Here is the text of an article which was published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa’s Africa Information Society Initiative. This is the one I spoke about when I moaned that when I used the word ‘disabled’ it was changed to ‘differently able’. Though it was written as part of the response to the World Summit on the Information Society, it’s getting more and more significant as the United Nations debates the rights of disabled people.
You can find the entire publication at the following address:
The publication is entitled ” African CSOs Speak on the World
Summit on the Information Society”
Here’s my contribution:
As the discussion on ICT continues, within and outside the framework of the WSIS, one often ignored perspective is how ICT affects differently-abled people. This is due to a lack of awareness (including among differently-abled people themselves) of two things:
the untapped potential of the differently-abled person and the technology, which is available to exploit the potential.
This chapter aims to examine why the principles enunciated in the WSIS should be inclusive of differently-abled people, how this can be done effectively and the mutual benefits, which will result for both differently-abled people and their communities. Although the general principles discussed will hold true for all disabilities, it will
concentrate mostly on visual impairments. There are at least three reasons for this;
the first is that it would be impossible in the space allocated to deal with all disabilities.
Furthermore, visual impairment is the most obvious, (although not the most likely) factor, which may prevent full access to information. Thirdly, It is the area of which I have greatest experience.
It is also important to note that this chapter cannot contain all solutions to all problems. It is much easier to create an awareness of the issues raised, perspectives of disability, sources of information, available technology and how to think through solutions. Before
proceeding however, there are five important principles which guide this work, and which should equally guide the reader, policymaker, civil society organization, or any other group or individual, in dealing with differently-abled people. Some may appear unnecessarily patronising at this point; however, by the end of the chapter, I hope to have demonstrated how ignoring them has led to an unequal application of law, policy and technology towards differently-abled people.
The first point is that disability does not of itself limit access to ICT. Access is restricted only by the intelligence of the user and the availability of resources. A person, who by reason of disability has limited vision, is still able to use the computer, as the vision has
no bearing on intellectual capability. The challenge is to adapt ICT to cater for the lack of adequate vision.
Secondly, there is a surprisingly wide and growing range of adaptive or assistive technology, designed to make ICT available to differently-abled people. There are however two important issues to consider; unfortunately, the extra software or hardware may add to the cost of the unit, but as a result of growing competition, prices have come
down considerably. The second issue is that for several reasons, – the size of the market, the profile of disability etc, – the relevant information regarding access technology is
often difficult to locate. At the end of this chapter, some details of organizations, which provide impartial advice, will be provided.
A third theme, – related to the first two above – is that the variety of adaptive technology reflects the range of disabilities. The tendency to use the all-encompassing concept of disability leads to an assumption that all people of the same disability have the
same needs. This is not so; taking visual impairment for example, it will become clear that there is a broad range of impairment covered in the term ‘blindness’ or ‘visual impairment’. For some, access to ICT can be made easier by adjusting lighting or print size. For others however, (even those with some useful vision) access is possible, only by speech or braille. The wrong adaptive device may be as disabling to a visually impaired person as an absence of access technology.
Fourthly, to differently-abled people and their supporters, disability has been elevated to a rights issue, on a par with race, gender and religious rights. They justify their position with reference to the estimated numbers of differently-abled people, the failure of most legal jurisdictions to recognize them as a distinct entity and the consequent deprivations, which differently-abled people endure. Differently-abled people are routinely and constantly unable to exercise such seemingly inconsequential rights as
freedom of information, privacy and safety. Sometimes, policymakers, philanthropists and radio and television presenters discuss issues relating to disability without inviting differently-abled people to participate in the process. For differently-abled people, it is the same as asking a panel of male discussants to tackle an issue, which specifically relates to women.
Finally, in bridging the digital divide, adaptive ICT is mutually beneficial, to both differently-abled and non-differently-abled people. The inability of differently-abled people to fully interact with their society has often led to the presumption that they
are of less than average intelligence. This is generally not the case; however, ICT can release the hitherto locked potential of differently-abled people. It can enable them to access the information which they need, and which the rest of society takes for granted. The result is that they will then be able to interact, on an equal basis with their non-differently-abled counterparts.
