Kampala, Uganda — Beatrice Guzu, the executive secretary of the National Council for Disability has been visually impaired (blind) all her life.
She says throughout her student life, she experienced hardships that only blind students face. Her books were bulkier. Then she had to get other students read back documents; especially lesson notes for her. When she eventually got introduced to information communication technologies (ICTs), she says, she felt relieved.
"I became independent," Guzu says, "ICTs are not a matter of luxury anymore for people with disability."
When she spoke at a forum organized by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) last December in Kampala, Guzu gave moving testimony of the challenges that PWDs face when it comes to ICTs.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) says the internet and related technologies have the potential to improve the lives of People with Disabilities (PWDs), through empowerment, access to information, and enhancing their social and economic integration in communities.
But in order for this potential to be realized, UNESCO says, the rights of persons with disabilities must be provided for in laws and policies, and countries must take deliberate steps to ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy these rights, have access to quality information and ICT, and are protected from all forms of discrimination.
Unfortunately, Guzu says, access to ICTs remains out of reach for most disabled people in Uganda. Researchers on disability say "disability inclusion" remains a neglected and unprioritized issue.
Those with disabilities are likely to face more risks and vulnerabilities along their life cycle. Many face barriers resulting in limited participation, such as accessing public transport, getting adequate health care and employment.
Data collected by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) shows that persons with disabilities are often poorer than non-disabled people.
According to the 2014 national census, about 12.5% of Ugandans were estimated to have some form of disability. That figure is about 4.5 million today.
At the forum, other PWDs joined Guzu to recount the daily struggles they face to access information from government agencies and the media and many said they feel excluded.
"Most of the information is really not in accessible formats," Guzu said, "We have the media which produces useful news but none of these print media produces their news in accessible format for persons with visual impairment."
"I am a person who really likes reading but because it is not accessibleI have abandoned the idea," Guzu said, "Sometimes I want to buy newspapers but I say who will read for me."
People who can see but cannot hear,described how they struggle to figure out what the language interpreter is showing them on TV because the sign language interpreters are given a small dark space at the bottom right hand corner of their television set during prime time news - the only time an attempt is made to reach the deaf on TV.
Anne Gidudu, an official from the Uganda Parents of Persons with Intellectual Disability said although sign language interpreters are provided during prime-time news, the deaf cannot follow other basic features, such as advertisements, because they do not include sign language.
"The people with disabilities are not catered for yet they are also consumers of alcohol, beverages, and telecom products," she said, "they cannot make out the advertisements on their own."
Attempts by Emmanuel Mango Sanya, a station manager at Record Television, to explain why local broadcasters fail to provide sign language interpreters for many programmes; including prime time news, was challenged by the PWDs. Sanya said broadcasters understand the importance of having these but the interpreters are expensive for the media houses.
But Guzu said it is not an issue of money only. She said television station managers need to change their attitude towards PWDS.
"We need to understand this sign language interpreter is giving information to fellow Ugandans not someone who is sitting somewhere giving information to people with disability," she said.
Guzu oversees the implementation of Uganda's law on disability. She says the negative attitude among key government officials who are at the forefront of making decisions has not helped either.
"Sometimes these people look at disability as something which is very far away from them," Guzu said, "If these people saw disability as something which is part of them and real in the community, we could move forward."
Ronald Luyima who is blind described how withdrawing money from his bank account, which is a simple act for most able-bodied people, can be a nightmare for the disabled.
"At times we fear using the ATMs," he said. He says although some banks have installed Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) with audio devices to cater for the visually impaired customers, they are not fully helpful.
"Apart from telling me to insert the ATM card and thanking me for banking with the bank, the keyboards are not helpful at all," he said, For other PWDS who are physically challenged in height, the ATM machine is often quite high to the extent that it makes it impossible for them to operate the machine on their own.
Unique PWD needs
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which is also the first international human rights treaty requires that ICT tools and systems should be accessible. This is a necessary condition for PWDs to fully enjoy their fundamental rights without discrimination.
Member states are required to ensure that the private sector service providers, including through the internet, provide information and services in accessible and usable formats for persons with disabilities.
Uganda ratified the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in September 2008 and has gone on to make laws and policies aimed at increasing digital accessibility.
Uganda also passed the Persons with Disabilities Act in 2006, which defines disability as 'a substantial functional limitation of daily life activities caused by physical, mental or sensory impairment and environmental barriers resulting in limited participation."
Section 21 of the Persons with Disability Act, for instance, mandates the government to develop and use sign language, tactile, and sign language interpreters in all public institutions and at public functions; and to braille public information such as government documents and government newspapers.
However, many challenges remain when it comes to accessing and using ICTs by persons with disability. As a result, millions of persons with disability remain poor.
Jonathan Tusubira, a researcher on digital rights for persons with disability in Uganda says the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which sets standards and advocates for ICTs for communities that are underserved defines accessibility as "what the user requires to gain functional access to ICTs."
"When it comes to coping with ICTs, we are all struggling but the people struggling more are people with disability," says Oscar Wakholi, also a researcher on digital rights for PWDs.
Wakholi said a person with normal vision can be in position to have a computer but not know how to operate it. But for a person with visual impairment, it is double jeopardy because not only does that person not know how to use that machine but he or she also cannot effectively understand and use all the relevant software on the computer.
Dr. Wairagala Wakabi, the executive director of CIPESA agrees. He says PWDs have unique needs which mean that merely making ICT available does not mean that they are able to use that ICT.
"In an increasingly digitized world, technologies are critical to how we learn, how we work and how we interact with other individuals," he says, "That means that communities that do not have easy access to ICTs will suffer handicaps in how they associate and how they earn their livelihoods."
A November 2019 brief by CIPESA noted that the East African region has experienced considerable growth in the use of information and communications technologies (ICT). For instance, as of December 2018, Uganda had a mobile telephone penetration rate of 63% and 37% of internet subscribers.
But the report also highlighted the challenges that PWDs encounter in accessing information as well as in using ICTs; including the internet.
It showed that despite this growth and internet penetration, PWDs are often among the least likely to access ICT services because either the ICT equipment lack the necessary accessibility features or because assistive software remains unaffordable.
CIPESA has noted that the lack of comprehensive disaggregated data on PWDs, including the specific challenges that they face in accessing information and using ICT has negatively impacted on the design and implementation of interventions that would improve their access.
In turn, technologies that could assist them are out of reach for large numbers of PWDs. Accordingly, concerted efforts are needed by the government ministries, communication regulators, telecom operators and other ICT companies, among others to meaningfully improve usage of ICT for this community.
Going forward, Wakabi says the government should come up with a deliberate mechanism to collect data periodically that breaks down the types of disabilities and their respective challenges when it comes to accessing ICTs.
Vincent Bagiire, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance said the government is taking many services online but most of them are not easily accessible for people living with disability in the country.
"I must confess they are not disability sensitive," Bagiire said, "They are for you and I, who can see visibly, who can use their hands and those who can hear."
"We have a lot of work to do to ensure that the services that we take online indeed do accommodate people with disabilities."
Bagiire said the ICT ministry is already talking to the finance ministry to remove taxes on assistive technology devices that PWDs find useful in their daily lives.