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Connect2Include: Making digital accessibility a reality for all

Despite having no limbs, Joanne O’Riordan can type 42 words per minute. But while attending elementary school in rural Ireland, the 24-year-old sports journalist used to struggle to complete her homework.

It was not for lack of arms and legs, she said, but rather because of her limited access to broadband Internet.

“As we move into the future, broadband is going to be as vital to social and economic advancement as motorways, dams or electricity were in the 20th century,” O’Riordan said during an ITU Connect2Include discussion last week. The online session formed part of the Road to Addis series of events leading up to the 2021 World Telecommunication Development Conference, set to be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, later this year.

The event addressed the challenges still faced by specific groups of people – women and girls, youth and elderly, persons with disabilities, children, indigenous people, and those living in remote areas – as obstacles to achieving true and meaningful connectivity for everyone.

O’Riordan, who was born limbless due to Total Amelia syndrome, eventually learned to type and to code since there was no software that could accommodate her disability. At Connect2Include, she shared how digital technologies have been instrumental in the pursuit of her life’s mission: advocating for equitable access to employment, education, and healthcare. “We need to make sure that national planning, and public and private sector investments are involved – and that investment is done correctly, that there are no unfair disparities, and that there is a human interaction with users.”

People-centred technology

Half of the world’s population remains unconnected and is left out from the benefits provided by information and communication technologies (ICTs). That includes approximately 2 billion women, and 2.2 billion young people under the age of 25 without fixed broadband Internet access at home. “In our post-COVID-19 world, digital exclusion increasingly means economic, social, and educational exclusion; an exclusion from a whole raft of new opportunities that those of us already connected take for granted,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau. “Digital exclusion impacts certain demographics more than others, such as women and girls, the elderly, persons with disabilities, children, indigenous groups and people living in remote areas.” The President of Ethiopia, Sahle-Work Zahle, said technologies need to accommodate people rather than the other way around. “Digital inclusion has two basic underlying concepts: access to affordable and high-quality technology, and digital literacy and competency that is needed to utilize technology efficiently,” she explained.

“Ensuring that no one is left behind means ensuring that technology is people-centred.”

Lissette Gonzalez of Telecomunicaciones Indigenas Comunitarias A.C. in Mexico suggested thinking of technology as a human right that can enable us to make decisions. “We must own and adjust technology to the realities of our context and territories, improving the quality of our lives,” Gonzalez said. “If we think of technology as part of our natural environment, we will build it with a more human focus.”

More than a privilege

Claudia Gordon, Director of Government and Compliance at T-Mobile Accessibility and a lawyer by profession, also had trouble finding affordable digital tools and services tailored to meet her specific needs. As a deaf person, she only got her first television captioning box when she turned 18. Captioned television had been unavailable in Jamaica where she grew up.

More than 1 billion people in the world are living with some form of disability, with consequent challenges for digital engagement.

“Access to ICTs is more than just a privilege. It should be considered a right, especially for those with disabilities,” Gordon said. “ICTs empower us and give us a sense of independence. Without access to ICTs, I wouldn’t have been able to become an attorney. So many people around the world in the same position really need ICTs for those critical skills.” She expresses pride in her company taking accessibility seriously and innovating where needed. Tailored digital solutions include captioned telephones for people with hearing loss, or Internet protocol and video relay services for deaf-blind persons. “We need to consider ICTs broadly and think of all types of disabilities,” she added. “And we need to innovate not for, but with, persons with disabilities, because they know what solutions work for them.”

Diversity as a driver of talent

According to Judith M. Williams, Head of People Sustainability, Senior Vice President, and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at SAP, diversity drives innovation

“We are only able to improve people’s lives if we have a diverse and inclusive workforce where we empower people to run at their best,” she says.

A company roadmap keeps every product accessible to those with disabilities. For example, an Autism at Work programme adapts hiring and onboarding processes to meet the needs of autistic employees, enabling the recruitment of talent that might have been overlooked.

Next stop on the Road to Addis

The Road to Addis series aims to build awareness, engage key stakeholders and communities, and provide an inclusive platform to discuss some of the key themes that will be addressed at WTDC-21. It focuses on six enablers of connectivity for sustainable development: partnerships, inclusion, financing, leadership, innovation, and youth.

The next Road to Addis event, focused on financing, takes place on 28 April, with the series set to culminate in September, when outcomes are presented at the United Nations General Assembly.

To engage with ITU and contribute to the impact of WTDC-21, contact us here.

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