June 3, 2014

A call to action to build a fully accessible society

By Damjan Tatic

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, one of the committees in the UN human rights treaty bodies system, adopted at its meeting held in April 2014 its General Comment No 2 on the issue of Accessibility. The General Comment to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) aims to provide guidance to all relevant stakeholders, such as states and international organizations, on how to ensure accessibility for persons with disabilities.

Without access to the physical environment, transportation, information and communication, including information and communications technologies (ICTs) and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, persons with disabilities would not have equal opportunities for participation in their respective societies. Many observers have argued that access to information and communication is a precondition for freedom of opinion and expression and should be included in the Convention.

The CRPD is the first human rights treaty of the 21st century to explicitly address the importance of ensuring access to ICTs (Article 9 of the CRPD). The importance of ICTs lies in its ability to introduce a wide range of new services, transform existing services and create greater demand for access to information and knowledge – particularly for underserved and excluded populations, such as persons with disabilities. Article 12 of the International Telecommunication Regulations, adopted at WCIT-12, enshrines the right for persons with disabilities to access international telecommunication services. Taking into account other relevant International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recommendations, this Article could serve as a basis to reinforce State Parties’ national legislative frameworks.

It is important that accessibility is addressed in all its complexity. CRPD Article 9, paragraph 2, stipulates the measures that State Parties must take in order to develop, promulgate and monitor the implementation of minimum national standards for the accessibilityof public facilities and services. The focus is no longer on legal personality or on the public or private nature of those who own facilities or provide goods and services. As long as facilities, goods and services are open or provided to the public, they must be accessible to all, regardless of whether or not they are owned and/or provided by a public authority or a private enterprise.

The strict application of universal design should ensure full, equal and unrestricted access for all potential consumers, including persons with disabilities, in a way that takes full account of their inherent dignity and diversity. Accessibility of information and communication, including ICTs, should be achieved from the outsetbecause subsequent adaptations to such technologies may increase costs, thus making these services less affordable for persons with disabilities. It is therefore more economical to incorporate mandatory ICT accessibility features from the earliest stages of design and production.

Since a lack of accessibility is often the result of insufficient awareness and technical know-how, Article 9 requires that State Parties provide training to all stakeholders on accessibility for persons with disabilities. Training should be provided not just to those designing goods and services, but also to those who actually produce them. In addition, strengthening the direct involvement of persons with disabilities in product development would improve the understanding of existing needs and the effectiveness of accessibility tests.

New technologies can be used to promote the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society, but only if they are designed and produced in a way that ensures their accessibility. New investments and research production should contribute to eliminating inequality, not to the creation of new barriers. Article 9, paragraph 2, therefore calls on State Parties to promote the design, development, production and distribution of accessible ICTs at an early stage, so that these technologies and systems become accessible at minimum cost.

Often, disability laws fail to include ICTs in their definition of accessibility, while disability rights laws concerned with non-discriminatory access – in areas such as procurement, employment and education – fail to include access to ICTs and the many goods and services offered through ICTs that are central to modern societies. Legislation should provide for the mandatory application of accessibility standards as well as sanctions, including fines, for those who fail to apply them. Reference tools such as the ITU-T Recommendation “Telecommunications Accessibility Checklist for Standardization Activities (2006)“ and the “Telecommunications Accessibility Guidelines for Older Persons and Persons with Disabilities“ (ITU-T Recommendation F.790) should be mainstreamed whenever a new ICT-related standard is developed.

For more information about ITU’s activities on the area of ICT accessibility, visit www.itu.int/accessibility.

Damjan Tatic, Ph. D, is legal expert, disability activist and a scholar from Belgrade, Serbia. He is one of the 18 elected member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Photo by Chelsea Aaron

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A call to action to build a fully accessible society

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