Disability rights advocate and GAATES Vice-President Vashkar Bhattacharjee (Bangladesh) receives UNESCO award

Image of Mr. Bhattacharjee giving a speech to receive his UNESCO award

Mr. Bhattacharjee giving his speech after receiving the UNESCO/Emir Al Ahmad al Jaber Prize for Digital Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities 2018 at UNESCO, Paris, France on Monday, 3 December 2018

Disability rights advocate and GAATES’ Vice-President, Mr. Vashkar Bhattacharjee (Bangladesh) has been awarded the UNESCO/Emir Al Ahmad al Jaber Prize for Digital Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities 2018 at UNESCO, Paris, France on Monday, 3 December 2018.

Mr. Bhattacharjee is a leading advocate who collaborates with local, national, and international partners to produce resources to facilitate learning with a disability as well as educating teachers in the use accessible reading materials. He and his colleagues also formed a network of employers that provides fair work opportunities to persons with disabilities. Mr. Bhattacharjee has also been involved in national level campaigns promoting issues concerning disability and information rights and was accredited for successfully developing Bangladesh’s first accessible dictionary in four forms, dedicated to persons with visual, print and learning disabilities. He was currently working for Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), a registered non-government organization based in Chattaogram and serves as national consultant for Accessibility to Information or the a2i programme of the government of Bangladesh.

This is the first time ever that a Bangladeshi national received the prestigious award, said the embassy of Bangladesh in Paris on Tuesday.

His Majesty Sheikh Mubarak Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the representative of the Kuwaiti Government, presented the award at a ceremony organized in celebration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities at UNESCO Headquarters.

The award, created in 2002 and supported by the State of Kuwait, is given in an individual and organizational category every two years in recognition of contribution for the promotion of quality education and raising awareness about the right to education of persons with disabilities. Tencent, a private sector enterprise from China was the recipient of the  2018 Prize in the organizational category.

In his speech, Mr. Bhattacharjee thanked the Honorable Prime Minister, recognizing her dream of a Digital Bangladesh and noted that colleagues are now transforming it into reality, making inclusive and barrier-free ICT environment for the people with disability.

Mr. Vashkar Bhattacharjee GAATES’ 2nd Vice President

GAATES is pleased to share that Mr. Vashkar Bhattacharjee GAATES’ 2nd Vice President, was recently presented with an award by the Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh. This award is in recognition of his outstanding contributions in the field of disability and development, for his work in the field of developing disability inclusive ICTs and making digital talking books available for persons with disabilities. This work was especially recognized for the contributions it will make towards positively supporting Bangladesh in achieving targets of the Social Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

prime minister sheikh hasina gives certificate crest to vashkar bhattacharjeeThe award was presented on December 3, 2016 as part of a programme marking the 25th International Day of Person with Disabilities and Bangladesh’s 18th National Disability Day. The programme organized by The Ministry of Social Welfare, People’s Republic of Bangladesh, at was held at the Osmani Memorial Auditorium.

Vashkar Bhattacharjee is a person with a vision disability, and is working as a Program Manager of Young Power in Social Action (YPSA).  He is one of the founders of Federation of DPO’s Sitakund and he serves as focal person for DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) in Bangladesh. He is the Bangladesh focal person for TIGAR (Trusted Intermediary Global Accessible Resources) of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and the Accessible Books Consortium in Bangladesh. He is also working as a national consultant in developing web accessibility with the Access to Information (A2I) Program under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office. He is the 2nd Vice President and Country Representative to Bangladesh, for the Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments (GAATES). He completed his M.A at the University of Chittagong and attended Duskin Leadership Training in Japan.

He has specialization in issues of disability and development, disability inclusive disaster risk reduction (DiDRR), ICTs for development, e-Accessibility and Information accessibility for persons with disability. He is the founder of Chittagong Computerized Braille production Centre and ICT and Resource Centre on Disability. He is actively involved with a number of local, national and international agencies ranging from Bangladesh Visual Impaired Society to APCD Foundation in Thailand. He is also a regular author of National ICT publications like The Monthly Computer Jagat etc. Furthermore, he is a renowned disability training specialist, resource and speaker who regularly contributes these skills at national and international platforms.