Questions and attitudes
Disability always raises many questions; perhaps the most important is how much a differently-abled person can and cannot do. After all, the word ‘disability’ implies a lack of ability. The answer to this question will vary, depending on who is giving it; a differently-abled child will probably think like all other children that nothing is impossible, but as failures and rejection become regular features of life, the answer may be an understatement of ability. On the other hand, a non-differently-abled person is likely to look at the more obvious medical characteristics of the disability and take less note of the compensations, such as adjustments, technology and character.
The correct answer to the question will vary; it will depend on the individual. Although disabilities may be similar, no two differently-abled people are the same. Taking visual impairment for example, a person may be considered totally blind or partially sighted.
The definition for blindness varies from country to country, but in some cases, people registered blind may actually have some vision1. There are so many different types of vision; including: peripheral vision, tunnel vision, long or shortsightedness. Some vision is affected by glare, some can read large print, others can read white characters on a black background, or black characters on a white background.
Moreover, disability is affected by such subjective factors as character, education and technology. Some are more determined than others, some have been educated to a higher standard and others have access to technology, which makes seemingly impossible tasks possible. For instance, it was possible, as a result of highly advanced technology and legal technicalities for a technically blind person to drive a car in California (Runyan:
1 See for example, the survey carried out in the United Kingdom: Bruce: I, McKennell: A, and Walker: E,
“Blind and Partially Sighted Adults in Britain, the RNIB Survey.” HMSO (1991) according to which, 36
percent of visually impaired people and 75 percent of partially sighted people can read large print, but
only 12 percent of visually impaired people and 28 percent of partially sighted people read large print
books (pages 81-87
M., No Finish line: My life as I see it, (Putnam) (2001) p98). In addition, societal attitudes to disability can often influence the answer to the basic question of what a differentlyabled person can and cannot do.
On the whole, it is probably fair to conclude that most differently-abled people do not fully achieve what they can. Although this is true the world over, it is more glaring in Africa. In the United Kingdom for instance, whereas the few visually impaired graduates in Nigeria have focussed on qualifications in law and the liberal arts, there is a thriving association of blind computer users (British Computer Association of the Blind, http:// http://www.bcab.org.uk). There is anecdotal evidence of blind politicians, successful musicians and physiotherapists, while a visually impaired person ran a creditable ten thousand metre race for the United States at the Sydney olympics of 2000 (Runyan M., pp252-292).
The reasons for the relatively fewer African differently-abled role models are complex; for the purposes of this paper, I will examine three broad problems that African differentlyabled people face. The first is the general lack of development in Africa. Development (particularly the growth in information technology) has helped differently-abled people overcome traditional prejudices and achieve goals. ICT has shifted the focus to a more inclusive provision of information. In the past, visually impaired people either used tactile or audio as their primary source of information. In the past, it has been estimated that only about four or five percent of materials printed in the UK were reproduced in a format that was accessible to people with visual impairment (Library and Information Commission, (2000) Research Bulletin, Vol. 2, page 19. Also, Lockyer: S, Creaser: C. and Davies: J. E. Availability of Accessible Publications: (RNIB) (2004) p32). There were a number of reasons for this low rate of reproduction, including copyright restrictions and the cost of production in alternative formats. The result was a concentration of resources on popular books by bestselling authors, to the neglect of
others, (e.g. academic titles.
However, any information, which is produced electronically, is at the same time accessible to both visually impaired and fully sighted people, so long as the technology to convert it into the required format has been acquired. Now, the information can be produced electronically before the user decides on the form by which it will be accessed. It is true that sometimes, such material needs to be adapted to make it more accessible to a differentlyabled person. Nevertheless, electronically produced information represents a much greater leap forward for visually impaired people than it does for the rest of their community.
