17 April 2018

Liberia: Using ICTs to Provide Digital Opportunities for People With Disabilities (The Most Vulnerable)

Dr. Darren Wilkins

The Case of Samuel Dean

By: Dr. Darren Wilkins ([email protected] /0777129092 & 0886703789)

For several years I have advocated, studied/researched, written, worked and sacrificed to see our country turn into a "KNOWLEDGE SOCIETY; AN INFORMATION SOCIETY; but most of all, A DIGITAL LIBERIA. Achieving any of what I just mentioned, requires BRIDGING the glaring and unfortunate DIGITAL DIVIDE that currently exists in Liberia. The past few years, have seen significant progress made in the achievement of our Information and Communications Technology (ICT) goals. Such progress would not have been made without the work of major stakeholders; one of those stakeholders is SAMUEL DEAN. Dean is a young man who is part of the group we now refer to as physically-challenged. He has been one of those working TIRELESSLY and VEHEMENTLY to ensure that our quest for a DIGITAL LIBERIA does not leave the PHYSICALLY-CHALLENGED or disabled behind. And, I am sure you know that in addition to being acutely vulnerable to exclusion, disabled people are disproportionately poor, and poor people are disproportionately disabled.

In today's article, I discuss ways in which we can use ICT to provide digital opportunities for people with disabilities, focusing on an idea proffered by Samuel Dean sometime last year. I hope those in charge or who can make a difference, would see Dean's initiative as something worth supporting, if not emulating.

Over the years, I have admired and built respect for many people in the Liberian society that have or are working to bring development to the country using ICTs. But my ADMIRATION and RESPECT for Samuel Dean grew STRONGER when he came to my office while I was at LIBTELCO, to proffer what I believed then and now, to be an INNOVATIVE PRO-POOR solution. Dean came to me and asked for one thing: "EMPOWER THE PHYSICALLY-CHALLENGED so that they will not be a LIABILITY to SOCIETY, but rather PRODUCTIVE CITIZENS with skills to CONTRIBUTE to their country's ECONOMY." He not only made this request, but he also came with a plan to BUILD a CENTER THAT WOULD allow the physically-challenged earn a living RESPECTFULLY, GAIN CONFIDENCE in themselves, and deliver {commercial) services using ICTs, to the public. He wanted a "KINKOS-LIKE" center or as we call such a center in Liberia, "THE WORLD TRADE CENTER", to create EMPLOYMENT for others with disabilities. This "center" would be OPERATED by the physically-challenged and there, they are going to provide services such as photocopying documents, typing letters, creating resumes/CVs, building websites, tutoring services, etc.

At that time, we (LIBTELCO) were able to provide peppercorn assistance (few computers and Internet access) ... but compared to what we can do as a nation, that "assistance" was more than "infinitesimal". So, who can we look up to help empower the physically-challenged while bridging the digital divide? Both the public and the private sectors!

First, as a government we have a UNIVERSAL ACCESS PROGRAM that is intended to provide ICT access to the "UN-SERVED" and "UNDER-SERVED". Then, we have the Office of the Vice President that works with the Group of '77 (I stand corrected), the Ministry of Gender, Child(ren) and Social Protection, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA), mobile operators, et al. Contributions from this amalgam of stakeholders will impact PRESIDENT WEAH's Pro-Poor agenda significantly, since the physically-challenged too, constitutes a part of the poor, marginalized and vulnerable category in our society.

It is clear that the previous and the current governments of Liberia embrace ICTs as an enabler of social and economic development. For example, ICTs can enhance the delivery of information and services that promote wages and self-employment; raise productivity, improve the quality of employment generation and poverty-alleviating projects implemented by governments. ICTs, through e-commerce can support Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to expand markets, facilitate remittances for its diaspora, allow mobile banking for remote communities, and create opportunities for the physically challenged. Through e-government, ICT can enable government deliver services and information to the public, as well as enable greater participation of the citizens in budget decisions and monitoring of development results. In fact, quite recently, President George M. Weah asserted this fact, when he launched the mobile tax payment system developed by the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA).

No doubt we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go in ensuring that we leave no one behind, not only in terms of closing the digital divide but also more importantly, in closing the development divide. ICT can be the enabler of choice to allow people with disabilities to compete at the high end of the job market. Providing the resources and training will help them to find employment as web designers, graphic designers, cover and package designers and professional typesetters in the public and private sectors. And, to do this, ICT needs to be introduced into the very fabric of the learning process in Liberia.

Finally, there is a need for the creation of vocational and technical training centers for disabled people in Liberia. These training centers will allow students acquire skills that remove the barriers to information exchange between them and their peers on the other side of the world, and to see the real world through the screen of a computer or mobile device. In addition to regular schools for people with disabilities and the barriers to educational opportunities, there is a need to conduct out-of-school ICT boot camps for them to increase their chances of being digitally included and contributors to the national economy. This is something Samuel Dean and others have been fighting for over the years, and we need to support them.

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