By Cynthia Waddell
The UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities addresses the rights of 650 million persons with disabilities and impacts two billion persons worldwide, including family members of persons with disabilities.
Six years in the making, the treaty opened for signatures in March 2007, receiving the highest number of signatories for any UN treaty on its opening day; and entered into legal force in May 2008.
Starting next year, 2010, all states parties that have ratified the Convention (including the US, pending Senate ratification) will be submitting a comprehensive report to the Convention’s monitoring committee, the Committee on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on measures taken to meet the accessible ICT obligations of the Convention.
Some people have expressed surprise that even with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, there are still gaps in the US effort on accessibility. In fact, a gap analysis performed by an independent federal agency, the National Council on Disability, found there will be several changes needed to conform US laws and policies to the obligations of the Convention.
Worldwide, two paradigm shifts brought on by the Convention are having an impact.
The first is in our basic definition of disability, and how society views persons with disabilities. No longer is the medical approach valid, whereby we are viewed as objects of charity, medical treatment and social protection.
The Convention demonstrates that a shift is underway towards viewing persons with disabilities as holders of rights. We are individuals who can claim full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and full participation in society.
There is also a second significant paradigm shift underway concerning the exercise of our rights in the use of information and communications technology (ICT).
The Convention has many provisions that impact the development, procurement and deployment of ICT products and services, including ICT availability, ICT affordability and ICT accessibility through Universal Design.
But it is one thing to have a law or policy, and another to implement it, as we saw in the US when we tried to implement accessible ICT practices.
In 1986 Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to ensure that electronic and information technology would be accessible to persons with disabilities. But the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of disability in procurement was difficult to manage because there was no agreement as to what was meant by the accessible design of electronic and information technology.
And across the country, we were seeing our investments in assistive technology being torpedoed as software upgrades in mainstream technology destroyed compatibility and interoperability with assistive technologies in use by workers with disabilities.
It was not until 1998 – eight years after the ADA was enacted – that Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by strengthening Section 508 through the Workforce Investment Act. It requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities, including all mainstream technologies procured.
In taking this action, it was recognised that we had to strengthen US law to define what was meant by accessible design and that we had to create marketplace incentives for businesses. This civil rights procurement law was fashioned as a way to enable businesses to recover their investment in accessibility and at the same time enable us to lower the cost of expensive customisation.
The US effort was only the beginning of what would become a global one. Japan, for instance, has been busy addressing accessibility within the Japanese Industrial Standards.
And at around the same time, in 1997, the World Wide Web Consortium launched the Web Accessibility Initiative, which has led to a number of valuable resources including its web accessibility guidelines.
We also saw the international standards-setting community becoming increasingly active. For example, since 2004 the ISO/IEC (International Standards Organization/International Electrotechnical Commission) JTC1 Special Working Group on Accessibility has been mapping accessible ICT standards worldwide. For the first time a systemic review of worldwide standards is underway to identify standards and to analyse gaps in standards.
Another significant international activity of interest is the effort underway due to the European Commission Mandate 376 to European Standardisation Organisations.
Recognising the need for a public procurement policy and practice for accessible information and communications technology, the mandate was launched to develop a solution for common requirements and conformance assessment in accessible ICT. It is expected that this effort in due course will result in a European standard for accessibility requirements in the ICT domain to be used as technical specifications.
So there is no question that an accessible ICT paradigm shift is underway. But now, back to the future. If the UN Convention is to succeed, then its monitoring provisions need to be followed. The Convention requires the signatory states to designate focal points within each country to assist in implementation and monitoring.
I encourage you to find out who the designated focal points are in your country and to contribute your voice to the Convention implementation effort and the country Monitoring Report. Cross-disability representation is vital in all sectors to ensure “Nothing about us, without us.”
The recent and ongoing controversy over the Kindle 2, an electronic book reader with a text-to-speech feature which has been embroiled in a row over royalties from what some see as a new ‘audio book’ format, reminds us that the accessible ICT paradigm shift is fragile and can be broken.
Overall, I believe that ICT innovation embracing accessibility will bring a future of inclusiveness and economic sustainability, with greater percentages of persons with disabilities working and contributing to society. The Convention provides us with a framework for policy and implementation. But this cannot happen without universal design training in our schools and public policy awareness across disciplines so that our workforce is knowledgeable about accessibility and the Convention obligations.
Our investment in accessibility should be no different from any other ICT requirement. An accessible future is coming because technology changes, but civil rights do not.
NOTE: Cynthia Waddell is Executive Director of The International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI – www.icdri.org ). This article is an edited extract from her keynote speech to the RNIB’s Techshare 2009 conference in London.