Much has been made of the information and digital divide between rich and poor people, and between rich and poor states. There is another divide, between differently-abled and non-differently-abled people. One element of this is the time lag in the provision of services to differently-abled people. By the time braille was invented in 1827, as
a means of communication for the blind, the printing press had been invented and several countries were providing free education for their other citizens. Moreover, the general rule of inventions seems to be that when something is developed for a specific purpose, it is later found to have a broader application. It is only after the broader
uses have been explored that differently-abled people are considered. Such was the case with the computer, which was originally used for complex calculations, before becoming the tool of everyday use, which it is now. However, the problem still remains that although the computer is now being made available to differently-abled people, the process is relatively slow, both in terms of percentages of population and sophistication of technology.
The second problem is the absence of information about African differently-abled people and disability. This is allied to a more general absence of information. In preparing this paper, this author had sought and failed to obtain relevant data from
several government and other departments in African countries. This contrasts with other continents where information is more readily available. For example, The Royal National Institute for the Blind produces a survey of blind and partially sighted people in the United Kingdom (Bruce: I, McKennell: A, and Walker: E, “Blind and Partially Sighted Adults in Britain, the RNIB Survey. HMSO (1991) or for a summary, http://www.rnib.org.uk/xpedio/groups/public/documents/PublicWebsite/public_resfaqs. csp).
This survey shows the people who are registered blind or partially sighted, the various degrees of visual impairment, those who can read braille, or those who rely more on audio or even large print, etc. In an earlier paper, (Access Technology for Africa: Potentials, Possibilities and Challenges for African States. (unpublished) presented at the conference of World Federation of Engineering Organizations (2001) Abuja, Nigeria). I argued that it would be impossible to use their conclusions in Africa for several
.. Definitions of visual impairment differ from one jurisdiction to another;
.. In Africa, there is a greater incidents of preventable visual impairment;
.. There is also a higher recorded birth rate and lower life expectancy.
However, it is important to have proper information to guide planners, service providers and users. At a very basic level, the following information should be made available:
.. Accurate statistical information on numbers of differently-abled people, based on registration, user surveys, etc.
.. Information on various types of disabilities, causes, effects, available governmental programmes, technology, etc.
The third problem is the absence of a clear perspective on disability. Our approach to disability is influenced by our definition of the term. Scholars have developed at least three models of disability, each of which defines an attitude. The first is the medical model, which defines disability by medical symptoms, suchas the lack of vision. This model is favoured by medical or rehabilitation experts who are trained to cure or rehabilitate people with illnesses and disabilities2. It is also used by most legal jurisdictions; for example, in the United Kingdom, a person is defined as differentlyabled
“if he has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities” (Disability discrimination Act, 1995). In most cases, this model views disability as a problem, which is to be solved, either by medical intervention or by some other means.
The second model is the religious model, which views disability as related to two concepts, sin and charity. The idea that disability is related to sin is based on a loose interpretation of scriptural assumptions that humans are made to be perfect, except where there is sin. Some justify their position from a question asked by Jesus’ disciples when confronting a blind man; they wanted to know if his blindness was a result of his sin or that of his parents (Gospel of John, chapter 9 v 2). In fact, in that passage, Jesus stated that the blindness was not as a result of sin, but that the works of God be made manifest. However, even that question may reflect thinking, which still prevails. The relation to charity is based on the notion that differently-abled people are disadvantaged; most of the world’s religions encourage acts of kindness to differentlyabled people, the poor, destitute and other disadvantaged people. It is this notion, which
2 Deborah Kaplan distinguishes between the medical and the rehabilitation model in her article ‘The
Definition of Disability’ in http://www.accessiblesociety.org/topics/demographics-identity/dkaplanpaper.
motivates almsgiving, the development of special almshouses and other institutions for segregating differently-abled and poor people in 19th century Europe.
Note: The term “differently-abled” has replaced the traditional “disabled” in accordance with an
agreement by Civil Society activists involved in the production of this publication.
