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The promise of technology and persons with disabilities

This image shows deaf boys using computers and following a course on printing in thailand
Vocational training in printing for deaf boys at the Don Bosco Technical School in Thailand

Sustainable development and the promise of technology is the UN’s theme for this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

Technology to promote inclusion

In line with the post-2015 development framework, the goal is to increase technology to promote inclusion and accessibility to help realise the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society and shape the future of sustainable development for all. This is especially important since the one billion persons with disabilities around the world frequently encounter widespread barriers or lack of accessibility in built environments, transport and information and communication services, including relevant information and communications technologies (ICTs) [1].  These barriers often deny persons with disabilities access and inclusion into mainstream society. Yet, the implementation of accessible technology has benefitted the lives of persons with disabilities in countries such as Canada, Sweden, Germany, Mexico and New Zealand [2].  The use of accessible and assistive technology improves the quality of life of persons and children with disabilities by increasing access to school, employment, community activities and other services. As such, this article explores the impact and benefits of assistive technology, accessible ICTs, universal design principles and other policy and programmatic measures to improve the wellbeing and inclusion of persons with disabilities in society and development.


Persons with disabilities use assistive technology - any item or piece of equipment - to increase, maintain or improve access to school, work, at home and in the community. Assistive technology ranges from low- to high-tech devices or equipment. Low-tech devices or equipment do not require much training, may be less expensive and do not have complex or mechanical features, such as large print text and canes or walkers. Mid-range tech devices or equipment may require some training, tend to be moderately expensive and may have some complex features and be electronic or battery operated, with examples of manual wheelchairs and closed-captioned TVs. High-tech devices or equipment are the most costly and complex with digital or electronic components and likely require training to learn, including power wheelchairs and scooters, digital hearing aids and speech recognition software [3].

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is a broad term that includes any communication device or application and related services, including mobile phones, satellites or the Internet. For persons with disabilities, ICTs can provide increased access to public services to promote full and equal inclusion into society.

Universal design – guided by seven principles - is the design of products and environments with the goal to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design. Universal design emphasises that making a product or environment accessible to persons with disabilities often, also, benefits others. For example, curb cuts benefit wheelchair users, as well as older persons with walkers and canes, skateboarders, and parents with baby strollers. Another example is the use of closed captions on televisions for Deaf and hard-of-hearing persons also benefit Second Language Learners, visual learners, and people in noisy areas [4]. 


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), adopted in 2006, establishes accessibility in a more comprehensive manner as a cross-cutting factor that enables persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life. Accessibility is a general principle (Article 3) of the Convention and is notably included as a general obligation of States Parties (Article 4) to proactively promote accessibility in design and development as well as availability of new technologies, including those of ICTs [5].  In Article 2, accessible information and communication technology are also considered definitions of communication. Article 9 provides a comprehensive provision on accessibility and sets out a range of appropriate measures to be taken by States to ensure persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, transportation, information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas, to enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life.

Universal design principles are included in the UN CRPD defined as the “design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaption or specialised design. Universal design shall not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of persons with disabilities where this is needed” (Article 2). In November 2014 the Post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction zero draft included the principles of Universal Design and information and communication accessibility. Since universal design principles benefit all persons, the result is a more accessible and inclusive society overall.

Accessible information and communications technology can provide persons with disabilities increased access to education, skills training, employment and the ability to participate in the economic, social and cultural life of their communities. The Internet (e.g., websites), software and apps (e.g., captions on Youtube), mobile devices and services (e.g. smart phones), TV sets and services (e.g., subtitles) and emerging information and communication technologies (e.g., speech to text) are all technologies that improve access and inclusion of persons with disabilities into mainstream society [6].  Moreover, the Internet and social media can serve as platforms for collaboration and tools for activism, which allow all persons, including those with disabilities to engage more actively in political and social life. Also, accessible mobile and smart phones as well as sign language interpreters and closed captions on television can significantly increase access to important information creating a safer and more inclusive environment for persons with disabilities [7].

Despite an ever-increasing technological world, many gaps remain for persons with disabilities and accessible technology. Challenges for persons with disabilities include the lack of awareness and training on assistive technology, limited accessibility of products and services available, and the related (high) cost of assistive technologies, lack of policies that provide accessible ICTs and lack of effective implementation mechanisms [8].   Also, a greater emphasis is needed on the adoption and implementation of laws and policies centering on access to communication and information for persons with disabilities, such as the (US) Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010.