Vashkar is based in Chittagong, Bangladesh.  He can be reached at vashkar79@hotmail.com

Virtual Talk to Promote Disability-Inclusive Entrepreneurship for COVID 19 Affected Women with Disabilities Held

BANGLADESH: With an aim to promote disability-inclusive entrepreneurship and find a way out to increase the social dignity of COVID-19 affected women with disabilities in order to give them a solid chance to prove their potential and worth in front of their family and society both at the personal level and professional level, a2i (Aspire to Innovate), jointly with YPSA and EMK Center, organized a virtual advocacy meeting on 23rd August 2021.

Moderated by UNESCO award-winning disability rights activist Vashkar Bhattacharjee, the meeting was dignified by the participation of dozens of relevant stakeholders across the country which includes 55 organizations working for persons with disabilities (including OPDs), 7 international NGOs, several representatives from a2i, ICT Division of Government of Bangladesh, number of corporate representatives, several persons with disabilities, and entrepreneurs with disabilities.

Almost all of the participants focused on the fact that, among persons with disabilities, women are the poorest of the poor because discrimination cuts off their escape routes from poverty and deprives them of all mainstream development initiatives, as they lack the necessary skills and knowledge to perform efficiently in their professional and personal life. This is even more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. For too long, business ownership has been overlooked as a viable option for individuals with disabilities. It was assumed that the term ‘entrepreneurship with disabilities’ was an oxymoron. Today, all over the world, thousands of people with disabilities are dispelling this myth by starting wildly successful businesses of all kinds. Yet, in Bangladesh, there have not been any significant initiatives taken to mainstream persons with disabilities and improve the quality of their professional and personal life apart from some scattered initiatives by a handful of government and non-government agencies that barely addresses the issue by providing some charity services. Ms. Nurjahan, an award-winning entrepreneur with a disability, during her experience sharing, said that she has been running her business swiftly and successfully until the COVID 19 hit Bangladesh. Now she is undergoing a loss and could not find any support from anywhere. Another entrepreneur, Ms. Chumki Biswas, also focused on the same issue and urged the participants and the organizers to find a dedicated way out to support those who are facing the same problems as her. Ms. Ashrafunnahar Mishti, founder of WDDF, a world-renowned disability and women rights activist, thanked the organizers for such a time-demanding initiative and insisted everyone do their best to promote entrepreneurship for those who are being excluded due to their disability and gender. She also said that it was high time to tackle this issue head-on. The acting director of EMK center, Mr. Asif Uddin Ahmed, said, “The EMK center has been working with YPSA and many other organizations on this very issue for several years now and they are thinking of expanding their involvement and support and, if necessary, ready to collaborate with the a2i for bringing about some innovative solutions in the coming years.”

Mr. Manik Mahmud, head of social innovation cluster told that a2i is working towards making digital Bangladesh inclusive and barrier-free for all where everyone can enjoy their rights on equal basis wth others. He also stressed the importance of collaboration among different stakeholders. Mr. Rezwanul Haque Jami, team lead of rural e-commerce & head of commercialization of the a2i of the ICT Division said that the government is currently working on a digital solution (ekShop) which will not only provide entrepreneurs with disabilities the opportunity to showcase and sell their products but also provide incentives including monetary and technical support to those who need it from all over the country. YPSA chief executive, Md Arifur Rahman, in his presentation, said that YPSA has been running its Inclusive Finance initiative for almost a decade now in the greater Chittagong division and thinking of expanding its reach so that many more persons with disabilities could become economically independent like the hundreds who have established themselves as a role model in the greater Chittagong area.

Among the others, disability rights activist Ashoka fellow and executive director of Access Bangladesh Foundation, Mr Albert Mollah and UNDP’s national consultant (Anondomela Initiative), Ms. Sarah Zita attended the meeting as panelists.


