July 25, 2014

Kartik’s Story: Fighting for ICTs to be Accessible to All

By Kartik Sawhney

As a blind student from India, I have had several experiences where a lack of accessibility has prevented me from having the same opportunities as others. People with visual impairments have been struggling with accessibility for a long time, and we urgently need to make sure that accessible information and communication technologies (ICTs) are available for all, especially those in developing countries.

Thanks to advances in optical character recognition (OCR) – a technology that converts printed or typewritten text into a format that can be accessed by screen readers – there have been some improvements. However, much technical content remains inaccessible. When in India, I spent around two hours a day typing out the printed material from my science and math classes, for example, because OCR software cannot recognize special symbols with sufficient accuracy. In addition, much online content cannot be read by standard screen readers, as a significant amount of websites are not compliant with World Wide Web Consortium guidelines on accessibility.

For people living in poverty and those in rural areas, the challenges are multiplied. I have friends from a small village in India who have no option for their studies but to rely completely on volunteers who come by weekly to read volumes of information aloud to them. This puts them in serious disadvantage to become active contributors to the economy.

Battling these obstacles has made me determined to change things for the disability community. With this in mind I joined Leonard Cheshire Disability Young Voices in New Delhi. We are a group of young people with disabilities who campaign for our rights, and part of a global network of similar groups around the world. Through Young Voices, I have been actively involved in disability advocacy across the country on a range of issues – be it getting arbitrary exam rules amended, or improving accessibility on the Delhi Metro and local buses.

Although I am very pleased with what our group has achieved in India, I was very keen to have an impact on a global scale. I was thrilled when, in April 2014, I received an invitation to join the Youth Council of UNICEF’s Global Partnership on Children with Disabilities. The group consists of 43 members from 21 countries, working hard to contribute the youth’s perspective at the international level.

Through the Youth Council, I was lucky enough to be selected by UNICEF as one of 10 members to represent the group at the United Nations headquarters in New York during the 7th Conference of States Parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (COSP7). The five days I spent in New York were simply amazing, and infused me with enthusiasm and optimism.

The primary objectives of our attendance at COSP7 were to represent our perspective at the UN level, and build our capacity to advocate for our rights more effectively. We had the opportunity to meet with several key decision makers, such as the permanent representatives of our respective countries to the United Nations, as well as heads of national and international disabled people’s organisations.

Accessibility was widely discussed during the conference, both in terms of the physical environment as well as ICTs. Article 9 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was highlighted several times. Speakers urged member states to comply with and support the spirit of the Article, which says that state parties should take appropriate measures to ensure equal access for persons with disabilities in a range of areas, including ICTs.

Country representatives shared innovative schemes to promote ICT accessibility through actions such as the introduction of national awards for the most accessible websites or success stories such as Section 508, introduced in the USA, which requires Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities, and the various incentives provided by the Federal Government.

From my own perspective I highlighted the need for greater accessibility in higher education, as well as the fact that persons with disabilities are not just consumers of technology, but can be innovators as well. Although sharing my views with key decision-makers was an integral part of the conference, what was particularly exciting was the opportunity to interact with young activists from across the world.

All in all, COSP7 was a fun-filled and educational week that I will always cherish. It has left me feeling even more inspired to continue to fight for the rights of people with disabilities, and do everything I can to ensure that accessible ICTs are available and accessible to all people with disabilities around the world.

Through this blog post, I wanted to share this experience with ITU Membership at large, in particular as you get ready for the 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-14). Through my testimonial I hope to inspire ITU delegates to continue advancing ICT accessibility through the outcomes of the conference. Your decisions and agreements will have a tremendous impact on individuals like me.

We rely on you! 

Note from ITU: Visit for additional information on ITU’s activities on ICT accessibility for persons with disabilities.

Kartik Sawhney is a rising sophomore at Stanford University, USA and is blind. He has been active in disability advocacy from a young age, and is a member of the Young Voices Network of Leonard Cheshire Disability, besides a member of the Youth Council of UNICEF’s Global Partnership on Children with Disabilities.
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Kartik’s Story: Fighting for ICTs to be Accessible to All

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