What the ICT4D Panel missed…

Technology can either provide increased access for people with disabilities, or it can result in greater alienation. In your experience, how have technology based development projects taken people with disabilities into account? Is accessibility something that is thought of in the design of the project, or is it mostly an afterthought?

This is the question I posed to the ICT4D: Innovation & the Millennium Development Goals panel at the UN Week Digital Media Lounge last week. But the answer I got from Wayan Vota, from Inveneo confirmed my suspicions (you can watch the panel below- my question begins at 37:14)
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I have 2 problems with Mr. Vota’s answer. First off, he said, “Most of the time we’re using tools that are already existing, so if the accessibility is built in we work with the accessibility.” OK. But just because a website meets Section 508 standards, doesn’t mean the person in Port-au-Prince has the hardware to access it.

But what he said next really blew me away.

He said, “Oftentimes in the developing world, accessibility has a different definition. Language is a huge accessibility factor. We’re all speaking English…but in many countries English is an elite language. And the local language… is not English. And often its not even a written language, just a verbal language. How do you transfer that to a device that you look at or that you read. And how can you expect the people in that community to read an English website and have any relevance with it whatsoever. Its definitely a challenge. And a lot of it has to do with getting the local people excited about writing with their own content.’

Wait…, what? People who use a non-written language need to write their own content? And, wasn’t I asking about people with disabilities? Not speaking English is NOT a disability.

Of COURSE language is an issue, but if your development project considers language an accessibility issue, you’re not working with enough local people. There are lots of examples of programs that created all their content in English, only to find the people they were trying to reach don’t read or speak English. That’s not a new problem, but it is a stupid problem.

A lack of literacy (in any language) is a different issue. And many solutions used to target people who don’t read also benefit people who can’t see. So, I guess in this case, development projects are accidentally making themselves accessible to people with disabilities?

But this doesn’t get to the heart of my question. Here we are with these great tools, fantastic technology and amazing potential to reach so many people. Are we?

Some studies estimate that 20% of people in developing countries have some form of disability. And in most of these regions disability and poverty dance around each other in an endless cycle. So why isn’t this a bigger focus?

How are people with disabilities included into these projects? Does, for example, the project that uses mobile SMS messages to remind TB patients to take their medications make use of accessible phones? Features like voice output, voice enabled menu navigation, keys that are identifiable by touch are just a few such features (the American Foundation for the Blind identifies 16 features most commonly used by people with vision loss). Are phones with these features being used in mprojects?  What about speech to speech relay (STS) – does that even exist in developing countries? Is it something that could be incorporated into projects? And people with dexterity problems or mobility issues? Are they included? How are their disabilities accommodated?

Mr. Vota’s “other kinds of accessibility” answer then skewed rest of the panel’s answers… Linda Raftree talked about broader access issues related to gender (certainly an important consideration, but not what I asked about).

I didn’t expect to hear that all the programs on the ground have a statistically representative disabled population (they should), but I had hoped to hear that accessibility for people with disabilities was being considered.  Maybe it is. But if it is, you couldn’t tell. My feeling is that if it were a bigger priority, it would have come up in the discussion…

That “other disease” isn’t as sexy…

MDG #6 Logo- Fight HIV and other disseasesIts one of the world’s biggest killers, but it continues to be one of the most neglected diseases. Tuberculosis. It kills more people than AIDS, even though we’ve have the treatment for almost 40 years.

The sixth Millennium Development Goal is “Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other diseases.” We all know about HIV/AIDS. Amazing work has been done in the field of treatment, advocacy, education and human rights within the sphere of AIDS. Billions of dollars have been spent, rightly so, on combating the world epidemic.

But for all the attention and money that has been spent on HIV and AIDS, “other diseases” including TB have been largely ignored.

Craig David and Lee Reichman speak about TB
"If I can use my celebrity to bring awareness to TB, that's good. Its important" - Craig David

And at the UN Foundation/Mashable Digital Media Lounge, UN Goodwill Ambassador and musician Craig David threw his celebrity behind the cause. He was joined by Lucy Chesire, a TB/HIV survivor from Kenya and Lee Reichman, a leading academic in the field.

