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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.