Call for Nominations 2020-2021 for the UNESCO/Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah Prize for Digital Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities

Submit your application now and share the innovative ideas for digital empowerment of persons or groups! Nominations close on 2 September 2020 for the the 2020/2021 UNESCO/Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah Prize for Digital Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities. The aim of the Prize is to reward the outstanding contributions of individuals and organizations that promote inclusion and the enhancement of the lives of persons with disabilities in society through the effective, innovative and inclusive application of digital solutions, including an immediate response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

UNESCO is one of the UN agencies that promotes and supports the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted in 2006. It is UNESCO’s vision to create knowledge societies that are inclusive, pluralistic, equitable, open and participatory for all its citizens, and we strongly encourage nominations to this prize.

In her message for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and last edition of the prize in 2018, Ms Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, highlighted that “innovative solutions in all societal domains are urgently needed to address the extreme vulnerability experienced by persons with disabilities”. According to her, innovative digital solutions and resources technologies can give persons with disabilities more control over their lives.

The theme of the Prize for Digital Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities 2020 is innovative ideas targeting people living with disabilities for immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This covers any of these three lines of action aimed at creating benefits:

  • formulating policy, advocacy, co-operation and partnerships;
  • creating and developing digital solutions, enabling environments and processes, including tools and resources; and
  • building and strengthening capacities of people to create, adapt and use digital solutions in a cost efficient and sustainable manner.

The Prize adopts a broad definition of the term digital solutions as any of the following:

  • Digital technologies: any digital informational or communication device or application, including but not restricted to mobile phones, computers, laptops, televisions, radios, satellite systems, networks, hardware, software and applications;
  • Digital resources: content and information that are accessible through digital technologies; and
  • Enabling environments and processes: standards, tools, physical, technical and online infrastructures, resources and locations.

Candidates in the two categories (individuals and institutions) must have proved themselves through outstanding activities contributing to digital empowerment that give persons with disabilities more power and control over their lives. This is particularly in terms of greater inclusion, participation and contribution to society as well as enhanced life experiences.

The total amount available for the Prize biennially is USD $ 40,000, which will be distributed equally between the individual and the organizational winners. Prize winners (Laureates) will be selected by the Director-General of UNESCO on the basis of the assessments and recommendations made by a Jury.

In addition, candidates and organizations are asked in 2020 to share their stories of empowerment and success on the new online platform “Story for Development”, to mainstream a shift of perspective on disability-issues. This helps show that removing barriers to participation can enable persons with disabilities to realise their potential, contribute to development and motivate those who are in a similar position or face similar obstacles. The voices of persons with disabilities will be thus heard by wider audiences and actors working in public and private spheres globally, helping governments, disabled people organisations, other civil society organisations, as well as the private sector, to draw conclusions and develop informed policies, community actions, and business plans.

In 2018, the persons with disabilities rights advocate Mr Vashkar Bhattacharjee (Bangladesh), and private sector enterprise, Tencent (Peoples’ Republic of China) were awarded the UNESCO/Emir Jaber al Ahmad al Jaber al Sabah Prize for Digital Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities.

Originally Published on India Education Diary

G3ict-Smart Cities for All Country Representative Program: Updates from Brazil, Ecuador, Libya, Bangladesh, Mexico and Pakistan

Regina Cohen, Brazil – In 2019, a Brazilian architect, Regina Cohen has represented G3ict and its Smart Cities for All initiative (SC4A)  in the Smart City Expo Curitiba in Mexico and also participated in the Smart Cities and Disability Conference (SUDI) 2019. In 2020, Regina attended the 27th World Congress of Architects UIA 2020 and presented the keynote at SUDI 2020. As an expert in accessibility in the built environment, she has contributed to the Virtual Accessibility Guide App in Rio de Janeiro. As the Coordinator of the Accessibility Commission of the Architects Council, Regina continues to play a key role in promoting accessibility planning in homes.

Recently, she has also participated in the  webinar on “Mobility, Accessibility and Universal Design” by CAU / RJ Accessibility Commission on May 26. The webinar can be viewed on the YouTube channel of CAU / RJ. Finally, Regina Cohen, along with James Thurston, G3ict VP, participated in the UN-Habitat virtual Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on “Inclusive Cities for All” on May 20, 2020.

