can benefit significantly from technological solutions and access digital information. The wide range of panel speakers provided fresh insights as to how inclusive development can be achieved by digitally empowering persons with disabilities, which will be a pivotal step in fulfilling the larger vision and objective of building knowledge societies for all.
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