Telecentres for Disabilities: Bringing Hope Amid Despair

One of the disabled who was enrolled in one of the courses in Salamieh telecentre answered when asked why he is

doing this course: “I want to show the world that though it may be true that I am disabled, I am not disqualified”.

Enriching contribution on the January-March edition of the telecentre magazine

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ICT Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities in Bangladesh

As we all know, the information or knowledge-based society is no longer a matter of the future, but a very contemporary urge of the time. In almost all aspects of our life, we need information and knowledge to get our basic needs met, to make decision, to move around, to study, to work, to participate in social, economic and cultural activities. During the recent decades, many countries have laid down their National ICT Plan to keep up with the new trends of international development. International and regional organizations such as the World Bank, the United Nations, the EU, the APEC and the ASEAN have come out with studies, guidelines, recommendations and working groups for member countries or economies to follow, participate and share their experiences in ICT.

ICT is of course an enabling technology and we should not loose sight of this fact. If it is not properly planed, managed and implemented it might put us into social gaps or to the `Digital Divide’. I strongly believe that all of us are here because we all agree that none of us should be left out in isolation in this highly useful and challenging digital world. And this is why ICT accessibility is very important to all of us, especially, the people with disabilities.

As we know persons with disabilities in Bangladesh have already been lagging far behind the mainstream development because of their disability as well as of our socio-economic and cultural realities. Hence, ICT can be a significant means of bridging this gap. ICT can be resembled as a magic stick to bringing our people with disabilities jumping forward if utilized in a coordinated, planned and appropriate manner. In order to create optimum ICT accessibility for our people with disabilities, a well-coordinated and collaborative effort is inevitable.

Recognizing that access to information is a basic human right, United Nations Economic and Social Commission (UNESCAP) in the Asian and Pacific region convened a seminar in June, 2002 with an aim to draw, “Recommendations on Policy/Legislative Guidelines concerning Information and Communication Technology (ICT) accessibility for Persons with Disabilities in the Asian and Pacific Region.” 73 participants including 13 resource persons from Japan, Sweden, Thailand, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Philippines, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, Hong Kong and USA attended the seminar at different levels. I had my opportunity to participate the seminar as only representative from Bangladesh.

To address the digital divide faced by persons with disabilities in the Asian and Pacific region and to promote the digital opportunities of persons with disabilities, the participants in the seminar have adopted a set of recommendations including the definitions of “Persons with Disabilities”, “Information and Communication Technology (ICT) “and “Accessibility”.

According to the recommendations “Persons with Disabilities” means the persons who have limited access to and usage of information and communications technology due to their visual, auditory, physical, cognitive/intellectual, neurological, psychiatric or other types of disabilities, “Information and Communication Technology” (ICT) means all digital as well as analog technology and services that supports human communication, creation, collection and dissemination of knowledge, and other activities for manipulation of information and, “Accessibility” means the measure or condition of things and services that can readily be reached or used (at the physical, visual, auditory and/or cognitive levels) by people including those with disabilities, which could be achieved through design and/or adaptation irrespective of any types of disabilities.

The recommendations of the seminar have a clear bearing on the Biwako Millennium Framework for Action towards an Inclusive, Barrier-Free and Rights-Based Society for Persons with Disabilities in Asia and the Pacific (2002 -2013). A Complete Bangla version of BMF has been published and disseminated by Association for the Welfare of the Disabled People (AWDP) in Bangladesh. By resolution 58/4, Governments in the region defined the 7 priority policy areas for action, which, inter alia, includes access to information and communications, including information, communications and assistive technologies. The five targets set out in the Biwako Millennium Framework under the priority area ICTs are:

 By 2005, persons with disabilities should have at least the same rate of access to the Internet and related services as the rest of the citizens in a country of the region.
 International organizations (e.g. International Telecommunication Union, International Organization for Standardization, World Trade Organization, World Wide Web Consortium, Motion Picture Engineering Group) responsible for international ICT standards should, by 2004, incorporate accessibility standards for persons with disabilities in their international ICT standards.
 Governments should adopt, by 2005, ICT accessibility guidelines for persons with disabilities in their national ICT policies and specifically include persons with disabilities as their target beneficiary group with appropriate measures.
 Governments should develop and coordinate a standardized sign language, finger Braille, tactile sign language, in each country and to disseminate and teach the results through all means, i.e. publications, CD-ROMs, etc.
 Governments should establish a system in each country to train and dispatch sign language interpreters, Braille transcribers, finger Braille interpreters, and human readers and encourage their employment.

