History & background of assistive technologies / ICTs
It is particularly appropriate that we should be here, today, discussing
assistive technologies – since we are almost at the end of a year during which
ITU has focused on ‘Connecting Persons with Disabilities’. We started this
twelve month period on 17 May last year, exactly 11 months ago today, by
celebrating World Telecommunication and Information Society Day 2008 in Cairo.
In a world dominated by hi-tech and mass media, it’s easy to forget that
assistive technologies have often driven innovation in ICTs – starting with the
pioneers of the first typewriters, well over a century ago, which have
long-since evolved into today’s ubiquitous computer keyboards, who were looking
for ways to help 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 that 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.
Need for assistive technology – statistics
There are around 650 million persons living with disabilities worldwide. Three
quarters of them live in the developing world.
The highest incidence of disabilities occurs in the poorest areas – with fewer
than 3% of young girls with disabilities in many of the world’s Least Developed
Countries getting 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.
ICTs have the great merit of serving as a powerful equalizer of abilities,
empowering persons with disabilities to fulfil 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.
In countries where persons with disabilities 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.
Improving the situation in the developing world – and ITU’s work
We need any more countries to adopt accessible design standards, and we need
many more vendors to incorporate accessibility features into their products at
the very start of the design process.
This needs to happen early in the product design cycle, as 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
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 the much of this work has long
been based on the principles of inclusion and universal design enshrined in the
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. As we celebrate the enormous
benefits ICTs continue to bring, let us also pledge to redouble our efforts to
create an inclusive, people-centred, development-oriented Information Society.
To quote the great Helen Keller: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do