Katherine Chacón, Ecuador – Katherine Chacón is a PhD candidate on Urban Regeneration. Recently, she has worked as a Research Consultant for the Access for All Series Transport Paper by the Institute for Transport and Development Policies (ITDP) to document case studies and good practices in Quito. It aimed to highlight that transportation is the key to access employment, education, healthcare and provides greater independence for persons with disabilities. In 2019, she also worked on a policy brief for World Enabled and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) that utilizes census and household survey data from countries across Latin America to help determine the extent of gaps and barriers faced by persons with disabilities.

Ahmed El-Rida, Libya – Ahmed El-Rida is an architect and urban planner with a keen interest in accessibility. His firm, ATTAYSEER specializes in accessibility consulting and was the first to promote accessibility and Design for All in Libya. In October 2019, he participated in a radio program in Libya to mark the International Day of the White Cane and talk about White Cane and its relationship to the built environment. He also participated in a training in December 2019, held in cooperation with International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) that included representatives of the High National Election Commission (HNEC) who work to implement accessibility in polling stations in Libya.  In 2020, Ahmed gave an online lecture on “Universal Design as a strategy for innovation and a human-centered approach” for participants from different parts of Libya. He continues to support a group of architects in Benghazi in creating a project of reconstruction of the city based on the Universal Design principles.

Vashkar Bhattacharjee, Bangladesh – An accessibility expert, Vashkar Bhattacharjee is the National Consultant for Accessibility in the Access to Information (a2i) Program by the Government of Bangladesh. In January this year, Vashkar worked with Mayors and Councillors to focus on building an inclusive and accessible smart city for all during the Dhaka City Corporation Election. He has also supported a platform, ‘Disability Insider’, to help make it accessible for all. Vashkar is one of the 23 changemakers to be awarded the Acumen Fellowship for 2020.

Andres Balcazar, Mexico – Andres is an architect and accessibility and disability consultant for national and international organizations from the private, public and civil society sectors. He currently works as Director of Disability Affairs at Mexico’s Human Rights Commission. Recently, he has also been a part of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) CPABE Expert Panel and the international IAAP taskforce formed to streamline and scale the CPABE program. His other projects include collaborating for the launch of disabilityinsider.com providing news from Latin America and Spain, and contributing updates on COVID-19 for the news and resources section. He believes that the COVID-19 pandemic is a time for a renewed focus on the Smart Cities for All efforts, as daily life evolves for the months to come.

Muhammad Atif Sheikh, Pakistan – Muhammad is the Executive Director of STEP (Special Talent Exchange Program), a cross-disability national organization based in Pakistan that strives for the rights of persons with disabilities. He has experience of over fifteen years in the promotion of accessibility in the built environment and digital accessibility at the national, regional and international levels. He has also contributed to research publications and the development of a guide on disability-inclusive meetings. Recently, he took part in a  talk show titled ‘Inclusive‘ and has been interviewed on the lack of accessibility experienced by persons with disabilities.

Learn more about the G3ict-Smart Cities for All Country Representatives.

University of Chittagong Inaugurated the First Accessible E-learning Center in Bangladesh

Group photo of attending VIPs - not specifically identified

Launching Ceremony of the Accessible E-Learning Center

Bangladesh: Professor Dr. Iftekhar Uddin Chowdhury, Vice-Chancellor of University of Chittagong, inaugurated a state of the art “Accessible E-learning Center” for the visually impaired students studying at the University. A.K. Khan Foundation, a2i programme of Bangladesh Government and YPSA (Young Power in Social Action) jointly established the Accessible E-learning Center which was formally inaugurated on 7th January, 2019.

Addressing the programme as chief guest, CU VC Prof. Iftekhar said the e-learning centre is a part of a plan to build CU as an inclusive university as it has been declared as the first Inclusive University in Bangladesh. He also added, “Physically challenged students will be highly benefitted by the centre, as it was set up keeping their disabilities in mind,” he said, adding that by using the e-learning centre, they would be able to cope with the era of information technology and enhance their ability in the sector.

Also, Additional Secretary and Project Director, a2i Programme, Md. Mustafizur Rahman; Salahuddin Kasem Khan, Trustee Secretary, A.K. Khan Foundation were present as special guests at the function.

