Emerging Trends | SDG10
May 8, 2014

Mainstreaming Accessibility: Deafblindness, Assistive Technology and Advocacy

By Haben Girma

As a deaf-blind person, I’ve had to fight for seemingly trivial things like the right to access cafeteria menus or participate in rock-climbing. Most of the barriers I have encountered stemmed from misunderstandings by people unfamiliar with accommodations for people with disabilities. Through guidance from teachers and parents, I learned to educate community members about accommodations for deaf-blind individuals. The process of advocating for myself allowed me to develop strong problem-solving and analytical skills. I later realized that I could use these skills to help others in the disability community. For the past few years I have offered workshops around the United States educating various community members about the importance of creating inclusive communities. After graduating from Harvard Law School last May, I have been serving the community as a legal advocate. As a Skadden Fellowship Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, California, I work to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to education.

I believe there are two very important components when it comes to advocacy for people with disabilities: education and assistive technology.

The first component is being able to educate ourselves and others about our legal rights.

A lawyer’s job is that of an educator, an educator who has the potential to file complaints if people refuse to learn. Even to this day, many people think that providing access for a person with a disability is an act of charity, a favor to bestow during a free moment. Such attitudes lead to discrimination. We need to change people’s attitude towards accessibility. In the United States, providing access is a legal obligation. I am happy to say that countless times I have requested and received accommodations through friendly discussions rather than by invoking the law.

Once a person with a disability has overcome negative stereotypes, she or he will need alternative techniques for accomplishing tasks, often through the use of assistive technologies.

For example, technology is constantly providing new tools with which blind people can accomplish tasks. Sometimes these tools are in the form of complex software like VoiceOver on the iPhone. Other times the solution is quite simple, like using braille labels to distinguish between similarly sized bottles. Through creative thinking, every individual can find the tools and techniques that allow them to accomplish whatever they need. Growing up, I had wonderful teachers who instilled in me the belief that creative thinking can and will overcome any obstacle.

Creative thinking forms the basis for assistive technologies, as most tools must be adapted to the specific needs of individuals with disabilities.

Take the deaf-blind community for instance. We have a need for technology greater than the average person. These tools are necessary to facilitate communication and independence in our communities. I myself rely on technology for everything from communicating with store clerks, conducting my assignments, to chatting with friends.

It is rare for me to use one single device. Often I have to combine two or three of them together. Unfortunately, some of these devices, like braille displays, cost several thousand U.S. dollars. Reducing the cost of digital braille would make these devices more affordable to deafblind individuals. Perhaps engineers could develop more affordable methods for producing digital braille, or perhaps organizations could provide grants to cover the cost of these devices to deafblind individuals who cannot afford them.

If major tech companies included accessibility features in their mainstream products, individuals with disabilities would have greater access to information and tools. Mainstreaming accessibilityfeatures would also significantly reduce the cost of assistive technology. Rather than thinking of accessibility as an extra feature, like a cherry on top of the sundae, programmers and developers should treat accessibility as a necessary component, something to think about from the very start.

The importance of mainstreaming accessibility has been confirmed by a recent study launched by the International Telecommunication Union wherein 150 experts contributed on a global assessment of communication technology, disability, and development.

The results demonstrated that accessibility is being ignored around the world. Not only that, but there is also a general lack of awareness by the involved parties, such as service providers, as to the importance of mainstreaming  accessibility in technologies.

The study urges policy makers to rapidly intervene in order to raise awareness. Furthermore, ITU and G3ICT will soon release a model ICT accessibility policy report designed to help policymakers and regulators develop their own accessibility policies and regulations.

Collaborations between governments and the private sector are fundamental. By working together, we can improve access to information for people with disabilities.

Haben Girma
is a disability rights advocate ranked by Business Insider as one of the 21 Most Impressive Students at Harvard Law School and ascribed as a Champion of Change by the White House in 2013.She is at present serving as a Skadden Fellowship Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit law firm located in Berkeley, California, dedicated to protecting the rights of people with disabilities around the United States.

Haben has empowered numerous students with disabilities  to set high expectations and become better self-advocates by using her experience and  habitually reminding that advocating for others starts with learning to advocate for yourself.

For more information, please visit her website http://www.habengirma.com/ watch her TEDx Talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mvoj-ku8zk0 and follow her on Twitter or e-mail her at hgirma@dralegal.org.

Photo by Seth kane

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ITU is the United Nations' specialized agency for information and communication technology. Any opinions expressed and statistics presented by third parties do not necessarily reflect the views of ITU.

Mainstreaming Accessibility: Deafblindness, Assistive Technology and Advocacy

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