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Themes: Assistive & Accessible Technology

GDI Hub Visit to Kenya: Inclusive Africa Conference (Part 1)

Colour photograph of Maryam. Maryam is wearing sunglasses and is outside

Maryam Bandukda

Research Fellow

In May 2022, GDI Hub’s Accelerate Team, Cathy Holloway (Academic Director and co-founder GDI Hub), Daniel Hajas (Innovation Manager), and Maryam Bandukda (Research Fellow) visited the Innovate Now team and attended the first in-person Inclusive Africa conference in Nairobi, Kenya. During the visit, the team had brilliant opportunities to meet the InnovateNow core team and ventures participating in the current cohort of the program. I have documented my visit and personal reflections in this blog.

The Annual Inclusive Africa Conference

The third Annual Inclusive Africa conference was organised by the inABLE, a non-profit organisation based in Nairobi, Kenya and Washington, DC with a mission to ‘empower the blind and visually impaired youth in Africa through computer assistive technology’. The conference aimed to bring together AT entrepreneurs, innovators, investors, small, and large organisations working in digital accessibility to

  • increase awareness of the needs and rights of disabled people, and to

  • influence the development of accessible ICT policies, solutions, and access to ICT education and employment for disabled people across Africa.

“Accessibility is at the heart of what we do”

Irene Mbari-Kirika, founder inABLE

The conference also marked the launch of the first-ever Accessibility standard for ICT products and services in Africa. The standard specifies the functional accessibility requirements and principles applicable to web-based, non-web, and hybrid technologies to ensure equitable access to disabled people. The standard was prepared in partnership between inABLE and the Kenyan Government- Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), in collaboration with the Communications Authority of Kenya, ICT Authority, and disability organisations. Bernard Chiira, Director of GDI Hub’s Innovate Now programme also served on the drafting committee as an assistive technology expert.

Bernard Chiira, Director, Innovate Now, Global Disability Innovation Hub sits to the left of Wilson Macharia, Advocate of the high court Kenya and digital inclusion consultant addressing media during the launch of the new National ICT Accessibility Standard. Image: inABLE.org

Following the launch, a series of panels and fireside chats on digital accessibility and inclusive design, and lived experiences of men and women with disability highlighted common barriers and shared strategies, tactics, and technologies that help in their professional and everyday lives. The very insightful and informal discussion covered topics related to education, employment, agency in personal and social lives, and the societal attitudes and barriers men with disabilities face. The toxic stereotypes of masculinity and the expectations in the way men are expected to look and behave had a detrimental impact on the sense of agency and self-esteem. By contrast, the panel on “women with disabilities” discussed the themes of community building and ‘fitting in’, particularly in social settings.

Day 2 began with an exciting keynote by Jenny Lay-Flurry who presented the evolution journey of Microsoft toward becoming an industry leader in accessible technologies, diversity and inclusion. Jenny showcased the inclusive hiring practices developed by Microsoft to empower people with disabilities. The new hiring practices not only promotes accessible hiring for people with disabilities but also inclusive methods for hiring neurodivergent candidates which include a week-long extended interview process focusing on workability, interview preparation, and skills assessment using Minecraft.

The rest of Day 2 was as exciting and packed with demonstrations and discussions around cutting edge digital technologies for inclusive and equitable access to rich multimedia on the internet.

A team of software developers from Google demonstrated a brand new set of features to improve Chrome and Youtube accessibility. Google Lookout, a new Android app that promises to help users “get things done faster” and identifies objects in their surroundings using computer vision. This is a great Android alternative to Microsoft SeeingAI which has been available on Apple Store for iPhone users.

Another exciting feature was multi-language automated closed captioning on Youtube. The team presented a live demo of English-Swahili-English, which despite a few glitches, is promising to improve accessibility of the mountains of Youtube English content to other languages and vice versa.

Kiran Kaja, Head of Accessibility at Instagram, spoke about how the automated image alt-text descriptions and video captioning in videos have improved the accessibility of the platform for blind and hard of hearing users.

“When video captions are on, the speech in the video is automatically written out as text at the bottom.”

The conference brought together professionals, innovators, disability advocates, and delivered a clear message; that disabled people must be at the centre of technology, products, and service design. Assistive technology (AT) has a huge potential for improving access to education, employment, and a better quality of life for many disabled people. However, AT alone is not enough, we must join efforts to fight stigma and societal attitudes towards disability and disabled people and advocate for inclusive and equitable access products and services globally.