December 2016 marks the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by the United Nations General Assembly. Since its adoption, the Convention has been ratified or acceded by 168 countries around the world, including 11 Member States of CARICOM. As Article 1 of the Convention states, its purpose is to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.”
In an increasingly digital age, information and communication technologies (ICTs) offer new ways of meeting this commitment towards those members of our society who have disabilities. While there have been great advances in the development of specialized assistive technology, such as microprocessor-controlled prosthetics or digital hearing aids, more general-purpose technologies, such as ordinary computers, tablets and smartphones, offer significant opportunities for broader social and economic inclusion of persons with disabilities. Real-life examples include:
- A person is blind that now pays their bills online.
- A wheelchair user who is able to use the internet to access training at a tertiary learning institution.
- A person who has lost the use of their limbs, but carries out the day-to-day business of an organization by accessing a computer using voice-recognition software.
- A blind person who reads printed paper documents by using the camera, audio and text-recognition capabilities of a smart phone.
- A person who is deaf who uses closed-captioned YouTube videos to learn new skills.
All of these examples show that the ICTs in widespread use today can make a significant difference in the lives of persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, their use of ICTs can be limited by their lack of access to technology. Barriers to access can include a lack of awareness of available technologies and of what can be achieved through their use, a lack of available training in their adaptive use, and a lack of financial resources to purchase the hardware, software, network connectivity and specialized support equipment that may be necessary. Thus, there is a need for initiatives that build awareness, expand digital literacy, finance the acquisition of devices and software, and provide technical support for the use of ICTs among the disabled.
Both governments and private institutions have a responsibility to ensure that the means through which they digitally interface with the public – such as websites, apps, and electronic kiosks – can be used by those who are visually or mobility impaired. Sadly, this is not universally the case; in the Caribbean, even many government web portals fail to meet this standard. Clearly, ICT specialists are in need of training to ensure that the systems they build and services they provide are compliant with established accessibility guidelines for digital content.
Implementing programmes to meet these challenges costs money. Unfortunately, funds to support access for those with disabilities are often not prioritized in national budgets to the extent that they are needed. However, most Caribbean countries now have Universal Service Funds (USFs) - paid for out of a surtax on telecommunications services - which offer a potential vehicle to fund initiatives for expanding access to technology among persons with disabilities. Indeed, USF-funded projects in Jamaica and Saint Lucia, among others, have provided important means of reducing barriers to ICT access for the disabled, such as through the distribution of laptops or through financial assistance to ICT-based initiatives spearheaded by disability support organisations. In many cases, however, these funds have been underutilized. There is a need to alert organizations that support persons with disabilities to the potential availability of USF funding for ICT-related projects, and to help them clear any regulatory, compliance, or organisational difficulties associated with making use of these resources.
ECLAC, in cooperation with UNESCO, has been carrying out research for a forthcoming study entitled “Information and Communications Technologies for the Inclusion and Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities in Latin America and the Caribbean”. In this issue of the Focus magazine, we will relate to you some of what we have learned in this process. We hope that the publication of our upcoming paper – and this magazine – can promote a discussion that facilitates the removal of barriers to ICT access, and which supports the role that ICTs can play in enabling persons with disabilities to participate fully and equally in Caribbean society.
 Of the 15 CARICOM member states, Saint Lucia and Suriname have signed, but not ratified the convention, while Saint Kitts and Nevis has neither signed nor ratified the convention. Montserrat, though a full member of CARICOM, is not eligible to sign the convention due to its status as a British Overseas Territory.