*The following article is adapted from my opening remarks at the 2020 WSIS Forum session “ICTs and Accessibility: UN collaborative efforts towards SDGs, CRPD and UNDIS implementation in Digital Accessibility,” which took place virtually on 16 July 2020.
People with disabilities represent more than 15 per cent of the world’s population: 1 in 7 persons experiences disabilities. They are over-represented among the poor due to structural inequalities and social barriers that limit access to information and communication, employment, health, education, social protection and other services. Exclusion and poverty also result in lower literacy outcomes — including digital literacy — and a more significant digital gap, further compounded by multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and oppression.
The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened these pre-existing inequalities, as people with disabilities are among those most impacted by the virus. We have been excluded from public health and emergency announcements on the pandemic due to lack of accessibility, including of official websites and applications. Ensuring disability-inclusion in global efforts is thus essential; we can’t afford to have 1 in 7 people excluded from efforts to respond to and recover from this crisis. “Building back better” needs to be universally designed to be better.
Since the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006, the international community has steadily advance in the right direction, and significant gains have been achieved. For instance, the SDGs are disability-inclusive, a first for the global development agenda. However, when it comes to persons with disabilities, the UN System is running behind.
UNDIS: Highlighting progress achieved so far
In my work as Special Rapporteur, I noticed several shortcomings in organizations’ work in this area and started to advocate for better coordination and cohesion among entities to promote the participation of people with disabilities. Beyond that, the organization needed to be accountable to the international community for its actions in this field. In that context, together with system allies, we actively promoted the creation of an accountability framework to strengthen system-wide accessibility, inclusion and mainstreaming of disability rights in the United Nations.
I had the opportunity to conduct a baseline review of the organization’s action disability inclusion, which informed the development of the United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy (UNDIS) adopted in 2019.
The UNDIS is an important benchmark towards achieving transformative change in the disability arena. It contains a policy and an accountability framework. The former embodies the United Nations’ vision for disability inclusion and reaffirms a common commitment at the highest levels of the organization, while the accountability framework is designed to track the implementation of the policy.
Each UN entity is now bound to report progress on a set of common system indicators focused on four core areas: leadership, strategic planning and management; inclusiveness; programming; and organizational culture.
In less than a year, the adoption of UNDIS has resulted in significant changes with the designation of USG Ana María Menendez and the creation of a team to lead implementation, with the reporting cycle including more than 50 entities, including ITU. Also promoted was a disability-inclusive response to COVID-19, by launching a specific SG Policy Brief: a joint effort between different UN entities and myself under the coordination of the Executive Office of the Secretary General (EOSG).
The impact of COVID-19 on UNDIS implementation
The deadline of the first UNDIS report was extended to give reporting entities time to include a separate section detailing how different entities have included persons with disabilities in their COVID-19 response.
This was followed by the establishment of a time-bound working group focused on three elements of the UN response (health, humanitarian and socio-economic) as well as on promoting disability inclusion in funding. This work is still ongoing and ITU has been among the entities participating in these different work streams.
How ICTs can ensure disability inclusion post-pandemic
ITU had an important and very specific role to play to advance disability-inclusion and the implementation of the UNDIS, since accessibility of ICTs (including websites) has always been one of the key demands from the disability movement, particularly in the current context.
From a recovery perspective, the relevance of digital inclusion in the new normal towards which we are moving is even more important. Telework has become the norm for many of us and will also be more prevalent in the new normal. For some, it might even become the rule and not the exception. This will require the platforms we all use to communicate to be fully accessible and that persons with disabilities are provided with the adequate adjustments they require, also when working from home.
The accessibility of ICTs is key to ensure the full inclusion of persons with disabilities. This needs to be done from the design stage by applying universal design, where we have seen progress in the last years with increased accessibility elements that usually benefit not just people with disabilities, but a much larger audience.
Accessible online recruitment is a must in a context where more and more selection processes use online platforms. If these are not designed in an accessible way, we will exclude those with disabilities from the outset. Much focus is these days on e-health for obvious reasons, but I am sure that some of these good practices will remain. Again, accessibility will be a key issue to ensure that people with disabilities as well as older persons can use [ICTs] independently.
While accessibility to ICTs is a key issue, we also cannot forget affordability/availability especially in a developing country context, but also the provision of skills that are needed to use ICTs.
Finally, more efforts need to be made to ensure accessibility for all persons with disabilities, including those with intellectual disabilities, that face additional barriers and have very limited access to digital information and technologies, despite being a group that would significantly benefit from such access.
Read more about WSIS Session 137 on ICTs and Accessibility: UN collaborative efforts towards SDGs, CRPD and UNDIS implementation in Digital Accessibility and find the recording link here.
Learn more about the United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy here.
See the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities here.