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Accessibility – a universal requirement in a world of 7 billion people

2 December 2011 - An estimated 15 per cent of the world’s population lives with a disability. If family members or care-givers are included, one quarter of our global population is directly affected by disability. And a growing and increasingly “greying” population, coupled with medical advances, means that more people than ever will be living with a disability in the future. Information and communication technologies (ICTs), embedded in apparatus, are already transforming the lives of many disabled people, through aids to mobility, speech and hearing, and the performance of everyday tasks. For its part, ITU strives to ensure that ICTs as a means of communication – and the myriad and multiplying benefits and opportunities they bring are accessible to all, including those with disabilities.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires countries to take “appropriate measures” to:

  1. Ensure ICT and emergency service access to persons with disabilities on an equal basis;

  2. Promote access for persons with disabilities to new ICT, including the internet;

  3. Promote design, production and distribution of accessible ICT at an early stage;

  4. Ensure that persons with disabilities can exercise the right to freedom of expression and opinion;

  5. Provide information in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities in a timely manner and without additional cost;

  6. Urge private entities that render services to the public to provide information and services in accessible and usable formats for persons with disabilities;

  7. Encourage mass media (including information providers through the internet) to make their services accessible.

With this human rights framework as a guide, ITU seeks to ensure that people with a disability enjoy the same opportunities in life as others and that accessibility issues are taken into account in all aspects of its work.

Through its standardization activities, ITU promotes accessibility standards such as the well-known “tactile identifier” standard requiring the middle key (#5) of a keyboard to be easily identifiable by the visually impaired. It supports open accessibility standards to ensure interoperability between different manufacturers and operators of ICT products and services. It has also produced a checklist and guidelines on accessibility for standards makers.

In addition, ITU encourages development of products and services aimed at increasing accessibility, such as the “Total Conversation Service”, a flexible interface that merges voice, video and text telephony. ITU also promotes the principle of “universal design”, which is defined by the UN Convention as the design of products and services to be usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible, minimizing the need for special adaptations or different devices for people with disabilities.

Recognizing the clear need to coordinate technology that can assist viewers and listeners with disabilities to maximize the benefits offered by broadcast, cable, IPTV, and the Internet, ITU recently launched the Focus Group on Audiovisual Media Accessibility. The aim of this group of experts will be to make access service requirements independent of the delivery platform. ITU also issued a report on Making TV Accessible to provide practical information on accessible TV features like captioning, audio description and easy-to-use remote controls.

Thus ITU is urging all technology developers to incorporate the basic building blocks of assistive technologies into ICTs of all kinds mobile phones, computers, television, ATMs (automatic teller machines) and so on – and for all languages. These building blocks include text to speech and speech to text software, interactive voice command, and language rule tables for Braille transcription.

In fact, many technologies we take for granted today – automatic door openers, talking ATMs, touch sensitive keyboards – were created as assistive technologies. “Eye-aware” programs that use eye movements like a computer mouse to highlight and select, drag and drop, and click – are another technology initially created for people with disabilities that can be expected to appear in a growing number of mainstream applications in the near future.

ITU also advises its Members on how to meet their obligations on accessibility under the UN Convention, encouraging the exchange of best practice and helping to develop and promote policy guidelines, for example, through compiling an e-Accessibility Policy Toolkit for policymakers. It has initiated outreach programmes, such as the Joint Coordination Activity on Accessibility and Human Factors, and the Dynamic Coalition on Accessibility and Disabilities within the Internet Governance Forum, which include non-governmental organizations representing disabled people. And it works to create greater awareness of accessibility issues through its conferences and publications, and provides education and training on accessible ICTs.

The need for “accessibility” is not confined to people with physical or mental disabilities. Anyone can be permanently or temporarily “disabled”, for example, if they try to receive a phone call in a noisy environment or speak a language for which there are few internet resources. Moreover, we will all grow old and lose abilities, so that – even if not now we stand to benefit from accessible communication in the future.

Indeed, rather than treating accessibility as important solely for addressing the needs of people with disabilities, elderly people or those with temporary impairments, we should regard accessibility as a universal requirement that aims to ensure that ICTs of all kinds can be used with ease by people with the widest range of capabilities. In this way, all the world’s people, whatever their individual abilities or disabilities, stand to benefit from an “accessible ICT world”.


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The 7 Billiion Actions initiative is convened by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund with support from partners from the private and public sector.