By Paul Kimumwe
On the occasion of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) 2019, the Collaboration of International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) is calling upon governments and communication services providers in East Africa to take decisive steps to enable meaningful usage of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for persons with disabilities.
In a new policy brief, CIPESA highlights Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda’s obligations on enabling digital accessibility for persons with disabilities and challenges the three countries to live up to their commitments, as contained in national laws and policies, as well as international instruments they are party to.
Although recent advances have made an ever-greater number of people use ICT for a growing range of tasks, persons with disabilities (PWDs) in East Africa still find it hard to access and use digital technologies and thus continue to miss out on the benefits that the technologies bring.
While Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have enacted various laws and policies to advance the rights of persons with disabilities, including those on access to and use of ICT, these have largely remained on paper with key provisions not being implemented. As a result, a large section of persons with disabilities continue to face digital exclusion.
The situation is exacerbated by the high cost of assistive technologies, low literacy levels among persons with disabilities, and lack of investments in supportive infrastructure by public and private entities.
According to national census data, the percentage of persons with disabilities in Tanzania is 8% of the total population, 3.5% in Kenya, and 14% in Uganda. However, the lack of comprehensive disaggregated data, including the specific challenges that persons with different types of disabilities face in accessing information and using ICT, also undermines the design and implementation of interventions that would improve their access.
The provision of accessible information to persons with disabilities is essential to enable them to exercise their fundamental freedoms and human rights. In this regard, one of the pillars of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is the pledge to leave no one behind, including in the use of ICT.
Besides endorsing the SDGs, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the first international human rights treaty requiring that ICT tools and systems should be accessible as a necessary condition for persons with disabilities to fully enjoy their fundamental rights without discrimination.
Yet, while these governments are increasingly offering e-services, and in some instances have developed guidelines for managing government websites that set out requirements for accessibility for audio, visual and speech-impaired users, as well as compatibility with assistive technologies and devices, these guidelines remain unimplemented and unenforced. Moreover, in the three countries, majority of people that need assistive technologies lack them, because of prohibitive cost and low awareness of such technologies and their functionalities.
The CIPESA brief notes that the countries have sufficient laws and policies, but the weakest link is the lack of their implementation and enforcement. For example, Tanzania’s National ICT Policy 2003 calls for provision of special attention to providing new learning and ICT access opportunities for disadvantaged groups, including persons with disabilities, in order to address social inequities. Kenya’s National ICT Policy of 2016 outlines, under article 13, strategies for “an accessible ICT environment in the country in order to enable persons with disabilities to take full advantage of ICTs.”
In Uganda, Section 21 of the Persons with Disability Act mandates the government to develop and use sign language, tactile, and sign language interpreters in all public institutions and at public functions; and to braille public information such as government documents and government newspapers. It also obligates television stations to provide sign language inset or subtitles.
Many of the challenges faced by persons with disabilities in accessing information can be mitigated through equitable access to ICT, meaningful implementation of the laws, and innovative investments in technologies that support inclusion of persons with disabilities.
Accordingly, CIPESA is calling upon governments to take decisive steps in this direction, for instance:
- Promote access to affordable assistive devices and technologies beyond tax exemptions and relying on donations.
- Ensure that all e-government, e-services and emergency services comply with international web accessibility standards and are accessible for persons with disabilities.
- Ensure that communication service providers have accessible handsets and other mobile devices embedded with accessibility features for persons with different kinds of disabilities within their sales outlets.
- Ensure that licensed television service providers deliver accessible services such as audio description, audio subtitles, closed captions and signage language interpretation in their programmes to ensure access for persons with disabilities.
The Writer is Senior Program Officer, The Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)