Promise of technology for persons with disabilities

Technology advances have changed the way people live. But not all people have benefitted equally, due to limited accessibility, social and economic barriers. To discuss the promises of new technology for persons with disabilities and other topics related to the upcoming International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December, DESA News met with Daniela Bas, Director of UN DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development.

Throughout human history, new and changing technologies have impacted on the way people live. Today, it is built in to nearly every part of daily living, from work, consumer goods, to recreational activities and social interactions. Information and communications technologies have also dramatically increased connectivity between people and their access to information, further helping to raise living standards.

For the 1 billion people living with some form of disability around the world, technological advances that could enhance inclusion, such as Apps on smart phones, interactive whiteboards in the classroom and 3-dimensional films can be a challenge to access. In spite of being the world’s largest minority group, persons with disabilities have remained largely invisible in mainstream development frameworks and its processes. The UN General Assembly continues to reiterate accessibility as a means and a goal for inclusive, sustainable development and as key for empowering and including all persons in the future development efforts.

“A lot has been achieved,” said Daniela Bas, as she described the situation across the globe for persons with disabilities. “I would say that we have to encourage people with disabilities themselves and the remaining part of the society, be it that we are talking about governments that decide about social policies, be it that we talk about other groups of the civil society, of academia,” Ms. Bas said, emphasizing that the situation for persons with disabilities still needs to be improved.

“Let’s unite the different skills we have, to find solutions, to make society accessible to everybody”

Daniela Bas
Director of UN DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development

Citing the UN Secretary-General, Daniela Bas also underscored the role of new technologies in moving towards a society where no one is left behind, a topic which will also be highlighted during the upcoming celebrations on 3 December. “There are going to be so many events and panel discussions with people from governments, NGOs, the private sector, to showcase what they are doing by using new technologies to enable everybody to be able,” Ms. Bas explained.

Accessibility and its benefits to us all

What do we mean by accessibility? Think of an App on a Smartphone. It is likely that the App has certain design characteristics, such as an attractive visual layout, state-of-the-art features and touch-screen elements, which deliver an appealing and sought after service. Now imagine a person with a visual impairment – an individual who may struggle to access this App, to appreciate its visual layout and its interactive features. While being advanced in its features, the App world, and certainly other technological advances, may not cater to all persons in society.

Accessibility is best defined as flexibility to accommodate each user’s needs and preferences. While the design of accessible technologies ought to cater for all individuals in society, it is important to note that the accessibility of such information and communications technologies does not automatically diminish the opportunities for others to enjoy the ease and flexibility of using such goods or services. Accessibility should therefore be identified as a set of global public goods, which are not a defined to benefit a particular group in society, but rather, to be accessible to all on a local, national and global level.

The improvements to physical and service infrastructure that come with a focus on accessibility also encourage a more multigenerational focus in development planning. In time, the youth population of today will have inevitably matured. Imagine the European population: by 2050 the number of people over 65 will be 3 times what it was in 2003, and the over 80 age group will be 5 times greater in number. Accessibility is an important aspect of realising the rights of the world’s ageing population; with age, the chances of acquiring a permanent or temporary disability increases. A focus on accessibility can therefore ensure that all are able to participate fully in society well into the older years.

Realizing the rights of persons with disabilities often requires policy interventions and the implementation of measures to remove barriers and provide reasonable accommodation in order to ensure their equal access and full participation.

Sustainable and inclusive development

In recent years, there has been increasing recognition that development paths would not exclude the participation of persons with disabilities in economic, social or political life. This is key for an inclusive, equitable and sustainable future for all, and the repositioning of accessibility as an integral development goal would secure such inclusion.

The concept of universal design is not a matter of style, but rather an orientation to design. It is based on the premise that design processes must be inclusive, produce equitable benefits and be appropriate to all groups in society, regardless of economical, social, cultural or physical feature. With this in mind, performance standards and technical requirements for accessibility should produce results for persons with disabilities and non-disabled persons alike.

UN Member States have recognized increasingly that ensuring accessibility for, and inclusion of, persons with disabilities is important for achieving internationally agreed development goals, such as the Millennium Development Goals.

Indeed, technology can be used as a tool to impact on the achievement and outcome of the post-2015 development agenda for persons with disabilities, and for people everywhere. The post-2015 development agenda can be used to promote the impact and benefits of assistive technology, accessible information and communications technology, technological adaptations and other policy and programmatic measures to improve the well-being and inclusion of persons with disabilities in society and development.

During the High-Level meeting on Disability and Development in 2013, UN DESA’s Under-Secretary-General Mr. Wu Hongbo made a call for all stakeholders to implement more disability-inclusive national development strategies, to ensure that development takes into account the needs of persons with disabilities.

IDPD_2014International Day highlights promises of technology

The annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December will further showcase the promises of new technologies as it will be celebrated under the theme “Sustainable Development: The promise of technology”.

During the day, panel discussions will be held at the UN Headquarters, one of which will identify key issues and trends with regard to technology and how the post-2015 development agenda can promote an inclusive path to development. The day will work to harness the power of technology to promote inclusion and accessibility, with a view to help realize the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society to achieve sustainable development for all.

“Let’s unite the different skills we have, to find solutions, to make society accessible to everybody,” Ms. Bas said encouragingly ahead of the international day. “Leave the ‘dis’ at home and bring the ability,” Ms. Bas concluded.

For more information: United Nations Enable website