Speech from Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, ITU Secretary-General

Special Session on the Occasion of
World Telecommunication & Information Society Day
‘Connecting Persons with Disabilities’
Istanbul, Turkey
22 May 2008

Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here with you today to commemorate World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, which I had the pleasure of celebrating this year in Cairo on the occasion of ITU Telecom Africa 2008.

Around the world, we celebrate this special day to mark the anniversary of the signing of the International Telegraph Convention in 1865, which represented the first great step forward in breaking down the barriers to the global sharing of electronic information and knowledge.

What more appropriate venue to commemorate this huge achievement than here in Turkey? Your history as the cradle of science and philosophy dates back almost 3,000 years. Your illustrious sons were instrumental in forging our modern scientific method and establishing the discipline of physics, by which we seek to understand the world around us. Their pioneering work and their steadfast belief in the importance of information, lie at the very heart of today’s Knowledge Society.

World Telecommunication and Information Society Day also marks the founding of the International Telecommunication Union, 143 years ago. Now the world’s oldest international organization, ITU was established to promote technological development and harmonized global access to ICTs, and the countless benefits they bring.

I believe no group of people appreciates these benefits more than those living with disabilities, for whom access to ICTs can literally open up whole new worlds of possibility.

To celebrate this year’s theme – Connecting Persons with Disabilities – ITU organized a special awards ceremony in Cairo which recognized the work of three distinguished laureates in helping bring new technologies to disabled communities worldwide.

We recognized Egypt’s First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, for her efforts to mainstream policies to empower children and youth with disabilities, and for her support of the Cairo Declaration on Supporting Access to ICT Services for Persons with Disabilities, which was jointly developed by ITU and the World Health Organization in 2007.

We recognized the DAISY Consortium, a worldwide organization of libraries and ICT companies which is active in promoting international standards that enable equal access for people with visual disabilities.

And we recognized Andrea Saks, an inspirational, lifelong pioneer of technologies to help the deaf community, whose work with ITU, the US government and the Internet Governance Forum has not only paved the way to new services, but to a more inclusive approach to ICT development.

These people and organizations are all champions in harnessing the extraordinary power of modern ICTs to help persons with disabilities overcome their physical limitations and reach their full potential.

But I’m sure those of you who were present in Cairo last week will agree that the most uplifting moment of all was provided by a man whose own story is a living testament to the transforming power of these technologies.

Paralyzed from the neck down after an accident several years ago, our special guest Diamante Albergati came on stage to show us how, using a computer and a webcam designed to track head movements, he has regained his autonomy and his ability to interact with the world around him.

Diamante now surfs the web, sends email, makes phone calls, and downloads entertainment almost as effortlessly as we do. In his own words, access to ICTs has totally transformed his existence.

It’s a little-known fact that many of the technologies we take for granted today were actually developed to help persons with disabilities. The first typewriters – which have transformed into today’s ubiquitous computer keyboards – were created as a way of helping the blind to write.

And Alexander Graham Bell’s work on hearing and speech, and his friendship with the family of disabled advocate Helen Keller, drove the research that resulted in his being awarded the first US patent for the telephone in 1876.

By today’s estimates, the number of people worldwide living with disability is around 650 million. But while the past 25 years have seen the emergence of all kinds of innovative technologies that can empower persons with disabilities to take a more active role in society, much of this potential remains unrealized, or inaccessible.

At ITU, we often speak of the Digital Divide that separates the industrialized world, where ICT access is cheap and abundant, from the developing world, where millions are still waiting for a simple connection.

This year’s World Telecommunication and Information Society Day recognizes that there is another Digital Divide whose effects can be just as devastating.

I’m speaking of the divide that separates the able-bodied, who can readily harness the very latest ICTs, from those for whom the very same empowering, enabling technologies remain out of reach.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When we hold such power in our hands, how can we not do our utmost to ensure that everyone benefits from equal access to these life-changing technologies?

ICTs are great equalizers, enabling persons with disabilities to take their place as active, involved members of our society. And in the world’s poorer countries, where persons with disabilities can suffer from restricted access to education and health care, as well as social discrimination based on prejudice and ignorance, ICTs can be a vital stepping stone to a better quality of life.

In 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As global momentum continues to build for initiatives that improve access for persons with disabilities, ITU is once again taking a leadership role, through our support for the Forum of the UN Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication technologies, and through the ground-breaking work that takes place within our 21 technical Study Groups.

ITU Recommendations have long embraced 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.

But while these are important steps in the right direction, it is clear that we need to go further, and move faster.

Industry needs to take up the challenge of inclusiveness by adopting accessible design standards, and – most importantly – incorporating accessibility features into products at the very beginning of the design cycle.

Building accessibility into products as an after-thought adds a great deal of unnecessary cost – which often puts these products beyond the reach of the very people who need them.

At the government and regulatory level, we need to focus on policies that promote mass production of accessible devices. While the new UN Convention will go some way towards achieving this, I urge each of you to make this a personal crusade, so that the private sector is encouraged to channel more investment into this domain.

With the pace of technological innovation showing no signs of slowing, the possibilities for miraculous new assistive technologies are virtually limitless.

Today, as we celebrate the enormous benefits ICTs continue to bring, let us pledge to focus tomorrow’s efforts on creating a more inclusive, caring and empowering Information Society.