The third model is the most progressive, and is favoured by most disability organizations. It views disability as a social construct, a result of the creation of barriers, which prevent differently-abled people from carrying out all the activities, they wish. According to this model, a differently-abled person is capable of carrying out every activity, to the extent that the facilities for enablement are in place. Thus for example, this chapter has been written by a visually impaired person. To the extent that the computers and their accessibility devices exist, there is no disability in composing and producing the chapter. However, someone with a similar visual impairment would be differently-abled, if they had no access to the technology, which makes the production of this chapter possible.
Lessons from History
From a social model perspective, one of the most important lessons of history is that successful inventions resulted from an attitude, which sought to shift the barriers of disability. Furthermore, differently-abled and non-differently-abled people need to work in co-operation towards achieving this aim. The result of co-operation is usually a mutually beneficial relationship. Three brief case studies might help show how a mutually beneficial relationship results from a social model of disability.
The first is the story of Louis Braille, whose name is now immortalised in the system of writing, which he designed for visually impaired people. He was born in 1809 in the village of Coupvray, just outside Paris. At three years, he lost his sight in an accident, while playing with sharp instruments in his father’s blacksmith’s workshop. By age
17, he was teaching at the school for blind people in Paris, and had much experience of the cumbersome method of reading, loosely based on the standard print alphabet. His alternative system was based on a code developed by Charles Barbier, a soldier who invented a system for the military to communicate in the dark without giving their position and information away to the enemy. Despite the lack of support by fellow teachers and other institutions, (including the French Academy of Science) Braille’s method persisted with blind people until it was eventually recognized by all as the best system for communicating with people with visual impairment. This happened long after its inventor had died in 1851, when a blind musician publicly declared after a
concert that she could not have learned the music without the braille code.
Until the computer age began to offer real alternatives, braille was the universally accepted medium of instruction and information for those who could not see enough to read print. It is however worth emphasizing that the early users of braille did so under great opposition, because of “the superior attitude of sighted administrators … wishing to do only what they thought was right (without grasping) that the blind knew what was best for them” Bickel: L, Triumph over darkness: The Life of Louis Braille, (National Library for the Blind, UK, p148). There is perhaps an important lesson to learn, namely, that the people who know best about any given situation are those who are in it. This means that a visually impaired person is probably the best person to explain visual impairment. It does not however mean that this person is the only person who can do something about it. In more recent times, a process of consultation has developed; one which is based on the realisation that anything developed for differently-abled people must be done with the active co-operation, (especially at the testing stage) of people with the particular disability.
On 30 April 1808, just before Louis Braille was born, an Italian named Pellegrino Turri built the first typewriter (www.decades.com/ByDecade/1800-1809/9.htm or http://www.precision-dynamics.com.au/typewriters/turri.html). Interestingly, he built it for his blind friend, the countess Carolina Fantoni Da Fivizono. Between then and the emergence of the home and office PC, the typewriter was the equipment of choice for people in the writing profession, such as secretaries, journalists and authors. Even the computer keyboard is modelled after its predecessor on the typewriter. Before the
rise of the PC, the typewriter was, for visually impaired people, the primary means of written communication with sighted people, because users did not have to see what they were typing. This piece of equipment, first invented for a blind person, has proved
its universal worth and is the precursor to modern wordprocessors.
The third historical event to highlight here is the development of the Internet. It is not the intention of this chapter to trace its history, or examine how widespread and versatile the Internet has become. However, it is worth pointing out that the internet has become a vital tool for differently-abled people, who previously had access to only very limited information. The internet (and ICT in general) means that all material accessed by sighted people is equally accessible to blind people. In the past, special provision had to be made to reproduce information in a specific format for a visually impaired person. The second thing to note about the internet is that one of its leading visionaries was J. C. R. Licklider. In 1960, long before the internet, he had published an article in which he envisioned a network of computers “connected to one another by wide band communication lines and to individuals by leased-wire services” (man computer symbiosis)3. Licklider was not a computer scientist; he was a professor of psychoacoustics who had used computers in his research and was able to see the potential.
