ICT for people with disabilities

Africa, April 29 2013

NIGERIA: One area where Nigeria has had its greatest leap in its transition to democracy is in the telecoms sector. Between 1975 and 1998, the then national telecommunications carrier, NITEL, received treasury investments of about N8 billion to provide Nigeria with the world’s most expensive telephone network, which some past leaders were quoted to have said ‘were not for the poor.’

NITEL’s drive yielded 400,000 telephone lines which were to serve a population of over 60 million Nigerians at the time. But since 2001, one of the lowest landlines network in the world has witnessed an unprecedented change. Nigeria can today boast of more than 100 million lines – mobile and fixed and other forms of communication facilities. Indeed, Nigeria is now the largest telecommunication market in the developing world.

But amidst this achievement is the lack of access or limited access to 25 percent of the country’s population, simply on account of physical challenges. The Nigerian Communications Commission says 105.2 million functional lines are in Nigeria and the Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities (JONAPWD) reckoned that over 30 million Nigeria have one form of disability or the other.

Have you bothered to watch a people with vision disability make a phone call and imagine how through practice s/he had mastered the keyboard? Watching an educated people who are blind is a different ball game from the experience of people who are deaf. Such persons can neither make nor receive voice calls. A person who is hard of hearing might require voice amplification to hear people speaking on a telephone; someone who is deaf cannot hear them at all.

Likewise, an individual who cannot speak cannot participate in voice communication, unless alternatives are provided. Someone who is blind cannot access the visual content of a videoconferencing class. And, an individual with limited hand functions cannot use the keys on a standard telephone system.

It is the same fate people with disabilities experience in all spheres. Most public buildings have no ramps for people with disabilities and the lepers are still going through the discriminatory practice of being kept in the bush, un-catered for by our health facilities and families. So what do we do to bridge these gaps and challenges faced by people with disabilities in having access to some and prevent a ‘Beggars’ strike’ situation in Nigeria?

For people with vision disabilities, the first question that might come to mind is how to have a website that allows people with vision disabilities access. The answer is that there is software that monitors screens and converts text to synthesised speech. All works until an image is encountered, whereupon the listener’s concentration is interrupted with the annoying phrase ‘Do it logo’.

Concerned about the discrimination against persons with disabilities, the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, at a one day conference on ‘Making Telecoms Services Accessible to Persons With Disabilities’, put together by Lagos Civil Society Disability Policy Partnership, LCSDPP and NCC at the Sheraton Hotels Ikeja, Lagos says it is committed to invoking Section 1 (h) of the 2003 NCC Act to “ensure that the needs of the disabled and elderly persons are taken into consideration in the provision of communications services”.

In concrete terms, barriers to standard electronic and information technology limit opportunities to education and employment for some people with disabilities. This includes telecommunications equipment and services. This is unfair in a world powered by information and communications technology.

Telecommunications products have become essential tools in education, employment, and recreation. Today, almost all able-bodied Nigerians use telecommunications products for routine daily activities.

The United Nations Convention and Rights of persons with disabilities is unequivocal on the needs to ease access to telecom services to people with disabilities.

Since NCC has committed itself to this convention by acclamation, it needs to regulate how service providers develop and implement inclusive business policies which take cognizance of the accessibility needs of persons with disabilities. Telecom operators ought to use some of its products like recharge cards to make disability advocacy tools, as well as provide free voice activated menu.

Mr. Opeolu Akinola, the President of Nigerian Association of the Blind, Lagos State chapter is of the view that telecom service providers should partner with manufacturers to provide assistive technology software that will be accessible to the people with disability. Says he: “Accessibility is ensuring that all people in the society can access available resources irrespective of disability, which means that persons with disability can participate and have the same choice as non-disabled community members.”

The NCC will score a bull’s eye if it walks its talk on providing telecoms access to people with disabilities. What’s more, Nigeria is a signatory to the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons (1982), where the international community redefined disability as part of the international development and human rights agenda. And to keep the momentum of gains in the telecoms sector, there is need to buy-into the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons as asserted by the UN.
Mr. Somorin is an Abuja based journalist and public affairs analyst.

Source: Nigerian Tribune

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