Advancing Equal Technology Access Rights to People with Disabilities

Editor’s note: This article is by Frances West, Worldwide Director, IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center 

I was honored to testify to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Thursday, Nov. 21 to discuss IBM’s point of view on the proposed U.S. ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
Frances West

The UNCRPD mandates that people with disabilities should have the full rights and freedoms enjoyed by other citizens worldwide, including equal access to employment, healthcare, education, transportation and technology.

Importantly, it establishes the first universal framework for accessible ICT (Information and Communications Technology). Understanding that technology is the great equalizer for under-served populations. The UNCRPD authoring committee adopted this framework to provide governments and businesses worldwide with a clear roadmap towards inclusive ICT that can benefit all individuals, including people with disabilities.

As of today, 138 countries worldwide have ratified the UNCRPD to advance the full societal inclusion of people with disabilities. Currently, the United States, a world leader in disability and accessibility policy, has signed, but not ratified this treaty.

It is our view that the UNCRPD will advance the marketplace for accessible ICT, harmonize international technology standards and create policies and procurement regulations that benefit the U.S. economy, businesses and individual citizens. 

The need to improve accessible technology 

Global demand for accessibility continues to increase, due in part to the strengthening voice of more than one billion people with disabilities worldwide; the organizations that advance their interests; and influential human rights treaties like the UNCRPD. However, other parallel disruptive trends are also driving unprecedented marketplace demand, making accessibility a mainstream requirement for governments and businesses around the globe.

For example, today a significant percentage of the world’s population — more than 800 million peopleare over the age of 60. And while half of those over the age of 65 have some form of age-related disability — such as diminished sight, hearing or mobility — they typically do not consider themselves disabled.

From a technology perspective, mobile and smart device adoption is transforming how, when and where we communicate. Last year, mobile phone subscriptions worldwide surpassed 6.4 billion. These users — more than 1 billion of whom are mobile workers — are impacted by environmental challenges that render them “situationally disabled,” such as workers taking conference calls in public spaces with loud ambient noise or employees who need hands- and eyes-free access while driving. 

The drive to improve accessible technology 

Finally, emerging human-centric technologies such as smart TVs, wearable devices and next-generation augmented reality — a technology that is expected to grow from about 6 million users to 2.5 billion by 2017 — will continue to transform the technology landscape.

Enabling widespread access to, and innovation for, these technologies will depend in large part on the ongoing integration of flexible, adaptive, intuitive and accessible technology capabilities.

It is for these reasons that IBM, which for 100 years has advanced research in accessibility for people with disabilities, the aging population, novice technology users, and people with language, learning, and literacy challenges, supports the UNCRPD and its underlying principles. 

The end result will be smarter, more connected, inclusive and accessible societies for all of us. That is an outcome worth aspiring to, and a goal worth pursuing together.

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