There are several other important developments which have brought the information age to differently-abled people. A careful analysis of each is beyond the scope of this chapter. These three examples have been chosen to highlight several important issues to be considered in the inclusion of differently-abled people in the WSIS process. These include, but are not limited to the following:
.. The inclusion of differently-abled people in the WSIS process requires innovative thinking, primarily because disability is beyond the scope of most people;
.. Fortunately, there are already a number of high tech and low tech developments which can be deployed and it is up to the relevant authorities to seek these out;
.. In providing a solution, it is important firstly to clearly define the problem. Thus, the problem for Louis Braille was that blind people could not read, and the problem for Pellegrini Turi was that they could not write;
.. It is also important that the user is satisfied that the solution provided meets their needs, not just that the designer or provider believes that they are the best solution for the problem identified;
.. Solutions may be mutually beneficial for both differently-abled and non-differentlyabled people, and may have wider unforeseen advantages. This is the case with the development of the scanner, which can be used to scan pictorial images such as maps and photographs, as well as printed images for conversion into electronic format for visually impaired people. It has also been discovered to be true of web designs which cater for the needs of differently-abled people;
The technology required to bring differently-abled people into the information age is
3 See also Licklider, J. C. R. and Taylor, R. The Computer As A Communication Device, in which the authors
predicted that by 2000, millions of people will be ‘online’. Both articles can be obtained in PDF format
from the website: http://www.memex.org/licklider.pdf
currently available, and keeping up with developments outside the world of disability. However, the absence of supporting infrastructure, lack of awareness and general cost of technology are just some of the reasons why differently-abled people do not have access to what is available.
There is overwhelming evidence that Africa lacks the supporting infrastructure, such as internet connectivity and computer hardware and software. However, a detailed exploration of these issues is beyond the scope of this chapter. It is also clear that there is little or no awareness of whether differently-abled people need to access the information society, and if they do, how technology may assist them.
The first question is a cultural one, relating to perceptions of disability. It is also the primary question in deciding how to include differently-abled people in the information society. There are several reasons why differently-abled people need to access the information society. Firstly, they are just as needy, and as entitled to information. Disability does not in any way reduce the need for information. In fact, as differently-abled people are more cut off from society, one can easily argue that they are more needy of accessible information. Secondly, like other members of the society, differently-abled people want to interact with the rest of society, either through work, leisure or social contact. As noted earlier, disability does not necessarily mean reduced intelligence or capacity. Indeed, as differently-abled people in other cultures have participated in their societies, it has been observed that their activities have also benefited the rest of their communities. Increased access to information in Africa is likely to produce the same results.
Some have even gone further to argue that anti-discrimination measures be enacted in the various African jurisdictions, to ensure that differently-abled people get the same facilities, (with the necessary adaptations) as their non-differently-abled counterparts. Such legislation will ensure that differently-abled people can fully interact with their communities, as they will have access to the same information as others. By compelling employers, service providers and governments to take the needs of differently-abled people into account, it will also encourage increased awareness of the technology which is currently available and encourage improvements which are specific to Africa. This is consistent with observations made after the adoption of the Americans with Disability’s act, (1990) in the United States (Sinton: P. High-Tech Devices Have Revolutionised
Differently-abled Peoples’ Lives”, San Francisco Chronicle, July 17, 2000).
The second question is a technical one, and its answer will depend on the nature and needs of the differently-abled person. As noted earlier, there are so many disabilities that one solution cannot fit all. However, one solution may be useful for more than one disability. For example, people with dyslexia may benefit as much from voice recognition software as those with little or no limb movement. The question to ask is not ‘what disability are we dealing with?’ but ‘what are we trying to achieve?’ The answer to that question is, to allow the individual concerned to access the computer. This will naturally lead to the next question, ‘why can this individual not access the computer?
