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World Telecommunication and Information Society Day 2008: Connecting persons with disabilities - ICT opportunities for all 
Cairo, Egypt
15 May 2008

Address by ITU Secretary General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré

Excellencies,
Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to have the opportunity of celebrating World Telecommunication and Information Society Day with you here in Cairo, on the occasion of this very exciting ITU Telecom Africa event.

As you may already know, 17 May marks the 143rd anniversary of the signing of the world’s first-ever international convention on ICTs, the International Telegraph Convention.

That convention represented the first major step forward in breaking down barriers to the global exchange of electronic information and knowledge, and was instrumental in laying the foundations of today’s Information Society.

17 May also marks the founding of the International Telecommunication Union, the world’s oldest international organization, which was established to promote technological development and harmonized global access to ICTs, and all the important benefits they bring.

This year’s theme – Connecting Persons with Disabilities – is particularly apposite. Well over a century ago, the need to develop information tools for people with disabilities inspired some of today’s most familiar ICTs. Pioneers of the first typewriters – which have morphed into today’s ubiquitous computer keyboards – were striving to develop a way of helping the blind to write.

And it was Alexander Graham Bell’s research into hearing and speech, and his friendship with the family of celebrated disabled advocate Helen Keller, who led to his being awarded the first US patent for the telephone in 1876.

Keller herself was an enthusiastic adopter and promoter of ICTs. In the 1920s, she successfully campaigned to bring free access to home wireless radios – back then, a very new invention – to America’s blind community.

She also succeeded in ensuring that US companies introduced Dictaphone technology into the workplace, to help blind persons integrate into office life.

The phenomenal growth of ICTs over the past 25 years has seen the birth of a dazzling array of new technologies to empower persons with all kinds of disabilities to take active roles in mainstream society. For the moment, however, much of this tremendous potential remains unrealized, or inaccessible to the people who need it.

At ITU, we often speak of the Digital Divide – the yawning gap that separates the wealthy few with access to modern ICTs from those in the developing world who are still waiting to get connected.

But there is another Digital Divide that is just as devastating for those on the losing side – the divide that separates able-bodied people who can readily harness the wonders of today’s technologies from those for whom ICTs remain out of reach, often simply because their special needs have not been accorded due consideration.

As we know, the concept of disability encompasses a wide range of human conditions. Recent estimates indicate that there are now around 650 million persons living with disabilities. Over 300 million of these are of working age; and a full three quarters of them live in the developing world.

Poverty and disability are deeply intertwined in a vicious circle. Worldwide, the highest incidence of disabilities occurs in the poorest areas – with devastating repercussions. Figures show that in many of the world’s Least Developed Countries, fewer than 3% of young girls with disabilities get the chance to attend school. Lack of access to education keeps these youngsters in a poverty trap, unable to advance themselves economically, and unable to pass on the benefits of their own education to their children.

Certainly, the situation is better in many countries, yet even in the world’s most economically privileged nations this same Digital Divide persists. All too often persons with disabilities find themselves marginalized from mainstream society, while the assistive technologies that could dramatically change their lives are priced far beyond the reach of ordinary people.

Ladies and gentlemen,

ICTs have the great merit of serving as a powerful equalizer of abilities, empowering persons with disabilities to fulfill their potential, realize their own dreams and ambitions, and take their place as active members of the Information Society.

Persons with disabilities have the same needs and desires as the able-bodied – they want to actively contribute to society; communicate with friends and family; surf the Web; access digital entertainment; shop online; pursue their professional goals; and interact freely with the world around them.

And in countries where they suffer from limited access for education and health care, ICTs also serve as a vital stepping stone to better opportunities, and a better quality of life.

The inexorable shift towards new knowledge-based economies is creating a wealth of new possibilities for knowledge workers, regardless of their physical capabilities or limitations. Around the world, momentum is building for initiatives that allow persons with disabilities to take their rightful place in society. In 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which obliges its signatories to provide public information in formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities. Such is the driving force behind this initiative that the Convention entered into force on the 3rd of May, having achieved its 20th ratification in record-breaking time.

In a bid to encourage more countries to develop the policies and frameworks that foster effective access solutions for persons with disabilities, ITU organized two events last year, in Geneva and Cairo, to share experiences and best practice on addressing accessible ICTs. Both events underscored the need to support countries in raising awareness and building capacity to address ICT needs for persons with disabilities, and in helping them meet the requirements of the UN Convention. A similar event will take place in Zambia this coming July.

In addition, last year saw the first Forum of the UN Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication technologies, which welcomed accessibility experts from many of the world’s leading ICT equipment vendors and web portal providers. This year, ITU jointly organized the second Forum, with a focus on standards and the role of government procurement for mainstreaming accessible ICTs.

It is pleasing to see that a growing number of countries are now beginning to reach out to persons with disabilities through initiatives such as closed captioning of TV programmes. To date, however, only a very few have adopted accessible design standards, and only a handful of vendors incorporate accessibility features into their products at the very start of the design process.

Tackling the issue of accessibility too late in the product design cycle adds unnecessary cost, as does the absence of policies that could help encourage mass production of accessible devices. It is hoped that the UN Convention will redress this problem, and spur new opportunities that will encourage the private sector to channel more investment into this domain.

As the world’s pre-eminent global ICT standards organization, ITU is embracing the challenges of accessibility through standardization efforts underway within our 21 technical Study Groups. It is worth noting that much of this work has long been based on the principles of inclusion and universal design enshrined in the UN Convention.

At the same time, the WSIS Geneva Plan of Action invites our 191 Member States to adopt e-strategies that promote the design and production of ICT equipment and services that meet the needs of persons with disabilities, including adherence to the Universal Design Principle and the use of assistive technologies.

Our Doha Plan of Action, adopted in 2006, likewise stresses the importance of universal, ubiquitous and affordable technologies that ensure the benefits of ICTs are equitably shared by all.

Since it is vital that we actively involve all stakeholders in this process – and most particularly, persons living with disabilities – ITU has increased its outreach through new standardization coordination activity focused on accessibility and human factors. We are also leading the newly-created Dynamic Coalition on Accessibility and Disability, under the auspices of the Internet Governance Forum.

With technology advancing at lightning speed, the innovative possibilities for assistive technologies are almost unlimited. Today, as we celebrate the enormous benefits ICTs continue to bring, let us pledge to redouble our efforts to create an inclusive, people-centred, development-oriented Information Society.

In the words of the great Helen Keller: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

Ladies and Gentlement, before I announce the first laureate, I would like to thank CISCO, the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications as well as the Egyptian Government for supporting this event.

 

 

 

 

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