During the global COVID-19 pandemic, the availability of Internet connectivity has helped maintain business continuity, keep children in education, and ensured that people can access essential goods and services online.
But the pandemic has also exposed significant areas of inequality and exclusion in the digital world, particularly for populations at risk. This includes the estimated one billion people worldwide living with some form of disability.
“In today’s fragile world, it is absolutely essential that digital information be distributed and available in formats that are accessible,” said Doreen Bogdan Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau. “Neglecting this imperative will mean consigning many Persons with Disabilities to a higher risk of contamination and exclusion from essential health and safety information and services and vital social support programs.”
At a recent ITU-D Study Group public webinar on digital accessibility during COVID-19, panelists discussed the importance of ICT accessibility implementation at global level to ensure that everyone’s right to communicate and be part of the digital world is fulfilled – during and beyond the global COVID-19 pandemic. That means, ensuring that digital information is designed and developed considering all users’ needs and/or abilities to perceive it, regardless the ICT used to access it (through, radio, mobile, TV, Websites etc.)
Panelists agreed that the pandemic has exposed pre-existing and fundamental gaps in accessible communications.
“Most countries, including developed ones – even European ones – were not fully prepared to make sure that everyone has digital access to televised information, sign language and captioning,” said Lidia Best, Chair, National Association of Deafened People (NADP) of the United Kingdom. “Without appropriate accessible futures and services, vital services cannot be seen by all.”
This means that potentially lifesaving health information – such as COVID symptoms or related precautionary measures including the need to wear a mask – may be missed by persons with disabilities who are consequently exposed to greater risk of contracting the deadly virus.
She advocated that governments should implement ITU-T recommendation F.930, multimedia telecommunication relay services.
But there is some good news. The number of countries committed to digital accessibility is on the rise. According to G3ict data, 59 per cent of countries around the world have a legal definition of accessibility which includes ICTs today, compared to 49 per cent in 2018.
“It shows that what ITU and UNDESA does is having an effect because many more countries are taking steps to undertake regulation,” said Axel Leblois, President and Executive Director of the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs – G3ict.
But although good progress is being made decade-on-decade, “the level of implementation is ridiculously low,” he said. “So this is a real wake-up call because there are lots of commitments, but very little in terms of actual outcomes for Persons with Disabilities.’
He presented a three-point plan to increase digital accessibility in the post COVID-19 era: 1) involve Persons with Disabilities in development, promote and monitor digital accessibility policies and programs; 2) adopt standards for accessibility; and 3) promote understanding of disability and training and certification of accessibility professionals.
“COVID-19 is, in fact, a catalyst for action,” he said.
The aim to develop and deploy communications technologies that are ‘born accessible’ is a key tenement of the European Commission’s Accessibility Act.
Public procurement legislation already requires that when public authorities buy video conferencing systems, they are bought accessible, so complying with the accessibility standards and requirements. But the pandemic has highlighted the need to update and revise European accessibility legislation to plug additional gaps.
“We are now starting the preparation of a new disability strategy. The current one is finishing this year, in 2020, and the lessons learned from COVID will be really taken on board,” said Inmaculada Placencia- Porrero, Senior Expert, Disability and Inclusion, DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, European Commission.
A multi-stakeholder collaborative effort is needed to ensure that we plug the remaining gaps and “include Persons with Disabilities in the COVID 19 response, recovery and build back better,” said Daniela Bas, Director Division for Inclusive Social Development, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA).
And time is of the essence.
“It is crucial to accelerate the implementation of ITU target 2.9 which calls for all Member States to ensure that ICTs are accessible in all countries by 2023. Considering that we are now in 2020, we really don’t have much time,” said Amela Odobasic, Rapporteur of. ITU-D Study Group 1 Question 7/1, who moderated the session.
This was a call echoed by Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau.
“In a world that has never been so dependent on the power of digital technologies, we must redouble our efforts to make sure that all people regardless of their gender, their ability, their age, their location enjoy equal access to digital platforms and services. And that’s why the work of this Study Group and this particular question is so important,” she said.