Ms Gunela Astbrink Issue: Asia-Pacific I 2015
Article no.: 7
Topic: Building accessibility bridges
Author: Ms Gunela Astbrink
Title: Director
Organisation: Internet Society of Australia
PDF size: 204KB

About author

Gunela Astbrink, Director, Internet Society of Australia – Helping shape our Internet future
Gunela Astbrink has been active in disability policy and research for over 25 years.
Gunela is a Director of the Internet Society of Australia and a member of the Pacific Islands Chapter of the Internet Society. Gunela was the inaugural Australian Internet Governance Forum Ambassador (2013) and is currently a member of ICANN’s Asia Pacific Regional At-Large Organisation and the At-Large Accessibility Taskforce.
She is a Fellow of the RSA, 21st enlightenment and holds an adjunct senior research position in the Institute for Integrated and Intelligent Systems at Griffith University. In 2013, Gunela was awarded the Christopher Newell Prize for the best journal article in the Telecommunications Journal of Australia.

Article abstract

One in every six persons in the Asia Pacific region has some form of disability according to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. That is 650 million men, women and children.

ICT has the potential to give persons with disability the means to live more equitably within the community in a manner that previously was not possible.
 

Full Article

What is accessibility?
People are surprised to learn that blind people are avid users of the Internet. How do they know what is on a website if they cannot see the screen? Screen-reading software linked with speech output or a Braille keyboard is the answer. This is only one example of a plethora of ICT tools that has helped to
bridge the digital divide for people with disability.

Accessibility, affordability and availability of ICT for people with disability are the three key areas that need to be bridged so that people with disability will have equity of opportunity.

Changing peoples’ attitudes to disability is fundamental to achieving greater accessibility. The traditional view of disability is through the medical model, that is, attempting to “fix” or rehabilitate a person to society’s norms. The social model of disability aims to dismantle barriers so that a person with a disability can fully participate in the community. This contemporary model emphasises a person’s abilities and encourages a person’s independence and capacity by decreasing environmental barriers.

Persons with disability face as many different barriers as there are types and degrees of disability. For example, blind people who use screen-reading software may be confronted by websites with confusing navigation, or that lack descriptions of images; while people with a hearing impairment may be unable to participate in online conferencing because it lacks captioning.

Apart from accessibility, other barriers need to be overcome so that persons with disabilities can gain benefit from the Internet and contribute value to the Internet. These are:

Affordability
Many persons with disability have low incomes and limited educational opportunities. This applies in developed countries and even more in developing countries. Using the Internet and mobile phones is expensive especially in developing countries. When assistive technologies are required, the barrier can be even higher.

Cultural
Persons with disabilities are perceived with pity or shame in some countries. They may be restrictively “protected” by family for any of a number of rationales, ranging from a lack of suitable educational facilities to a lack of appropriate government services.

Availability
In rural and remote areas, there may be limited mobile phone coverage or Internet connectivity. Encouraging and meeting the needs of persons with disabilities may be a relatively low priority under such conditions.

Lack of awareness by community at large
People in the broader community have limited understanding of how persons with disability use technology and of the significant benefits the Internet can bring. Making products and services accessible can therefore mistakenly be considered difficult and costly.

It makes business sense

There is a business case for ICT accessibility. It is seen as an opportunity to reach into broader consumer segments in a crowded marketplace. This is illustrated by the Business Taskforce on Accessible Technology and the OneVoice for Accessible ICT Coalition which surveyed over 300 corporations in the UK – including Lloyds TSB, KPMG, Virgin Atlantic, BBC, BT and Sainsbury’s – to discover their views on ICT accessibility. The results from the survey and case studies found that investing in accessible ICT met the following key business goals:

1. Reach new markets
2. Maximise employee engagement and productivity
3. Provision of high quality products and services
4. Improve supply chain management
5. Build partner and community relations
6. Minimise risk of legal action
The Business Taskforce on Accessible ICT established an Accessible Technology Charter in November 2011. The Charter sets out 10 commitments that corporations should make so that ICT accessibility is embedded throughout the organisation including HR, policy, staff awareness, employee workplace adjustments and procurement. There were 17 launch signatories including Cisco, Fujitsu, Microsoft and Oracle.

