Digital technologies for the inclusion of disadvantaged communities and marginalized groups supported by IFAP

UNESCO, in cooperation with the United Nations Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD), organized a panel discussion on digital inclusion during the 12th International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance (ICEGOV) on 3 April 2019 in Melbourne, Australia.

The UNESCO Information for All Programme (IFAP) assured the coordination of the panel discussion “Achieving Digital Inclusion, Equality and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals in the Global South”, with a focus on Africa during the ICEGOV Conference with the theme on “Exploring Digital Government Synergies to Foster Equality, Inclusiveness, and Productivity".  The panel discussed the potential of digital technologies to meet the social, cultural, political and economic expectations and needs of persons with disabilities. Several United Nations Agencies’ Programmes and Funds, including UNESCO, promote digital inclusion initiatives in the Global South. These initiatives include innovative and transformative technologies that enable persons with disabilities to access equitable quality education, and contribute to inclusive and sustainable economic growth and the development of cities that are inclusive, safe and sustainable.

In Uganda, government policies promote accessible websites and content and the advantages of new technologies in the lives of persons with disabilities.  Ms Christine Nalubowa from the National Information Technology Authority Uganda (NITA-U) stressed the importance of combining policy development with sensitization programmes for government departments and civil society organisations. Sensitization programs have led to increased implementation of government policies, policy guidelines and inclusive procurement procedures. These government initiatives, supported by a joint programme being implemented by UNESCO and UNICEF in Uganda with support from the UN Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD) serve as essential triggers for creating a broad ecosystem for Information and Communication for Education that empowers persons with disabilities.  Ms. Sreerupa Mitra from the Technical Secretariat of the UN Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, added to Ms. Nalubowa’s remarks and highlighted how the UNPRPD project in Uganda had addressed digital inclusion at two levels- by strengthening the broader eco-system through enabling policy frameworks and by promoting the use of digital technologies to deliver more inclusive services. Therefore, also as part of the UNPRPD project in Uganda, UNICEF has been working with the Ministry of Education and Sports to make textbooks and learning materials accessible for primary school learners and harnessing digital technologies to promote their full participation in the learning process.

Prof Elsa Estevez, UNESCO Chair on Knowledge Societies and Digital Governance, presented the case of Argentina and emphasized the importance of top-down and bottom-up policies, individualized interventions, and capacity-building strategies to empower persons with disabilities and ensure their equitable access to employment, accessible transportation, and health and social services and programs. Ms Rachel Fischer from the African Centre of Excellence for Information Ethics (ACEIE) and International Centre for Information Ethics (ICIE), University of Pretoria, addressed the importance of the ethical dimensions of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Ms Fischer highlighted the difference between access and accessibility, and the reduction in language barriers to inclusion for deaf citizens through adoption of sign language as the 12th official South African language. The adoption of sign language promotes multilingualism, provides greater access to information, and privileges information ethics as a principle for persons with disabilities.

In responding to a question from an El Salvador delegate, Ms Sreerupa Mitra of the UN Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities described digital inclusiveness strategies in developing countries in the Global South. Her list of strategies included transitioning, applying Universal Design principles to all digital initiatives, ensuring all digital innovation is inclusive, building an enabling eco-system through inclusive policy and regulatory frameworks, financial allocations and increased capacity of human resources as well as addressing quality and affordability of digital technologies,  and collecting data and evidence needed to deliver digital and assistive technologies at scale.

The moderator Dr Frances Gentle, President of the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment (ICEVI), highlighted the positive impact of digital innovation for children and young people with blindness and low vision. ICEVI’s East Asia multi-stakeholder partnership program combines training in inclusive digital technology and soft skills, and has resulted in increased higher education and employment opportunities for young people with visual impairment. These young people have become leaders, mentors and role models at national and local community levels, and have inspired bottom-up demands by families and community leaders for quality education for their children with disabilities.

As illustrated in the panel discussion, it is important to think “outside of the box” when designing initiatives that take digital inclusion forward. Communities and end users must be involved in discussions related to emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things. Digital design initiatives should include education, training, e-skills development and self-reporting, taking into account internationally recognized disability directives such as the principle of Universal Design and examples of good practices like the ones that are being carried out in Argentina, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, and other countries in the Global South.

The moderator Dr Frances Gentle concluded that inclusive digital technologies offer national governments the potential to reduce inequality and disadvantage, and enable persons with disabilities to achieve their full potential as active and valued citizens. The creation of sustainable knowledge societies that “leave no one behind” involves us all. Dr Gentle thanked the panellists and delegates for their contributions to the lively discussion.

The Information for All Programme (IFAP) was established in 2001 to provide a platform for international cooperation in the area of access to information and knowledge for the participation of all in knowledge societies. The IFAP is a unique UNESCO intergovernmental programme that focuses on ensuring that all people have access to information they can use to improve their lives. The Programme reiterates the importance of access to information as a universal right. All individuals have the right to create, access and use information and knowledge to achieve and express their full potential. The availability and accessibility of information must take into account the specific capabilities and needs of people with disabilities to ensure their full participation in knowledge societies.