The digital divide refers to the gap between populations that have access to internet and Information communication technologies (ICTs) and those who have restricted access or none at all. ICTs include internet, computers and mobile phones among others. To ensure the larger population including persons with disabilities benefit from socioeconomic opportunities afforded through these ICTs, there is an overwhelming need to make the ICTs accessible to everyone and narrow the digital gap. Due to barriers in society, persons with disabilities face various challenges in activities of daily living, technology has the potential to eliminate or significantly reduce these barriers and promote equality as envisioned in local and international various legal instruments. ICTs accessibility involves deliberate effort to design and deploy technologies, be it hardware or software, that can be used by larger extend of population including use of assistive technology (AT) devices to ensure comprehensive access to the ICTs.
Kenya Population and Housing Census (KPHC) 2019
According to Kenya Population and Housing Census (KPHC) 2019, the number of Persons with disabilities stood at 918,270 representing prevalence rate of 2.2%. The tallies showed that one in five Kenyans has access to internet and that 3.7% of county’s population engages in E-commerce or trading online. 22.6% of population aged 15 years and above uses the internet, 10.4% of population use a computer while 4.3% searched and bought goods online.
The numbers for digital access may not be rosy, but it shows that there is an increment in usage of ICTs either for economic or social reasons. In almost all domains in life, the local and global increase in uptake and spread of ICTs has given rise to new and exciting opportunities for everyone including persons with disabilities.
Technological advancements and innovations
New technological advancements and innovations have changed the way people interact and conduct business. Be it through access to employment opportunities, access to telehealth, online learning, social interaction and the emergence of digital economy among others, the evidence points us to conclude that there is a lot of reliance on internet and ICTs. However, due to lack of digital accessibility, these new developments and our reliance on technology may lead to more inequality by leaving some sections of the population behind. The increased use of ICTs in our daily life may not increase equality as envisioned in United Nations Convention on Rights for Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the Kenya Constitution 2010 as long as there is lack of digital inclusion and the ICTs remain inaccessible to larger group of persons including the elderly and persons with various forms of disabilities.
Around 15% of world population lives with some form of disability of which 2-4 % experience difficulty in performing activities of daily living independently. Accessible ICTs improves quality of life of persons with disabilities, by enabling them to fully participate in societal activities on equal basis with others and live independently. But the promise of ICTs cannot be realized without supportive legislation, appropriate infrastructure and adequate financing. In terms of legislation, Kenya has made commendable strides on this end. The National ICT Policy in accessibility captures the need to have fully accessible ICTs for persons with disabilities and promotion of innovations towards this end. The missing part is the implementation of these good policy statements. The government should promote and champion the implementation of existing laws and policies dealing with digital accessibility.
The advancement of ICTs has necessitated change on how governments, private organization and other institutions like banks conduct their daily business. This means that information regarding livelihood, health or education and provision of essential services is likely to be disseminated and provided through ICTs and if these ICTs are inaccessible by larger percentage of population including persons with disabilities then they miss out on these life-saving information and services. This not only undermines their rights as envisioned in our laws but also undermines realization of ICT-enabled inclusive development in the county.
Making ICT Accessible
Making ICTs accessible helps to level the playing field for persons with disabilities but it does not benefit persons with disabilities only. It also benefits larger population whom access to ICTs would otherwise not be possible, these groups include the elderly, persons who cannot access ICTs due to their unavailability, persons who might have language barriers and other persons in various categories. This will also benefit the government in ensuring that it meets its legal quota in 30% government contracts for youth and persons with disabilities and 5% employment of persons with disabilities, because larger percentages of persons with disabilities and youth will be able to apply for jobs and contracts through accessible ICTs.
Persons with various forms of disabilities face different barriers when it comes to community, economic and social participation activities in the society. Lack of accessible ICTs exacerbates these barriers. For blind or low vision persons the barrier may include reading print and writing, accessing visual information in print or navigating a website or even the surrounding. Accessible ICTs like text-to-speech rendition and voice output, audio description of graphic and visual media, voice recognition, and screen readers among others could greatly contribute to eliminating or reducing the faced barriers. Other forms of disability such as hearing difficulties can benefit from digital inclusion measures. Provision of closed and open captioning for videos, text telephone, use of SMS (Text messages) and use of vibration alerts instead of audio alerts will ensure this population group is included in societal activities.
For the persons with speech impairment for whom communicating with others is a barrier, accessible ICTs will mean provision of synthesized voice output or integration of text-to-speech functionality in service and communication systems or use of visual boards in communication. In the instances of physical disabilities where body movement is limited, there is the benefit of voice recognition systems, adapted input devices like mouse and virtual keyboards and use of eye-gaze and gestures controls, systems and applications. Lastly for persons with psychosocial disabilities, accessible ICTs will mean use of organization and memory aid tools such as online calendars and alerts.
This is not exhaustive, in essence there are many various forms of disabilities that require different types of accessible ICTs to ensure effective participation of persons with disabilities in society. To ensure we make real a digitally inclusive society, there should be a collaborative effort by government, designers, developers, civil society, private institutions and society in general. As Mary Pat Radabaugh said ‘’ for most people, technology makes things easier. For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible’”