There is potential for market growth in the disability and aged segments if products and services are accessible and offered at an affordable price. In Japan, as in many developed countries, the mobile phone market is saturated except for those over 50. As people age, they may have hearing loss, vision loss or arthritis and will need more accessible features. NTT has successfully sold over 14 million Raku Raku phones designed for the older age brackets. Those handsets are more generally popular because of their user-friendly features.

In Australia, organisations are encouraged to develop a Disability Action Plan detailing activities and timeframes. These plans are lodged with the Human Rights Commission, and indicate a public commitment to improve accessibility. Telstra, Australia’s largest ISP and telco, was the first corporation to develop one of these plans.

Companies such as Microsoft and Apple now have progressive attitudes to accessibility. This has come about in part as a result of both a “carrot” and “stick” approach in USA. Firstly, the US Government incorporates accessibility criteria in its public procurement policy (through what are called Section 508 guidelines) thus stimulating industry to supply more accessible products to its agencies. Secondly, litigation under discrimination and telecommunications legislation has focused companies’ attention on the possible consequences if accessibility needs are not appropriately addressed. Many Microsoft and Apple products and services are now designed to be accessible right from the start. For example, the iPhone is popular with blind people who can use the device “out of the box” without the need for assistive add-ons.
International, regional and national actions
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that access to ICT is one element that will enable persons with disabilities to participate more fully in all aspects of life. The Convention stipulates that governments take appropriate measures for this to occur. Over 100 countries have signed and ratified the Convention, which brings responsibilities, amongst other obligations, to improve accessibility to ICT.

The ITU places significant emphasis on accessibility with regard to particular Study Groups, Questions and Recommendations. At the 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference, ITU confirmed its commitment to accessibility for people with disability. For example, Resolution 175 mandates ITU to promote ICT accessibility and access to ICTs for persons with disability. ITU’s Connect 2020 agenda aims to bridge the digital divide and provide broadband for all with one of the targets calling for the establishment of enabling policies ensuring accessible ICT for persons with disabilities in all ITU Member States by 2020. It has recently published a report on model ICT accessibility policies to assist governments to meet this target.

The Internet Society states that “The Internet is for Everyone”. Regional activities by Internet Society Chapters have furthered this through a number of projects, some supported by the Internet Society’s Community Grants Program. The Internet Society of Australia has contributed in the past eight years to the regional Pacific Internet conference (PacINET) in various Pacific Island countries and delivered presentations and workshops on accessibility. This has led to requests from governments and non-profit organisations for further information and guidance. A pilot project implemented by ITU with support from the Australian Government commenced in November 2014 in Vanuatu as the first Pacific Island country to work towards ICT accessibility. The project activities include collection of baseline data on ICT usage by people with disability, web accessibility audits, analysis of legislation, regulation and policy, disability awareness training and a policy toolkit with capacity-building workshops. The aim is to increase the availability, accessibility and affordability of ICT for persons with disability in Vanuatu and may have an impact on other Pacific Island countries in future.

In some countries, regulatory authorities may use Universal Service Obligation (USO) funds to assist persons with disabilities. These funds usually cover the costs of providing ICT services in rural and remote regions, but they may also have the capacity to incorporate provisions to fund services for persons with disabilities in all parts of a country. For example, a pilot project using Universal Service Obligation funds in India helped persons with disabilities to access ICT in rural communities.

Websites are integral to obtaining information and services and being part of the online community. In Australia, the government’s Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy mandates that government websites meet the internationally recognised Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, version 2.0 to Level AA. This type of approach is starting to be seen by in many other countries as well.

“Nothing about us without us”

It makes perfect sense that any policy or technical development should involve the people that it is designed to support. Disability organisations can offer valuable input based on the representatives’ lived experience of disability.

Regardless of our individual or organisational role, we can all play our part in helping to increase and enhance the ability of persons with disabilities to get the most out of ICT. Each individual action contributes to the whole to make ICT products and services more accessible and useful not only for persons with disability but for everyone.

This article is derived from:
Internet Accessibility: Internet use by persons with disabilities:
Moving Forward (An Internet Society Issues Paper written by Gunela Astbrink) http://www.internetsociety.org/doc/internet-accessibility-internet-use-persons-disabilities-moving-forward