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Digital Inclusion

Digital Inclusion for Persons with Disabilities

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Technology has made notable improvements in the quality of life of disabled people. It is a source of life-enhancement, making existence easier and offering new opportunities. Digital inclusion for persons with disabilities (PWD) has been a discussion that has been going on extensively with more and more African governments recognizing the importance of inclusion for PWDs and developing Disability and ICT strategies as well championing policies to ensure that disabled people have equal access to the Internet as those without disabilities.

Technology companies have also recently began driving initiatives to ensure that their products and services are designed to consider the needs of PWDs. However, is enough being done to continuously push and make sure that, in trying to keep up with innovation, companies do not forget to have these discussions when coming up with new products and services? How do we make sure that people with disabilities in general get proper online access to the everyday goods and services that other people take for granted? Enabling that would be a huge step towards their full and equal participation in our society and economy.

It emerged very clearly at AfricaCom 2016 that there are three major barriers to digital inclusion -- not only limited to PWDs -- that governments and companies need to overcome, and are actively trying to address to ensure that everyone has full access to online services.

Those three barriers are: Physical access to technologies required to get online such as mobile devices; access to broadband connections; and digital skills. These emerged as the key barriers with which industry players have to contend.

Access to devices
We are slowly seeing tech companies developing more affordable phones that can be accessed by almost everyone. Not only are these phones affordable but companies are now coming up with handsets that can easily be used by both PWDs without having to change designs but simply incorporating certain features to make them easier to use by PWDs.

Vodafone, for example, has handsets that are compatible with hearing aids and special price plans (such as the Sign Plan from Vodafone Spain) that offer customers who are deaf (or hard of hearing) discounted text messaging, data and video call services to facilitate use of sign language. In addition, the company has customer service advisers trained on disability issues.

Global smartphone manufacturer Apple has also incorporated various accessibility features within its iPhones, such as VoiceOver, hearing aids designed by Apple, and even FaceTime.

There has been a rising consciousness amongst tech companies that there is no need to create purely different devices for PWDs: Instead they can incorporate features that will make all buyers of its devices feel equal and have nearly the same consumer experience.

Moreover, Google came out with an Android app that will let you control some primary functions with only your voice. The accessibility software, called Voice Access, has been designed to let people with disabilities take better advantage of core Android functions in a hands-free manner. The app will lets you open apps, scroll with voice commands, and select items onscreen. It also incorporates a numeric system, so everything from apps to drop-down menu options can be assigned a number you can say aloud to perform a task.

Digital skills
Microsoft recently embarked on a three-year coding and software development drive in Kenya that is aimed at equipping blind pupils with basic computer and software programming skills. The initiative is driven by the fact that most software programmers and developers fail to factor the needs of the visually impaired, making it difficult for them to access technology. With this initiative students are able to understand the coding language behind the software they use, it equips them with computer skills and makes them competitive in the job market in the future.

Access to broadband connections
Broadband is quickly becoming an essential assistive technology, both as a medium for the delivery of critical services to a person with a disability and as a vehicle that enables a wide range of services and tools.

However, the cost of broadband is a barrier for some people with disabilities, as 80% of people with disabilities generally have lower incomes than most other demographics. It is therefore critical to implement and support programs at the local and state levels that inform people with disabilities about the accessibility of the Web, the universe of assistive technologies available to them, and the benefits of broadband in order to help spur adoption and use.

Most governments in Africa have put strategies in place to ensure all citizens have access to low-cost broadband to enhance productivity. A great example is South Africa, which has a national policy on broadband called 'South Africa Connect' that aims not only to enable more people to connect, but to increase the speeds at which they connect. It sets "ambitious but realizable" targets -- 90% broadband penetration with speeds of at least 5 Mbit/s by 2020.

By the end of 2016, according to the policy, at least half the population should be using broadband Internet connections of at least 5 Mbit/s while 50% of schools and health facilities should be connected at speeds of at least 10 Mbit/s, and 50% of government facilities should have a connection of at least 5 Mbit/s.

We can spend a lot of time worrying about the negative impacts of technology, but today, let's take a moment to celebrate its positive and inherently inclusive attributes and initiatives being taken by companies and governments to ensure digital inclusion of PWDs.

However, there is still more to be done and efforts should be redoubled to ensure that all of our digital products and services are 100% accessible to the impaired, ideally directly but potentially with assistive technologies.

Valentine Gachambi, a Connecting Africa contributor at @First Communications

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