Disability-Inclusive ICT Research and Innovation – For a Different Future
This blog series features personal stories shared by the EPSRC-funded INPACT (Inclusive Practices in Assisting Collaborative Technologies) panelists, who will shed light on the challenges of disability inclusion and showcase the transformative power of accessible AT. By sharing their experiences, the panelists emphasize the crucial role of co-design in ensuring successful technology adoption for everyone.
Accessibility is not an aid; it is a human right.
I have often heard disabled persons say they became inspired to help others while in the process of making life easier for themselves, but that is not me. I have always hoped to make significant impact on the lives of others, which was why I decided to become a medical doctor with the hope of “helping everybody.” It was after graduating from medical school that I began to appreciate the extensive impact of disabilities, especially in low-and middle-income countries, and the limitation of trying to address its challenges from within the confines of the hospital. Despite being a disabled person myself, I draw inspiration from other disabled persons who I believe have the right to better quality of life. My academic, professional, and lived experiences make me able to understand the issues around disability and its wide range of associated factors from diverse backgrounds.
As with the well-integrated use of computers, the dependence on ICT is increasing to become a large proportion of daily activities. The role of ICT in fostering universal health coverage is well discussed even at the level of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The World Health Assembly has urged its member states “to consider drawing up a long-term strategic plan for developing and implementing eHealth services… to develop the infrastructure for information and communication technologies for health…to promote equitable, affordable and universal access to their benefits” as far back as 2005. There is no doubt that these plans, wireless technologies, and the internet have assisted in improving access to health services and information as seen during the Covid-19 pandemic.
As someone who is passionate about ensuring the utmost quality of life, it is heartbreaking that a large population of those who may particularly benefit from services or information are cut out by means of its delivery. Accessibility and disability inclusion in ICT simply means that everyone who benefits from the information or services designed or disseminated is considered and involved from start to finish and is able to access them. Unfortunately, disabled persons who have been said to be 3 times more likely to have chronic medical conditions generally have lower income and less access to digital devices. Thus, exploring the use of ICT in healthcare delivery will fail to achieve universal health coverage except accessibility is at its core.
Generally, the negative perception of disability and the community underscores the continuous social exclusion. And it is why many intervention strategies seem to be designed or developed “for” and not “with” disabled persons. Secondly, poverty and disabilities have for so long been intertwined, meaning a disabled person is less likely to afford a computer, mobile device, or the internet. When they do, key features are often inaccessible because the needs of disabled persons are not considered. Along with the increasing advocacy to enact policies, campaigns, and early education to improve the perception of the disabled community, it is also important to motivate disabled persons to not only become actively involved in public deliberations but to see themselves as ambassadors in the course to change the misconceptions around disability. This will promote more conscious engagement of the community in every aspect of development. It is paramount that projects of public interest are impact-driven and designed, implemented, and measured with adequate consideration of the general public, including the 15% who live with disabilities.
Sadly, around 85% of disabled persons live in the global south where access to basic amenities is challenging. The change must start by ensuring that the essentials are met, including ensuring autonomy, proper access to primary up to postgraduate level education, access to efficient assistive technologies, and ultimately enabling disabled persons to become productive members of societies. This would result in many more disabled persons being able to lead and contribute to research and innovation. Currently, there is significant underrepresentation of the community in ICT research and innovation which explains why accessibility is often not considered as a core part of the product but
rather as a supplement. I believe these exclusions are often neither intentional nor malicious but due to a lack of insight into the needs of disabled persons. Therefore, the involvement of disabled persons in significant roles in ICT research and innovation would certainly negate the issue of lack of insight, as well as better prioritisation of needs and the distribution of resources to meet identified needs. This will also increase the number of users and make resulting outputs easier to use for everyone whilst leaving no one behind.
Accessibility is not an aid; it is a human right.