The impetus for this law stemmed from a study that found that persons with disabilities in the US were less likely to use Internet-based communications technologies largely due to physical barriers in using the Internet. Consequently, the law ensures to modernise accessibility laws to keep a up with broadband technologies, to make products and services using Broadband fully accessible to persons with disabilities, and to make it easier to view video programming on the television and Internet. Specifically, smart phones will be required to be usable by blind and visually impaired persons as well as those who use hearing aids. Programs shown on television with closed captioning will be required to include the captioning when they are re-shown on the Internet. Importantly, provisions are included to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to emergency information such as the next generation of 911 services and emergency information on the television [9].

To truly be an inclusive society for all, accessible technology for persons with disabilities must be increased in development, emergency crises, employment, and in community settings. 

Actions by the European Union

The European Union (EU) ratified the UN CRPD, which entered into force on 22 January 2011. This commitment is also supported by almost all of the EU Member States with the exception of Finland, Ireland and the Netherlands that also have ratified the Convention. In this sense, the EU is the first regional body to ratify a human rights treaty [10].

In order to carry out the principles of the UN CRPD, the EU established the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 [11] , providing a framework for action at the European level by which persons with disabilities could enjoy their full rights and that goods and services are accessible to all. With the aim of ensuring accessibility in ICT services, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a Directive on the accessibility of the public sector bodies’ websites [12]  in December 2012. Before being adopted, the proposal must be passed by the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers. In this process, the European Disability Forum (EDF), of which CBM EU Liaison Office is an associate member, worked for a stronger and more comprehensive Directive. Its response to the proposal [13] , published in March 2013, pointed the restrictive character of the proposal since the Directive did not include all websites and web-based services of public sector bodies.

The European Parliament adopted this proposal after including 73 amendments, which introduced extremely valuable changes to the Commission’s proposal. Now it is in the hands of the Council to begin negotiations with Member States with the objective of making web accessibility a reality. At the same time, the European Commission announced in its Work Programme of 2012 its intention to establish the European Accessibility Act (EAA), a legislative initiative to improve accessibility of goods and services, including ICTs.

Accessibility not only benefits persons with disabilities, who make up 15 per cent of the population, but also assists older persons and other individuals who lack proficient ICT skills. The necessary technology for making accessibility a reality already exists, however there is a lack of awareness about accessible technology and how it can improve the inclusion of all people in our society.  

Recommendations for the way forward

•    Increase governments, private sector and policy makers’ awareness of accessible technology for persons with disabilities
•    To effectively promote accessibility, the universal design concept and relevant technical standards should be applied in the earliest stages of development.
•    To harmonise standards through the exchange of good practices
•    Support from governments on supporting ICT adapted to persons with disabilities
•    Include the importance of accessible technology for persons with disabilities in the post-2015 development agenda
•    To include persons with disabilities in all phases of the process: from policy-making of ICT accessibility to the implementation and monitoring of accessible websites.
•    To establish mechanisms to evaluate the accessibility of ICT systems, especially considering the rapid development of new ICT devices and programmes.
•    Strengthen research and development on accessible technology solutions for persons with disabilities
•    Provide training for technology professions on accessible technology
•    Lower the cost of assistive technologies
•    Mainstream and advocate the use of universal design principles


 [1] World Health Organization and World Bank, World Report on Disability, 2011. Geneva, 2011, p. 29 and p. 262-263.
 [2] Fifth session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Round Table 1: Accessibility and Technology, 12 September 2012, UN Headquarters, NY.
 [3] http://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/at/cresource/resources/at_08/
 [4] Burgstahler, Sheryl. Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples, University of Washington, 2008 http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/PDF/instruction.pdf
 [5] UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 9, 2006.
 [6] The ICT Opportunity for a Disability-Inclusive Development Framework, 2013, From: http://g3ict.org/resource_center/publications_and_reports/p/productCategory_whitepapers/id_297#sthash.KW6zxeJa.dpuf
 [7] Lockwood, Elizabeth. The Uruguayan Deaf Community: Strategic Collective Activism through Education and Media. In, Barbara Gerner de Garcia & Lodenir Becker Karnopp (Eds.), Deaf Communities in Latin America.
Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press, Forthcoming 2016.
 [8] The ICT Opportunity for a Disability-Inclusive Development Framework, 2013, From: http://g3ict.org/resource_center/publications_and_reports/p/productCategory_whitepapers/id_297#sthash.KW6zxeJa.dpuf
 [9] http://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/twenty-first-century-communications-and-video-accessibility-act-0

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International Day of Persons with Disabilities

CBM celebrates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3rd December 2014



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