Nº 6 2015 > Celebrating ITU’s 150 Years

Accessibility and innovation

Innovating with Lobna:
Why should accessible technology matter to us?

Accessibility and innovation

I would classify myself as a regular 20-something: I love my job, I have friends all around the world, and I enjoy travelling. But being a person with a disability, these things do not come easily to me. I was born with severely reduced mobility, only having independent use of my mouth. Growing up, I relied on my parents for everything.

For me, a world without accessible technology, is an isolated life. Information and communication technologies (ICT) give me the opportunity to be like everyone else; like you. But we must ensure that the environment is prepared — that both legislation and technology are in place to facilitate the needs of people with disabilities.

Early life

I have never let my disability hold me back. When I was a child my parents would have guests visit from all over the world and I was soon able to speak Arabic, English and French fluently, avidly listening to their stories of magical far-off places.

My parents pushed for my integration into “normal” society from an early age and searched for a school that would accept me. As I was the first child to try entering a “mainstream” school in my area, they didn’t have the resources necessary to facilitate my education. One day, my Dad bumped into an old headmaster friend by chance and explained my situation. He accepted me into his school without hesitation.

This experience of rejection and triumph was a determining factor in my decision to become an advocate for people with disabilities after I finished my studies.

Transformative technology

I got my first laptop when I was writing my Master’s thesis, and it completely changed my life. I would put a pen in my mouth and use it to type the letters on the keyboard which made university papers exponentially easier to write and submit. As a reward for my degree, I was sent to the UK by my university and given a laptop equipped with a voice recognition programme and trained in how to use the technology.

Later, we got the Internet at home. I experienced a freedom that had previously been unparalleled. My wheelchair made me partially independent by giving me physical mobility, but my laptop lets me travel all over the world from my room with the click of a button. I can easily share my thoughts, articulate my arguments and communicate with the outside world, promoting the rights of people with disabilities. Through Facebook, I am a representative of associations and organizations around the world — from Switzerland, to Lebanon and Libya, which aim to help people with disabilities.

ICTs are also integral to my ability to do my job. I have been working as an administrator at the Presidential Palace in Tunisia for six years, and perform various tasks. With the help of ICTs, I can send e‑mails and submit my work from anywhere with an Internet connection, so I don’t have to always go to the office, which can be rather cumbersome with my wheelchair.

Long road ahead

There have been incredible advances in technology accessibility in the past few decades, but there is still a long way to go.

The development of ICTs themselves have positively impacted my life. Smartphones and their associated application, for example, are truly fantastic: I saw a deaf person make a Skype call on the train using the video for sign language.

As technology reach has expanded, so too has accessible software for persons with disabilities. But significant challenges remain. It is true that there are many smartphone apps designed for people with disabilities: you can type brail, zoom in on text, learn sign language, and install speech recognition apps, custom keyboards, or augmentative and alternative communications (AAC) keyboards. But the button to lock the screen is often on the side, which is difficult to push for some people with reduced mobility. Universal availability is a key issue, and interoperability means more than borrowing a friend’s phone when I leave mine at home. Price is a barrier to accessible technology for people with disabilities. For example, if a laptop costs USD 1000, the same laptop developed with accessible technology can cost up to and beyond USD 5000.

With the help of ICTs, I have achieved more than I thought was possible. I have travelled in Tunisia and to other countries, to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities — a job that I love. Technology has given me self-confidence. But I am still somewhat of a rarity; an example of what should be commonplace.

We must continue to work to ensure that everyone has access to this transformative technology, and eventually create a truly inclusive information society.

This article is an abridgement.
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Celebrating ITU’s 150 Years

In this issue
No.6 November | December 2015

Pathway for smart sustainable cities:

A guide for city leaders

Pathway for smart sustainable cities|1

Meeting with the Secretary-General:

Official Visits

Meeting with the Secretary-General|1
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Boosting “SMEs” for ICT growth

What can governments do better?

A guide for city leaders

By Silvia Guzmán, Chairman, ITU Focus Group for Smart Sustainable Cities