1 July 2014

Africa: Focus On Disability - Delivering Mobile Phones' Promise

The Guardian recently reported on Africa's embrace of mobile phone technologies and how, according to research by Swedish technology firm Ericsson, internet use on mobile phones is likely to increase 20-fold across the continent in the next five years. That's double the growth rate expected in the rest of the world.

Basic mobile phones - and now smartphones - side-step the notorious problems of establishing landlines and bring multiple benefits to hundreds of millions of people in Africa. These include access to services and life-saving information.

If handled well, the rise of mobiles is a brilliant opportunity to accelerate inclusion into different aspects of life for millions of disabled people on the continent - just as it is anticipated to benefit enormous numbers of non-disabled people living in poverty.

Among other things, mobiles give access to life-saving health information, local market information, money transfer services from urban to rural areas and enable all-important contact with family and community. In contrast, unless mobile phone firms explicitly build disability accessibility into the 'DNA' of their product design and dissemination, disabled people will be further excluded from the move out of poverty that all on the continent desire.

Ensuring that mobile phone technologies are accessible to people of all impairment groups will also fulfil the legal obligations that 37 African counties have made through their ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) - specifically Article 9. [2] At least seven more countries are also expected to ratify the convention soon.

Guidelines on how to make mobile phones accessible for different impairment groups have been documented and established. [3,4] However, smartphone accessibility is still evolving.

And it's clear from the lack of accessible design and apps to date that smartphone designers need to be more intentional about ensuring their products can be used by all, according to impairment-specific needs. [5,6] Ensuring all technology development is "'fit-for-purpose"' is crucial. As governments are called to account for how well they are implementing their CRPD obligations, the mobile phone industry will face ever-growing requirements to ensure they comply.

Of course, accessible mobile technologies alone will not achieve the inclusion of disabled people in business, education, health and community life. Other barriers need addressing, such as discriminatory attitudes and prohibitive laws and policies. For example, first-generation mobile phone handsets have been brilliant for deaf people - but only if they are literate and can use text messaging. This opens up big questions about ensuring deaf children are taught to be literate. Many do not make it to the school gates because of the huge discriminatory attitude barriers they face.

Mobile technologies will continue to flood through Africa - the tide will not turn back. Technology designers and promoters should grasp this golden opportunity to ensure it realises the inclusion of disabled people in accessing life-saving services and improving life quality.

Sue Coe has worked in international development for 25 years across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Now a development and disability inclusion consultant, she previously worked for World Vision, Practical Action (formerly ITDG), VSO and Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID). Sue can be contacted at suecoe2603@gmail.com


[1] David Smith Internet use on mobile phones in Africa predicted to increase 20-fold (The Guardian, 5 June 2014)

[2] UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN, 2006)

[3] Nirmita Narasimhan and others Making mobile phones and services accessible for persons with disabilities (International Telecommunication Union and G3ict, August 2012)

[4] Stuart Dredge Accessibility is vitally important for people with disabilities and older mobile users (The Guardian, 23 November 2011)

[5] Kate Accessibility on mobile: what do brands and developers need to do? (Future Platforms, 29 April 2014)

[6] Achieving independence with smartphone technology (Living Well With a Disability, accessed 26 June 2014)

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