The realisation that people with disabilities are often overlooked in access to digital technologies is not new. But it has of late come to the fore as the global pandemic has raged.
The World Health Organisation highlights this in a brief urging awareness on the inequalities they may be facing during the pandemic, including accessing information.
The organization defines a disabled person as anyone who has “a problem in body function or structure, an activity limitation, has a difficulty in executing a task or action; with a participation restriction”.
This applies to both physical and mental challenges. And it is surprising the range of disabilities regarding digital access.
One study has disaggregated the disabilities into 35 different groups of diagnoses and impairments.
They range from blindness or poor eyesight to dyslexia (reading disability), to complex intellectual or mental health challenges and psychosocial impairments.
These disabilities are worldwide. Generally, over a billion people, about 15 per cent of the world's population, have some form of disability.
In low- and middle-income countries, which include EAC countries, they are approximated to be between 5-15 per cent of the population.
Aside from gaps in service delivery and prejudice and stigma they suffer, barriers to full social and economic inclusion of persons with disabilities include non-adapted means of communication and unavailability of assistive devices and technologies.
Therefore, as other people go about their lives using digital apps, products, networks and services, people with disabilities may face exclusion because of their conditions.
Assistive devices, which include a computer or mobile phone, are important as they enable access to online information, as well as platforms used for banking, education and remote work.
It also helps that broadcasters and service providers such as telecom operators should provide information and services in accessible formats. Many of them however do not offer these formats.
People with disabilities are therefore more likely to be excluded and poor than the general population.
This is especially telling when one looks at the plight of women with disabilities, who demonstrate how the digital divide negatively plays out at the intersection of gender and disability.
At the centre of this intersection is the mobile phone. Analyses by GSMA, the industry association representing interests of mobile network operators, show how disability is a significant predictor of mobile ownership, compounding the gender gap.
They show how women with disabilities are disproportionately digitally excluded, including in the East African Community.
Ownership and levels of mobile internet use are the lowest amongst these women.
One of the problems is lack of awareness. Although a mobile phone may have a strong role to play as an assistive technology, it is still perceived as least useful by persons with disabilities.
This is coupled with lack of knowledge of how to use a phone amid concerns of information security by the women.
These constitute barriers. And they are surmountable. While Covid-19 remains the issue of the moment, the International Telecommunication Union has issued guidelines on how to ensure that digital information, services and products are accessible by all people, including Persons with Disabilities.
Governments could also borrow from standards under Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for policy and legal provisions can to ensure accessibility.
In the meantime, the inaugural Inclusive Africa Conference will convene online next week to explore global best practices to improve digital accessibility and inclusion for all.
The virtual forum aims to increase awareness of the needs and rights of people with disabilities to access digital information, including public safety, health and remote learning education.
It will also focus on the impact of digital accessibility on education, employment, government and private sector services for Africans with disabilities.Follow https://twitter.com/gituram