Unlock tech advances for PWDs

Timothy Egwelu

What you need to know:

The limited accessibility of market products and services in comparison to relative need demonstrates the lack of awareness

Great strides have been made in developing technologies that assist disabled people.

Braille readers, hearing aids and mobility devices have all improved immensely the lives of disabled people.

 But as a recent report confirms, there are wide disparities between rich  and poorer countries on access to these innovations, collectively called “Assistive Technology.”

 In the global north, 90 percent of people living with disability (PWDs) have access to assistive technology while in the global south the figure stands at a mere 3 percent.   This statistic is worrisome as 80 percent of the one billion PDWs in the world are in the global south.   In Uganda, an estimated 12.4 percent live with some form of disability. The country ratified the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability and its Optional Protocol in 2008, without reservations.

 This means that member states must be committed to promote the availability of assistive devices including accessible information about them. Government has an obligation to promote full inclusion and active participation of PWDs in all aspects of life; including investing in and promoting assistive technology, research and development.

 As a deaf lawyer, I have found my smart phone, laptop and captioning software extremely helpful in accessing information in my day-to-day activities as most media is inaccessible in sign language.

 Without these assistive technologies, I would be unable to lead a normal and independent life. Yet this remains the case for the majority of PWDs in Uganda. For instance, a recent report quotes that 95 percent  of PWDs in Uganda have never heard of Assistive Technologies. Majority are unaware of devices as simple as Perkins braille – which is the most efficient device for producing Braille “by hand,’’ and handheld magnifiers which are magnification devices designed to fit in one’s hand or pocket for optimal portability or ease of use.

 The limited accessibility of market products and services in comparison to relative need demonstrates the lack of awareness. When compared to those without disabilities, PWDs own fewer devices such as smart phones and laptops.  The Internet exists to provide all its users with global access to data and communication, many websites in Uganda are inaccessible to PWDs. This is because they do not satisfy the required World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 standards. For instance, blind persons and those with low vision find it hard navigating through the Internet with their “screen reader” or other assistive software.

 Uganda’s Persons with Disabilities Act of 2020, takes a non-discriminatory approach to providing access to public information which is relevant towards the realisation of other rights such as education, health and social security.  Yet, a current proposed policy – the ICT Disability Policy, overlooks the overly growing private websites and focuses on only government websites.

Consequently, the blind, low vision, deaf and hard of hearing are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to socializing and obtaining goods and services.

 In the workplace, only 1.3 percent of PWDs are employed in the formal sector in Uganda. There remain several barriers for them that are based on false stereotypes including a common misconception that assistive devices are expensive.

 Additionally, many employers wrongly believe that PWDs are unable to effectively perform required tasks. However, when well facilitated with assistive technology or auxiliary aids, persons with disabilities can and continue to be productive in the workplace.  While it could be argued that the government has invested in the inclusion of PWDs through the development of legal and policy frameworks, the implementation has been inadequate.

It is possible to establish societies that are accessible to their disabled citizens and children. However, this can only happen when countries not only enact laws but also invest in their full implementation.

Governments in the global south must then reconsider, objectively, the ongoing challenges in digital accessibility across societies, and investigate how social and cultural factors have contributed to accessibility and usage of assistive devices.

 Our government must invest in acquiring technological expertise to establish a comprehensive accessibility infrastructure, social campaigns that promote a broad-based social model of disability and society.

Mr Timothy Egwelu is a lawyer, disability rights advocate and a disability inclusion specialist.