Accessibility in information and communication technology (ICT) is intrinsically linked to ITU’s 150 year history of innovation, yet it has struggled to keep pace with the extraordinary advances in technology of recent years. Universal access to adequate and affordable technology remains a key challenge for people with disabilities.
As a teacher of the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell wanted to provide his pupils with access to the world of sound. However, while perusing this dream, he invented the telephone instead of the hearing aid in 1876. Though telegraphy was already in use and operated by professionals, the telephone made a live dialogue in a natural language accessible to the general public.
Ironically, Bell’s invention did not help the deaf at all – furthermore, they were excluded from the rapidly developing social interaction that emerged from the rapid expansion of the telephone network. It was only in 1964 when three deaf engineers in California converted tele-typewriters to text telephones for the first time. This opened the first door to a slowly expanding network of text telephones, but substantive access to the telephone network for people with hearing or speech disabilities only became possible when telephone relay services were established. Later, the development of microelectronics enabled the manufacture of smaller text telephones and video telephones for communication in sign language over the telephone and internet network, though full accessibility often still requires the use of relay services providing speech-to-text translation or sign language interpretation.
The necessity of setting up relay services for communication between deaf and hearing persons is often called into question, and there are still too many countries without fully operable relay services despite national laws on telecommunication requiring access to telephony for all citizens. For all – except for the deaf? While no hearing person will miss the advantages of telephony, this is a vital service for people with hearing or speech disabilities to be able to participate in modern society.
Since 2006, 159 states signed the UN convention on the Rights for Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), agreeing to provide full access to all communication services to every member of society. Hopefully this is the last puzzle piece needed to convince governments and telephone companies of their responsibility vis-a-vis persons with disabilities. Moreover, such services are not a cost factor as persons with disabilities and their relatives are a group of paying customers whose size is underestimated.
Access to ICTs can be a challenge for deaf, hard of hearing and blind persons, but there are also solutions available or under development – and this is where ITU plays a very important role in the international arena. Identifying problems and developing solutions requires the collaborative effort of both non-disabled and disabled experts.
About 10 years ago, thanks to the intense engagement of a few dedicated activists, ITU established the Joint Coordination Activities – Accessibility and Human Factors (JCA-AHF). Among its key tasks, the JCA-AHF provides advice on the accessibility of ITU facilities and services, and identifies opportunities to mainstream accessibility into standardization work within ITU-T and its study groups.
However, it seems that financial resources from governments and manufacturers are often available for non-disabled experts to participate in the many different events, yet disabled experts are expected to find their own resources to participate in such activities. All government organizations and manufacturers must enable participation of disabled and non-disabled experts when developing new products and new services; true Universal Design for full accessibility can be developed only by including disabled experts from the very beginning. The slogan for UN CRPD said it best: “Nothing about us without us!”
Ask yourself: how many persons with disabilities do you include in your work, or in your organization? Can you do more in this regard? Can you support them in becoming active members of the ITU community? Someday, you yourself may be glad about a fully accessible society.
Beat Kleeb (deaf) has been involved in accessibility issues for the deaf and hard of hearing for more than 30 years on national and international levels. This includes pioneering work on the introduction of text telephones, telephone relay service, sign language interpreting services, as well as initiating captioning in the Swiss Teletext system.
Beat Kleeb has been an expert on technical aids for the World Federation of the Deaf for many years, and currently participates in the organization’s Expert Group on Accessibility and Technology.