From an international perspective, the importance of information and communication technologies (ICT) for development has been considered at the highest level. For example, in the United Nations “Millennium Declaration” (General Assembly resolution 55/2), heads of State and Government resolved, “to ensure that the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communication technologies, in conformity with recommendations contained in the ECOSOC 2000 Ministerial Declaration, are available to all”. As such, reference to people with disabilities does not feature in this resolution, though its text can be applied to interpret the right of equal access to people with disabilities. The UN Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with disabilities, 1993 is the first instrument that spells out in Rule 5, that “States should recognize the overall importance of accessibility in the process of the equalization of opportunities in all spheres of society. For persons with disabilities of any kind, States should (a) introduce programmes of action to make the physical environment accessible; and (b) undertake measures to provide access to information and communication.”

Many Governments have adopted policies in the light of the Standard Rules. The UNESCAP has defined Accessibility as “the measure or condition of things and services that can readily be reached or used (at the physical, visual, auditory and/or cognitive levels) by people including those with disabilities…” joint report (e-Inclusion) by the European Commission and the High Level Group on Employment and Social Dimension of the Information Society (ESDIS), people with disabilities are very specifically referred and it is stressed that no one is excluded from the knowledge-based society and new information and communication technologies, in particular, people with disabilities.

Though we are intended to focus on ICT accessibility in Bangladesh we cannot keep us apart from international development. Because ICT is a global issue and the technology is changing rapidly. Therefore it is very important for us to continue to watch on the recent development of ICT as well as extending our efforts to adopt those technologies in the country context.

As this conference is a first joint effort involving a large number of stakeholders I have tried to make a quick focus on the backdrop of this issue. In order to get or widen ICT accessibility for people with disabilities in the country, I would like to draw your attention to the following ten issues, which might play a significant role in this regard.

1. We should have a clear understanding on the existing scenario of ICT facilities, services and practices in the country through an ICT Accessibility Study or other means.
2. An overall assessment of need to be carried out in order to set up our course of action.
3. All possible efforts should be taken to make optimum utilization of our existing resources, services and facilities as well as making our audience familiar with the in-built accessibility options, (i.e. using sticky keys, filter keys, mouse keys, display contrast) adaptation and modification features of the operating systems.
4. Efforts should be taken to design, develop and distribution of Accessible ICT products likes transcriber, interface, software and assistive technology products.
5. We should introduce universal concepts and techniques for ICT Accessibility to all categories of disabled people like visually and physically challenged, hearing and speech impaired, intellectually disabled, autistic children and others.
6. Unique, innovative and need oriented efforts should be taken to enhance accessibility of persons with disabilities to ICT and wider dissemination of such efforts and experiences.
7. We should consider health and safety measures in using ICT by user with special needs.
8. We should consider protective measures, especially for our younger generation, from any sort of abuse and addiction by using ICT and internet.
9. We should take supplementary, complementary and collaborative efforts within the ICT-related stakeholders and sectors.
10. Efforts should be taken to make best use of the existing Policy guidelines and legislative support and tools, further development, amend or improve as and where necessary.

(We already have our Bangladesh Computer Council Act, 1990; a 15 member IT TASK FORCE headed by the Honorable Prime Minister has been formed by the Government on January 04, 2001 and National Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Policy October : 2002)

We have our national policy guidelines and legislation on ICT, we have national and international instruments and tools for people with disabilities where issues of the ICT accessibility have been emphasized. And, now, is the time to intervene. I believe there is no alternative of simultaneous initiatives from the government, private sectors and the civil society sectors to bringing our vision into reality.

In order to make certain level of control on how to make ICT products and services accessible to all people including the PWDs government can play a prime role. The private sector has become more and more important in the society especially under the influence of globalization. This sector comprises of ICT developers, manufacturers, distributors and sellers. The great challenge for this sector is how it could be responsive and even empathetic to various needs of users with or without disability beyond their short-term benefits. I earnestly urge this powerful sector to take this challenge as an opportunity to extend the capacity of ICT to the maximum level of availability, affordability and accessibility.

The third is the most important and dynamic sector, civil society. This sector comprises of diverse groups of people with diverse background. It can simultaneously influence the government as well as private/business sectors. Through this sector issues of people with disabilities could be brought into light, having their needs clearly articulated, understood and well recognized by the society at large.

Finally, I would like to draw your attention that if we can address this challenge with strong determination and sincere efforts, we can certainly create some opportunities for the people with disabilities. In other words, if we can use this ICT magic stick properly a dramatic change could be taken place in terms of ICT accessibility for persons with disabilities in Bangladesh.
Author: Md. Mahbubul Ashraf
E-mail:
ashrafdp@gmail.com

Photography: Md. Arafatul Islam