Vashkar Bhattacharjee, 2nd vice president of GAATES (Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies & Environments) and National Consultant, a2i Program, in his introductory speech, said, “This e-learning center is equipped with computers, all types of software and hardware tools (known as adaptive or assertive technologies), more than 200 Digital Talking Books, Accessible Dictionary, 300 booklets, 50 Braille books, and ICT training facility for visually impaired students studying at the university. He concluded with a hope that such effective and innovative initiatives would be expanding for all the universities across Bangladesh.

Attending VIPs touring the Accessible E-Learning Centre

Attending VIPs touring the Accessible E-Learning Centre

Professor Dr. Shireen Akter, Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of Chittagong presided over the programme and Md. Arifur Rahman, Chief Executive, YPSA, moderated the programme.

Learn more about Young Power in Social Action (YPSA) on their website

Reposted with permission

HPM launched ‘Accessible Dictionary’ for all

BANGLADESH, INDIA:Accessible Dictionary’ (http://accessibledictionary.gov.bd/) is Bangladesh’s first dictionary specially developed for the persons with visual, print and learning disability and information disadvantaged groups; yet, beneficial for over 5 million students with/out disabilities.

At the inauguration: Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Kabir Bin Anwar, Mr. Anir Chowdhury, Mesbah Uddin Ahmed, Md. Afzal Hossain Sarwar, Purabi Matin, Md. Rafiqul Islam, Vashkar Bhattacharjee were present among others.

At the inauguration of the Accessibility Dictionary

On the 1st February, at this year’s Amar Ekushey Book Fair, the Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated a2i’s newly developed ‘Accessible Dictionary’. At the inauguration program, Director General (admin) of Prime Minister’s Office and Project Director of a2i Programme, Kabir Bin Anwar; Policy Advisor of Access to Information (a2i) Programme’s under the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr. Anir Chowdhury; World Literature Center’s Additional Director, Mesbah Uddin Ahmed; a2i’s Policy Specialist (Educational Innovation) Md. Afzal Hossain Sarwar; a2i’s HDM production Manager Purabi Matin; a2i’s Technology Expert Md. Rafiqul Islam; a2i’s accessibility consultant and GAATES 2nd Vice President Vashkar Bhattacharjee were present, among others.

The Accessible Dictionary is based on the creative and innovative idea which utilizes existing technological prospects and open sourced technology to raise awareness and reduce the exclusion and discrimination that currently exists. It is available for all, cost effective, requires less time and is universally designed so that all can have an easy full-access experience.

Bangladesh became a signatory and a ratifying party to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2007 declaring non-discrimination, full and effective participation and inclusion in society, and accessibility, among others. It is a milestone for the journey to universal accessibility that Bangladesh understands and recognizes as a precondition to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): the core agenda “leaving no one behind”, and inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all (SDG 4). This is an indicator of child, disability and gender sensitive education facilities; and safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all (Target 4.a).

The dictionary has been developed by a social development organization, YPSA, with overall support from a2i’s Service Innovation Fund. a2i believes that such innovations are vital in improving language proficiency of students and help achieve the government’s vision of making education accessible for all.

‘Accessible Dictionary‘ is available for all online and offline, in both web and mobile app formats; also in Bangla-to-Bangla, Bangla-to-English, English-to-Bangla, English-to-English versions. They can be read by any screen-reading software and Digital Braille Text allows for easy reproduction of Braille printed versions.


The 12th Annual Meeting of the Internet Governance Forum

2nd Vice President of GAATES, Mr. Vashkar Bhattacharjee with colleagues at the IGF conference

2nd Vice President of GAATES, Mr. Vashkar Bhattacharjee with colleagues at the IGF conference

Geneva, Switzerland: The 2nd Vice President of GAATES, Mr. Vashkar Bhattacharjee attended the twelfth annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), representing the Global Alliance of Accessible Technologies and Environments (GAATES), Young Power in Social Action, a2i, and also as one of the Internet Society (ISoc) Ambassadors 2017. As an IGF ISoc Ambassador, he joined a diverse cast of individuals from various stakeholder groups to discuss public policy issues related to the Internet.

