columnBy Dr Charles Mwape
EQUALITY and non-discrimination constitute a basic and general principle relating to the protection of human rights of all persons.
It is an indivisible part of international human rights law, binding on all member states of the United Nations, founded on the principles of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.
Despite this fact, discrimination of persons with disabilities remains a daily reality in most countries that are members of the United Nations and have signed the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities which range from more visible forms such as segregated education and denial of employment opportunities to more acts of discrimination against disabled citizens such as imposition of physical, psychological and social barriers resulting in social exclusion of persons with disabilities.
Over the past 10 years, protecting the rights of disabled people all over the world has been placed number one priority and objective by promoting new disability legislation more especially in countries which are signatory to the international treaty both in specific policy fields and under a global approach of treating disability as a human rights issue.
For Africa, the African Union (AU) is repositioning the disability forum in a more comprehensive African legislation that will prohibit all forms of discrimination on grounds of disability and provide effective and dissuasive remedies to discrimination within member states and ensure that African rehabilitation institutions become effective in addressing disability matters.
The focus is more on information provision to society, which is an eye opener, but also looks at potential new barriers for the social inclusion of persons with disabilities.
Considering the fact that we are in a world of information and communication technologies (ICTs), persons with disabilities should be part of new development. As the world is offering these new opportunities to everyone, it is more significant for persons with disabilities, as they use technological assistance for daily activities to a higher extent than people in general.
With technological equipment adapted to the abilities of everyone, disabled end-users would be able to participate in all aspects of social life on more equal terms than ever before.
It is vital for persons with disabilities to benefit, on an equal basis, from rapid development of ICTs to enter an inclusive and barrier-free Information Society.
For many people with disabilities, the complexity of accessibility and usability of many ICT products and services is a major barrier to inclusion, preventing them from enjoying the facilities on equal footing with non-disabled people. As ICTs move to the next level of development, the following need to be improved:
- People with sensory disabilities are often prevented from watching television due to lack of accessibility features, such as subtitling, signing or audio-description.
- Websites are most of the time inaccessible for people with visual disabilities, as they do not respect the Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines.
- Telephony, either fixed or mobile, is only partially accessible to the deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Mobile real-time text telephony remains a dream for the future.
- Emergency services are frequently inaccessible to people with sensory disabilities.
-Assistive technologies, which are used by disabled people to access ICT products and services, are often not interoperable with software used in these products and services.
In trying to create inclusive society, many European countries have developed soft-power instruments with regard to the accessibility of ICTs but this has not led to significant progress, and creation of an inclusive Information Society is far from being achieved despite the following strategies and resolution:
- The 2000 Lisbon Strategy states that ICTs play not only a predominant role for more growth and jobs, but also contribute, if designed for all, towards a more inclusive society.
- The Council Resolution of March 20, 2002 on the e-Europe Action Plan 2002: accessibility of public websites and their content
- The Council Resolution on February 6, 2003 "e-accessibility" - improving the access of people with disabilities to the knowledge-based society
- The 2006 the Riga Ministerial Declaration unanimously approved
- The 2005 EC Communication on e-accessibility
- In 2006, e-accessibility became part of the inclusion pillar of the "i2010 - A European Information Society for growth and employment" initiative which aims to address the main challenges and developments in the Information Society and media sectors up to 2010
- The 2007 e-inclusion Communication sets the need of a horizontal approach for an accessible Information Society which opens the way to future legislation on e-accessibility.
Besides, future EU legislation will have to be compliant with the provisions contained in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, signed by the 27 EU member states and the European Community. E-accessibility is defined by Article 9.
Article 21 states the freedom of expression and opinion, which includes the "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas" with appropriate ICT means.
Then Article 30 provides that a cultural and recreational activity, which includes cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport should also be accessible on an equal basis with others. This includes provisions of information for television and films in an accessible format.
If this works at EU level the possibility is that the African Union will draw lessons and strategies to achieve a fully inclusive Information Society and a better accessibility of ICT products and services by persons with disabilities, focusing simultaneously on various key fields to protect disabled people from the so-called "digital divide" which include web accessibility, television, electronic communication and equipment services.
The aim of the ICTs should be advocating and communicating inclusion and equality in terms of information sharing and technological development with essential tools to increase the impact and effectiveness of their advocacy and communication.
The ICT provides persons with disabilities with a clearer idea of what constitutes advocacy and how to design and implement an influential advocacy campaign on issues affecting them.
It's encouraging to see that many countries, Zambia included, are working on domesticating the convention into national legislation and policies but in 2011, Sierra Leone became Africa's pioneer when its government passed the Persons with Disability Act.
This outlines specific rights for full access by persons with disabilities to have same services and information, including education, health and information technology, as non-disabled people, and many other countries followed. It is hoped that by 2016 the issue of disability challenge may be addressed.
However, the next challenge is to implement the ratified conventions and anti-discrimination laws effectively in most countries.
The main reason often cited for a lack of implementation is inadequate resource allocation by governments and generally linked to insufficient political will.
Huge energy and effort have been exerted by civil society in particular to get convention ratifications and follow-on national laws onto the statute books. Disability movements around the world have often been behind the push towards ratification -- and umbrella bodies such as the International Disability Alliance have helped coordinate and document their progress.
Disability movements are continuing to mobilise in many countries to lobby their governments on this -- the process of complying with the convention offers opportunities to continue to press governments to move beyond legal commitments to action.
But the lack of locally adapted technology also hinders implementation. It is critical that locally designed technology is developed and made available to persons with disabilities.
-For your stories and letters please send to us on P.O. Box 34490 Lusaka, Zambia or use our South African address Project Office, P.O. Box 1981 New Castle, 2940 South Africa.
-The author is regional disability policy analyst for SADC and inclusive development advisor for Centre for Disability Development Research, Law and Policy, Johannesburg.
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