For persons with disabilities (PwD), access to information and communication technology (ICT) is vital for their inclusion in modern society, enabling access to key public services such as healthcare and government services, access to the job market, communication and social integration. But this cannot be achieved unless ICTs are accessible.
ITU was one of the first international standards organizations to recognize the need to include accessibility requirements in its standards. In 1991, work began on Recommendation ITU-T V.18 which brought two previously incompatible text telephone protocols together. Following on from this success, ITU standardized the raised bump found on key 5 of most landline phones and mobile handsets with a keypad to assist blind and visually impaired people to dial.
Today, ITU standards cover a diverse range of technologies, applications and services. An accessibility checklist is consulted at the start of the development process for new standards to ensure that the products and services produced to the standards are usable by persons with disabilities. It is estimated that there are one billion persons with disabilities around the world, and with a growing aging population, this technical work is clearly very important. Another key role that ITU plays in promoting accessibility is the sharing best practices, promoting awareness among key stakeholders, and encouraging accessibility driven policy-making, which ITU does through a series of workshops around the world, and through a new provision in the 2012 revision of International Telecommunication Regulations which states that Member States should promote access for persons with disabilities to international telecommunication services, taking into account the relevant ITU-T Recommendations.
The importance of ITU’s work on accessibility was reinforced at the 2014 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference which called for the involvement of persons with disabilities and persons with specific needs in ITU’s work so that they may collaborate in the adoption of a comprehensive action plan together with external entities and bodies concerned with this topic. Only through multi-stakeholder involvement can ITU truly respond to the needs of persons with disabilities. The 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference also called for better data gathering and to maximize the use of webcasting facilities and captioning, including transcripts of the captioning.
ITU has established a special trust fund to support activities relating to the provision of accessibility facilities and inclusion of persons with disabilities in the work of ITU, and encourages the international community to make voluntary contributions to the fund.
The Connect 2020 Agenda was also adopted at the 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference. It outlines a number of targets to be achieved by the year 2020, including establishing accessible ICTs for persons with disabilities in all countries in order to bring the full range of benefits offered by ICTs to the millions of persons with disabilities around the world, especially in developing countries where they are most disadvantaged.
ITU is learning to become a more accessible organization for staff, delegates and the general public. We have made notable improvements in order to provide better services to persons with disabilities by making our venues, meetings, publications and website more accessible. For example, captioning is now used in most ITU meetings and is well appreciated not only by delegates with hearing disabilities but also those with language difficulties. Although a lot of work still needs to be done, we can say that ITU is on the right path to becoming a fully accessible organization in the near future.
For these reasons, I am proud to commemorate ITU´s longstanding history in promoting an accessible society through ICTs with July’s theme for ITU’s 150th anniversary, ‘accessibility and innovation’. Let´s continue working together to make every single ICT service, device and application fully accessible to ensure the empowerment of persons with disabilities to live an independent life.
Houlin Zhao was elected as Secretary- General of ITU at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2014 in Busan, Republic of Korea, and took office on 1 January 2015. Mr Zhao was elected ITU Deputy Secretary-General at the Plenipotentiary Conference in Antalya, Turkey, in November 2006 and re-elected for a second four-year term in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October 2010. From 1999 to 2006, he served as Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (TSB) with his first election at PP-98 in Minneapolis, USA and again at PP-02 in Marrakesh, Morocco. From 1986-1998, he worked at ITU headquarters, as an Engineer/Councellor. Mr Zhao graduated from Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and holds an MSc in Telematics from the University of Essex in the UK.