The technology which assists differently-abled people to access ICT is called access or assistive technology. In the past, this comprised bulky and sometimes cumbersome hardware which either stood alone, or was attached to a computer. These days, developers favour a more integrated system.
There are several ways to provide access technology. The first is within the operating system. Microsoft’s Windows operating system and apple’s Macintosh have built-in accessibility features which can magnify the words on the screen, provide audio feedback or assist people with limb impairments. Indeed, some standard software, such as outlook express and Microsoft Powerpoint also have audio feedback functionalities. The second approach is to develop access software for specific purposes. Software has been developed to provide access to the screen for visually impaired people, translate documents into braille files, recognize scanned characters and convert them into electronic formats and read data transmission and menus on 3G mobile phones. The third approach is to provide a hardware solution. Some hardware would require additional software, such as drivers or recognition and translation software. Generally, hardware solutions are used only when there is no software alternative, or the intended action cannot be accommodated in standard hardware. Examples of these would include producing braille.
It would be impossible to describe all access solutions in this chapter. For further information, several agencies produce updated information on access technology. The royal National Institute of the Blind produces technology factsheets which can be accessed from their website, (http://www.rnib.org.uk). A similar facility is offered by the American Foundation for the Blind from their website (http://www.afb.org)
Finally, access also includes the ability to interact with software and internet sites. This is a constantly changing area, influenced by new developments and creative ideas. Any suggestions will therefore be subject to new developments. Several guidelines have been
issued for programme developers (see for example the RNIB guidelines at http://www.
rnib.org.uk). The general rule is to design software which takes disability into account. Thus, for example, a visually impaired person may find it easier to use the keyboard than
the mouse; for this reason, several software developers ensure that there are keyboard alternatives. Similar considerations also apply to the development of websites. Several organizations have their own guidelines including the Web Accessibility Initiative of the Worldwide Web Consortium (http://www.w3.org/wai).
The final consideration in deploying access technology is cost. As resources in Africa are limited, this is an important factor. Fortunately, the cost of access technology is much reduced, as a result of several modern trends. The first is the shift from systems developed specifically for differently-abled people. These days, differently-abled people use standard equipment such as scanners and computer speakers. This means that a standard computer will have most of the necessary hardware for any differently-abled person. There is one exception to this general rule, namely, where the hardware in
question performs a task which is not necessary for a non-differently-abled person. This would include specific imput devices such as a braille keyboard, as well as braille embossers, (printer) and braille displays.
This chapter can only be described as a brief introduction to the many issues surrounding the provision of ICT for differently-abled people. The reader is urged to read further for several reasons. First, an informed approach to disability is essential; but this would be impossible without a clearer understanding of the abilities, difficulties and technology. Information about disability is widely available but rarely consulted. Secondly, there is a growing danger that differently-abled people may once again be marginalised. This would be a gross injustice, because the technology does exist, at a reasonable cost, to reverse the marginalisation. Furthermore, several countries outside Africa have introduced a legal obligation to include differently-abled people in the fabric of their communities, recognizing their rights, duties and obligations as fellow citizens.
The higher proportion of differently-abled beggars and the relatively lower percentage of successful role models is a sad testimony, which may create the impression that differently-abled people are somehow not clever enough to achieve their goals. However, it is more likely that differently-abled people are just as clever, but lack the information and support which others have, to achieve their goals. The words of J. C. R. Licklider and Robert Taylor are particularly insightful when they write: “For the society, the impact will be good or bad, depending mainly on the question: Will “to be on line” be a privilege or a right? If only a favoured segment of the population gets a chance to enjoy the advantage of “intelligence amplification,” the network may exaggerate the discontinuity in the spectrum of intellectual opportunity” (The Computer as a Communication Device).
I would particularly urge careful study of the various websites referred to. In recognition of the changing nature of websites, I have, wherever possible from referring to specific documents. However, I have acted with the confidence that there will always be relevant information in these websites, on such vital issues as available technology, good website and software design and the general needs of differently-abled ICT users.