The IGF is the annual and primary worldwide forum for discussions on Internet-related issues and public policies. The Forum aims to bring together diverse stakeholders from civil society, the technical community, governments and other groups to discuss and exchange experiences, case studies, practices and knowledge that can influence policy and decision making. The 12th IGF took place in Geneva, Switzerland, from December 18th-21st 2017, on the theme, ‘Shape Your Digital Future’.

Mr. Vashkar Bhattacharjee, 2nd Vice President of GAATES speaking at the forum

Mr. Vashkar Bhattacharjee, 2nd Vice President of GAATES speaking at the IGF conference

Mr. Bhattacharjee’s participation in the IGF was very relevant not only for his community, but also for creating awareness about the importance of including people with visual disabilities in the conversation concerning Internet Governance solutions. The IGF provided a useful platform for discussion, exchange and collaboration at a global level and further enhanced the possibilities for potential projects in Internet Governance Development within the Asia Pacific region.

The forum addressed how global Internet promotes freedom, inclusion, and diversity. As he has done for many years, Mr. Bhattacharjee played a critical role in raising awareness of the challenges that people with disabilities face, the opportunities that the Internet can provide, and the importance of including people with disabilities in the discussions to ensure inclusion within the policy and decision making.  Moreover, his specialization and background on Web Accessibility allowed him to provide meaningful new insights on issues including a focus on the rights of persons with disabilities. In line with this, many representatives also raised the need to establish an inclusive society for people living with disabilities.

After his participation in the 12th IGF, Mr. Bhattacharjee has returned home and will be sharing his knowledge both locally and nationally; and will be actively promoting and communicating the message on the need to provide an accessible Internet for everyone. Furthermore, he is planning a Digital Inclusion Workshop in Bangladesh which is also in line with the Sustainable Development Goal’s agenda – where no one is left behind.

‘We need full collaboration from everyone to make an inclusive, digital, Bangladesh.’

2017 Henry Viscardi Achievement Awards Announced

NEW YORK, NY: The Viscardi Center — an Albertson-based non-profit organization providing a lifespan of services that educate, employ, and empower people with disabilities — announced nine recipients of the 2017 Henry Viscardi Achievement Awards at a special ceremony held on December 4 at the Mutual of America building in New York City.

2017 Award Recipients group photoFirst bestowed in 2013, the awards honor exemplary leaders in the disability community who, through the example of their professional accomplishments and advocacy efforts, are reshaping societal perceptions and making significant changes in the quality of life of people with disabilities.

Drawing nominations from cities throughout the U.S. and countries around the world, this year’s cohort are an accomplished and diverse group representing Bangladesh, India, Israel, Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States. Recipients come from a variety of distinguished backgrounds, including academia, healthcare, sports, government, technology, non-profit, and corporate sectors.

“Tonight, we recognize nine individuals from around the globe who we believe not only motivate all of us to reach higher, but who are today’s leaders, mentors, and role models for their peers and our next generations,” said John D. Kemp, President and CEO of The Viscardi Center. “These individuals have been catalysts for change and are making a positive impact on how people with disabilities view themselves and the world.”

The Henry Viscardi Achievements Awards were established to commemorate the vision of the Center’s founder, Dr. Henry Viscardi, Jr., who himself wore prosthetic legs. As a premier disability advocate, he served as an advisor to eight presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, and implemented groundbreaking employment and education programs for people with disabilities.

The 2017 Selection Committee was co-chaired for the fifth consecutive year by Robert Dole, former U.S. Senator, along with Sherwood “Woody” Goldberg, Esq., retired U.S. Army Colonel and current Senior Advisor for Asian Affairs at the Center for Naval Analysis.

The 2017 Award Recipients

Vashkar Bhattacharjee, Access to Information (a2i) Program, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister’s Office/Young Power in Social Action (YPSA)/GAATES Board of Directors, Bangladesh

Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, Ministry of Social Development, South Africa

Justin Constantine, The Constantine Group, New York, NY

Col. Gregory D. Gadson, U.S Army Veteran/Patriot Strategies, Alexandria, VA

Matt King, Facebook, Menlo Park, CA

Dr. Satendra Singh, University College of Medical Sciences, Delhi, India

Yuval Wagner, Access Israel, Israel

Thomas J. Wlodkowski, Comcast, Philadelphia, PA

Asim Zafar, Saaya Association/Community Based Inclusive Development Network, Pakistan

For more information, go to viscardicenter.org.