Closeup of Craig David, speaking about TBThe panel focused on two overarching problems that keep TB in the dark, so to speak: Ignorance and Stigma. Most people in industrialized nations don’t realize TB is still around. And those that do have it are afraid to self-report.

The lack of public interest results in a lack of funding, too. When asked if the profile of TB discouraged drug companies from developing better drugs, Lee Reichman answered, “Yes, yes and YES! Its a non sexy disease. People don’t care about it. Drug companies have to compete for profits…” As a result, there is an increased need for public-private partnerships, in order to get the drugs and treatments that we need.

TB Survivor speak about her experiences
"At the end of the day we are all connected by the air we breathe. And its in the air that TB can spread." - Lucy Chesire, TB survivor and activist

I’ve studied stigma reduction campaigns and have noted that  advocates for many health issues (AIDS, leprosy, some disabilities) have been able to shift the discourse from a medical model to a human rights model. There certainly seems to be some of that shift evident in TB strategies – Ms. Chesire mentioned participatory programs in her own country, Kenya, and the focus on empowering people with TB. I’m wondering what kind of networked advocacy efforts are in place with (for example) immigrant rights groups… I’ll be looking into this further. Any comments or case studies are welcome!

Good media is good development

Media development: reporter in India
Image credit: UNESCO

That’s what the folks at Internews, the World Bank and the Brookings Institute believe, and what they hope to convince funders of as well. In fact, according to Tara Susman-Pena and Mark Nelson, who spoke at the UN Digital Media Lounge today, a healthy, well developed media results in government transparency, civic participation, healthier economies, and citizen empowerment.

NOTE to Internews: I’d be very interested in learn how cross cultural perspectives on civic participation, civil society, public sphere, etc play a role in the development of media in non-Western societies. and whether (and how) that will be taken into consideration in your research.

Need further evidence that a healthy media is important? Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen pointed out that in all the world’s history, there has never been a famine in a country/region which had a free press.

So these three orgs are working together on the Media Map Project – a research project examining media (as a system) throughout the world. It will examine:

  • Journalism (safety of journalists, quality of reporting, professional development)
  • Environment (freedom of the press, supportive policies, ownership structures)
  • Information Culture (media literacy of the public, whether the public uses the information they get from media, how/if media can make their own voices heard)

Evidence for the report will be found through data analysis (access, audience research, market data, etc), donor research (who is giving what, where and why, and what are the results, impact assessments) and case studies (Mali, DRC, Ukraine, Peru and Indonesia).

They also hope to have an accompanying web based tool that will give the public access to the data, make is searchable and with custom visualizations. The website is scheduled to launch on World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2011.

Obama to give the “speech of his life?”

Obama speeking at the UN General Assembly 2009That’s what the folks at Oxfam and many in the development field are hoping for. But what would that look like?

Many here in New York at looking to Obama to throw some fuel on the fire and lead donor nations toward accountability and responsibility in the final push to reach the MDG’s by 2015. They want him to use his oratory skills to bring a level of urgency to the MDGs, and to explain how poverty affects us all – it undermines our global security, the global economy, and the protection of the rights that we as Americans enjoy. The hope is he will send a clear message to the public, but also to his own government.

Beyond that, most are looking for specifics:

  • how will the US step up and raise the game?
  • how will his admin make deliberate decisions and choices regarding aid?
  • how will the US be accountable?
  • how will US foreign policy (esp Iraq, Afghanistan) affect aid?

Those are some big questions and bigger expectations.  We’ll see on Wednesday….

A preview of what’s to come….

Digital Media Lounge

This afternoon I’m leaving for New York to cover the UN MDG Summit. I’ll be participating in the Digital Media Lounge and will be blogging, pretty much non-stop!

I’ll be covering as much as I possibly can, but here are a few things I’ll be focusing on:

  • ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for development)- how development and humanitarian agencies are using communications and new tech to reach development goals
  • Disaster relief 2.0 – how organizations and governments are using collaborative technologies to better (hopefully) coordinate aid and humanitarian assistance
  • Media’s impact on development- what is media’s role? How can we strengthen media?
  • If, and how, any of these new technologies better include people with disabilities into development, or whether they have been considered…

I’ll also be covering the Obama and Ban Ki-Moon speeches!

You can also follow me on Twitter: LCMoy !