Disability is not a tragedy but an inconve-nience. About 600 million persons or one-tenth of the world population are estimated to be disabled in one form or another e.g., visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, and neurological. The proportion of the disability varies from country to country. It is low in developed countries and high in the developing countries. Approximately 80 percent of the disabled population lives in developing countries. Within certain develo-ping countries nearly 20 percent of the general population are in some way or other disabled.
International agencies on disabled
The international agencies have awakened to the alarming situation with supportive and assuring measures. In 1948, United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which article 25 says that each person has ‘the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control’. UN’s commitment to assist the disabled had evolved since it began addressing the needs of individuals injured in the world war II. In 1950, a conference was organised to discuss about the coordi-nation among the specialised agencies to rehabilitate the disabled, in which UN Secretariat, the ILO, WHO, UNESCO, the International Refugee Organisation (IRO), and UNICEF partici-pated and arrived at an agreement to establish international standards for the education, treatment, training and placement for disabled persons, with particular emphasis on the needs of the blind in under-developed areas. These organisations have focused on delivery of services and have been managed by non-disabled persons, with need based care and protection for persons with disabilities.
Initially (1945-55), the UN promoted a suitable welfare measures for the disabled persons. Later (1955-70), the focus of the disability issues shifted to that of social welfare. During the 70s, the concept of human rights for disabled persons was introduced which was widely accepted at the global level. The Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, adopted by the General Assembly on December 9, 1975, envisaged protection of the rights for the disabled. On December 16, 1976, the General Assembly declared the year 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP), specifying that it would be devoted to integrate disabled persons fully into the society. In 1982, the World Programme of Action, concerning disabled persons, restructured disability policy into three distinct areas: prevention, rehabilitation, and equalisation of opportunities. In the same year, the UN Decade of Disabled Persons (1983-1992) was announced to raise new financial resources, improving education and employment opportunities for the disabled, and increase their active participation in their respective communities and country. On December 16, 1992, the General Assembly appealed to governments to observe 3rd December of each year as International Day of Disabled Persons. In the same year, Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons (1993-2002), proclaimed to effectively implement the World Programme of Action in the Asian and Pacific region. On December 20, 1993 the General Assembly adopted the Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. It also raised serious concern to the urgent need to integrate disabled people with rapid developments in the electronic and ICTs. Hence, UN has announced to celebrate International Disabled Day of 2006 considering of e-Inclusion, e Accessibility as its theme.
Various countries enacted disability acts but only towards the last decade of the twentieth century. Disability rights are being incorporated in international, national, and states legislations. In India, were about 22 million persons are disabled, some acts were enacted to protect the disabled people viz., The Mental Health Act, 1987, The Rehabilitation Council Act of India (RCI, 1992), The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Full Participation and Protection of Rights) Act, 1995 and The National Trust (for welfare of persons with autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and multiple disabilities) Act, 1999. Again, a comprehensive disabled act ‘the Persons With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 emerged in the last decade of the twentieth century, as a result of the Government of India’s commitment at ESCAP Conference in 1992, and with the recommendation of the previous committees and strong NGO movements in the country, draft act was introduced in 1993, and it was notified on January 5, 1996. The act actually came into effect from 7th February 1996 onwards. This act is a combination of service-oriented and rights-based legislation, based on the following approaches: prohibition of discrimination on the ground of disability in different spheres of life; positive discrimination in favour of people with disabilities; grant of relaxation in their favour to overcome respective disabilities; and their inclusion in mainstream programmes. Likewise, several other countries enacted the disabled act during the last decade of the 20th century. However, many of these laws are yet to be implemented effectively. The developed nations have amended the disability act to reduce or remove accessibility barriers present in existing ICT and are working further to avoid introducing new ICTs with unjustified accessibility barriers. However, in the developing countries, the disability acts are of recent origin and the development in ICTs throws a great deal of challenge in the existing legal protection measures.
