New technologies bringing persons with disabilities into mainstream, UN forum told

26 March 2007 –

A “dazzling array” of technologies is bringing persons with disabilities into the workforce and integrating them further into society, an expert on assistive technologies said today at a forum at United Nations Headquarters in New York.

Technology helps employers to bring work to persons with disabilities, said the expert, Irene Morris-Sambur, Chief Executive Officer of Coraworks. “Assistive technologies currently exist,” she said. “They have to be brought to workers with disabilities, instead of trying to bring these workers to the workplace.”

At the first Global Forum of the UN Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), accessibility experts and executives of corporations such as IBM, Yahoo, Internet Speech, Deque Systems, NiiT Ventures and e-ISOTIS showcased new products – from video-descriptions to screen readers – and mapped out a field that is seeing a “significant beginning of venture capital investment,” according to to Barry Fingerhut of Synconium.

Government regulations are helping to fuel this development, said Larry Goldberg of the National Center for Accessible Media. Canada now requires that 90 per cent of TV programmes be captioned, and in the United Kingdom up to 5 per cent of TV programmes show a sign language translator. Japan, Mexico and Australia are preparing similar legislation to make TV more accessible.

However, industry vendors should incorporate accessibility features from the start of the product development, said Alex Leblois, Executive Director of the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICT. “A number of ICT vendors are well-intended, but tackle the issue of accessibility too late in the product life cycle,” at a higher cost.

Legislations and regulations should aim at creating unified markets for accessible products, he said, so as to encourage mass production at low cost. “The reason why people can make calls through a cell phone that costs very little is because the same telephone is being used in the United States, Kenya and Latin America. The same dynamics of mass production, standardization and harmonization can be achieved for assistive technologies, and for inclusive ICT products in general.”

Accessibility had multiple business values, said K. Anne-River Forcke of the IBM Worldwide Human Ability and Accessibility Center, such as “the value businesses organizations can realize as employers by adopting accessibility, and the value that organizations can realize when they address their constituents and their customers”.

“We have learned a tremendous amount from employing people with disabilities,” she said, “and we incorporate that into the software, the hardware and the business systems that we use internally at IBM today. We have learned that there are a number of best practices for the development of software, for hardware, and as we are learning more about the services science, we are learning how to ensure accessibility in the delivery of services.”

“The Web has the ability to be even more accessible than other parts of society,” said Judy Brewer, Director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium, the leading technology standard organization for Web technology. Adaptable policy frameworks should be developed, she said, “because the technology continues to advance all the time, and it is important to keep the policy frameworks up to date with the technology.”

Solutions that were developed in a particular industry or standards organization should not be automatically made available in a country. “It is very important to partner with disability organizations within every country and try to make sure that those solutions are relevant locally,” she said. “That really yields the best solutions in the end.”

Hendrietta Ipeleng Bogopane-Zulu, a Member of South Africa's Parliament, recalled the “digital divide that still exists between people with disabilities and those who are non-disabled”, and said that beyond access to the Web, the problem for many developing countries was basically affordability. “Everything is imported,” she said, “and getting the technical assistance when a computer breaks or something happens is a nightmare. The problem is not only the access, it is also affordability, support systems and training.”

Some 200 representatives of industry, government, academia and civil society attended the Forum, which was organized by the UN Global Alliance for ICT and Development and the Boston-based Wireless Internet Institute in cooperation with the Secretariat of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

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