ICTs help persons with disabilities (PwD) overcome issues of access, be that to education, employment, or physical mobility. Throughout the world, persons living with disabilities are already benefitting from the advantages of ICT-enabled applications. But more needs to be done to make ICTs accessible to persons living with disabilities, so these technologies constitute an opportunity and not a barrier. ITU is committed to making ICTs accessible to persons living with disabilities and achieving equitable communications for everyone.
Andrea Saks, Chairperson of Joint Coordination Activity on Accessibility and Human Factors, has been a driving force behind ITU’s work on ICT accessibility. ITU asked about her thoughts on the history of accessibility, and what still needs to be done to develop a truly inclusive society.
What led you to become a lifelong advocate for accessibility to ICTs for people with disabilities?
I am what is called a ‘CODA’, a child of deaf adults. My parents started the text phone, a telephone used by deaf people, in the United States in the 1960s which kick started the liberation of deaf people to be able to communicate in real time over the telephone.
What brought you to the ITU to become an advocate for accessibility?
This was slowly introduced around the world, starting in England. My mother was educated in England, and her friends wanted to have the same liberty that deaf people in the United States had begun to enjoy. We took everything over and set them up.
We had a compatible set up; two English speaking countries could talk. So transatlantic communication was a possibility for deaf people – with the exception, of course, of cost.
But everybody wanted to do it their own way. Other countries had other protocols so the text phones could not work back to back: we needed standardization. So in 1991, Dick Brandt, Vice-Chair of Study Group 17 in the International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee (CCITT) (the precursor to ITU-T), and later the father of V.18, found me and brought me to ITU. Then we started to work on the first accessible standard.
What are the major milestones in accessible technology that you have witnessed over your career in the push for mainstreaming accessibility for persons with Disabilities?
Other than the text phone, one of the most amazing things was SMS. Deaf people could have a mobile phone and communicate like everybody else – not only with themselves, but with hearing people. That really made a big impact. And then of course email was great because you could work in the ‘normal’ world.
Later, with Skype and other forms of video communication over the Internet, we had the ability to talk to speak to each other through sign language or lip reading.
Do you think the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) has helped bring about change or caused confusion?
It definitely has made people aware, and we’ve seen a lot of change in how countries which have signed and then ratified UNCRPD approach people with disabilities and their access to ICTs.
At ITU, a lovely man named Gunnar Hellström created something called the Accessibility Checklist which enables standards writers to put themselves in other people’s shoes and think, “can a person who does not have full mobility be able to use what I’m making?” The next problem, of course, is up to industry. They’re the ones that have to implement these accessible standards because all international standards are voluntary.
What still needs to be done to make the world more accessible enabling us to have a truly integrated society?
We have better rights now, and better awareness due to better communication, but different national industry structures means that accessibility is not universal. It is up to the regulators and the people who make the laws in our countries to enable manufacturers to actually implement international accessibility standards, and bring the benefits of technology to all people.
If industry, ITU and other standards bodies around the world mainstreamed accessibility features within regular standards, ICTs stand a chance of becoming globally accessible for people with disabilities.
This blog is edited from Ms Saks’s interview on ITU and accessibility. Watch the conversation in full below. Or listen on Soundcloud here.
Andrea Saks is an international telecommunications specialist for the deaf. She is the chairperson of the Joint Coordination Activity on Accessibility and Human Factors and the coordinator of the Internet Governance Forum’s Dynamic Coalition on Accessibility and Disability, and has been a key person in the creation of ITU accessibility initiatives and events. In 2008 she was given the ITU World Telecommunication and Information Society Award and made a Laureate for her lifelong work in accessibility to telecommunications and ICTs for persons with Disabilities.