Resilience, not weakness

The white cane was once considered a mere stick to help people with vision disabilities detect obstacles in their way. Today, that very cane has become a symbol of independence, self-reliance, confidence.
Woman who is blind with a cane walking at a subway station
As such, ever since 1964, people all around the world celebrate October 15 as White Cane Safety Day.

While there has been progress in this field, numbers suggest that there’s still plenty of room for improvement all around the world.

The World Health Organisation, following a survey in 2014, pointed out that 285 million people with vision disabilities in the world. Of them, 39 million are blind, while the rest have low vision.

What’s worse is that 90% of them live in low-income settings. As expected, they face difficulties in almost every stage of their life. Starting from getting access to education and health care to getting jobs at a later stage. The job sector scenario, according to WHO, is where the visually impaired people struggle the most.

Studies made in other parts of the world suggest similar outcomes.

For instance, a research conducted in Iran states that all participants with vision disabilities they interviewed were facing some kind of difficulty or the other on a regular basis. They range from walking on unsafe sidewalks to finding it difficult to read bus numbers and crossing streets.

Keeping these numbers and outcomes in mind, the World Blind Union has urged authorities around the world for safe shared spaces. A shared space is defined as “a street or place designed to improve pedestrian movement and comfort by reducing the dominance of motor vehicles and enabling all users to share the space rather than follow the clearly defined rules implied by more conventional designs.”

However, this increased complexity can make mobility more difficult for persons who are blind or partially sighted.

According to WHO (2011) figures, there are around 4 million people with vision disabilities in Bangladesh, a developing country — and they are facing similar problems. However, the country is conscientiously working on building strategies that help improve mobility of people with vision disabilities.

The Access to Information (a2i) program of the Prime Minister’s Office in Bangladesh has been working on ways to improve their inclusive development. Innovators of all ages are being encouraged to come up with small-scale innovation prototypes which, if successful, can be up-scaled to reach persons with disabilities.

One such innovation is THE “Smart Cane” developed by students who had participated in a contest organised by the a2i called the Solve-A-Thon. This GPS-enabled cane triggers vibrations and makes different kinds of noises to help persons with visual disabilities to navigate spaces by themselves.

Another project in the offing is the creation of an accessible road map, which is currently being developed with the help of the a2i’s Service Innovation Fund. This GPS-enabled mobile application can detect location and provide directions to people with vision disabilities as audio messages. It refers to important landmarks and gives warning messages in case the person heads towards a wrong direction.

These two devices, are just a start. A lot more work is being done to improve the situation including installing braille blocks on important streets and railway stations.

Besides making mobility easier, the Bangladesh government has already taken bold steps to make education accessible for people with vision disabilities.

DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) standard multimedia talking books, e-books, and digital braille books have been introduced up to secondary level. These materials are not only more accessible but also more cost effective compared to the printed braille books and other related materials.

Low-cost digital braille display and low-cost DAISY multimedia book players are being developed locally to read these books.

In addition, AN accessible dictionary is available enabling persons with visual disabilities to learn English and Bangla languages better.

The government is now concerned with ensuring equal opportunity to higher education for every student, irrespective of their physical and mental abilities, by creating an inclusive university.

Therefore, a2i has partnered with one of the most reputed public universities to realise its vision of creating an inclusive university which will remain an example for all other universities to follow.

Initiatives are being taken to ensure web accessibility for universal information and services which will further enable them and thereby the country in achieving the SDGs.

White Cane Safety Day is going to be celebrated this year, once again, as a demonstration for proclaiming rights of visually impaired people. There will be special emphasis given on developing mechanisms that can give the visually impaired people their right to travel safely and independently.

Bangladesh will also celebrate the day with the commitment to ensure smart mobility, using innovation and ICTs for peoole who are blind.

By Anir Chowdhury, Vashkar Bhattacharjee