Digital divide matters
In last three decades, ICTs have scaled to an unimaginable heights in growth around the world. However, these technologies are widely put into practise in developed countries in comparison to the developing countries. For instance, the data on Internet users (2004) shows that in African countries, only 3.1 per cent of the population are able to make use of the surfing facilities whereas in US, 63 percent has the accessibility. In developed countries, about 53 per cent of the population have random access to the Internet facilities, whereas, it is only 7 per cent in the developing nations. The same trend of difference is replicated in Internet/ICT use by disabled population worldwide.
ICTs: opportunities vs challenges
Large scale diffusion of ICTs have positively opened up many opportunities for people with disabilities, especially in networking, building solidarity, employment and independent living. Indeed, the assistive computer and other augmentative communicational technologies have made accessibility easy to ICTs for people with disabilities. However, in the developing countries, the disabled people are facing multiple barriers to access the ICTs and the skill required to use these technologies. Further, keeping pace with newer growths in ICTs is also posing serious challenges for the disabled people.
Assistive or adaptive technologies
ICTs have created a border -free and barrier less space to all and these technologies can be very well extended to the disabled people. Though diffrent agencies are developing the compatible Information and Communication Technologies for the disabled people, large proportion of the disabled people are not able to access these technologies due to socioeconomic and cultural factors, specific to the region. In 2003, the World Bank Information Solutions Group (ISG) conducted a survey to identify the ‘current level of accessibility for people with physical or sensory impairment in several areas, including website and Internet presence, operating and software systems, telecommunications systems, video and multimedia products, office equipment and employee accommodation practices’.
The study found that the ‘overall work environment, including web applications, software, telecommunications equipment, and office equipment, is not fully accessible to individuals with disabilities, creating unnecessary obstacles for those individuals in meeting their responsibilities and/or demonstrating their individual capabilities and potential for advancement’. In recent years, the international agencies and different countries have initiated several measures to provide the compatible ICTs for different types of disabled people. Assistive or Adaptive Technology (AT) commonly refers to products, devices or equipment, whether acquired commercially, modified or customised, that are used to maintain, increase or improve the functional capacities of individuals with disabilities.
Disabled in India – How are they?
In India, about 21,906,769 persons are disabled, which forms 2.13 percent of the total population (1,028,610,328), according to 2001 Census. Of the total disabled population, 12,605,635 (57.54%) are males and 9,301,134 (42.46%) are females. About 10,634,881 persons (48.55%) are disabled in seeing, 1,640,868 persons (7.49%) in speech, 1,261,722 persons (5.76%) in hearing, 6,105,477 persons (27.87%) in movement, and 2,263,821 persons (10.33%) in mental health.
Sensitive to the situation, Government of India has introduced several ICT enabled measures for the disabled persons to equip themselves for better occupational and livelihood patterns in recent years.
The phenomenal growth of ICT development has created digital divide not only between the developed and developing countries, rural and urban, and within the developing countries but also with different segment of the social groups, and the serious casualties are the disabled persons. Even the able people are found hard to catch up with the fast changing trends in ICTs, and it became increasingly difficult task for the disabled persons in general and more specifically in the rural areas of the developing nations. Hence, development in ICTs have to streamline to adopt certain characteristics features to implant an appropriate technology to accommodate the disabled people along with mainstream of the life. Unless or otherwise, whatever the development in the ICTs sector will not be sane or spiritual for the overall development of the society. It is more appropriate to quote UNESCO’s former Assistant Director General for Communication and Information, Abdul Waheed Khan (2004), ‘Ignorance and lack of awareness in designing technology that meets the needs of people with disabilities were highlighted as the main obstacles for progress towards ICT that is accessible to all. While cooperation between country governments as well as between organisations is important, he said, concrete action lines should be included in the WSIS outcome in order for initiatives for disabled people worldwide to be effective’ (http://www.itu.int/wsis/tunis/newsroom/highlights/16nov.html)
Ajitha Saravanan, email@example.com