This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series, From Disruption to Transformation? Linking Technology and Human Rights for Sustainable Development, launched to coincide with the 37th Session of the UN Human Rights Council and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this series, experts from academia, think tanks and civil society engage with the topic of linking technology and human rights, and share their experience at the front lines of policy-driven research and advocacy aimed at leaving no one behind in an increasingly digital, automated world.
It isn’t news that we live in an exciting moment for technology. From artificial intelligence and machine learning to robotics, 3D printing, virtual realities or smart environments, it seems like these so-called emerging technologies will soon become an everyday reality that could underpin progress worldwide. But are these new technologies designed for all? There are one billion persons with disabilities globally and as societies become older, more and more people will face functional limitations related to age. Will these technologies be accessible for them as well?
is New Technologies and Innovation Officer at the European Disability Forum
, where he coordinates EDF’s advocacy work on policies concerning accessibility for persons with disabilities on Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), research and innovation, and EDF involvement in standardization activities.
Technologies for human rights?
New technologies have huge potential for realizing our human rights, as long as they are developed following a Universal Design approach
that embraces human diversity—as there is no such thing as the "average user". In order to meet this objective, technologies must comply with a triple A condition: be available, affordable and accessible, something that is often far from the case in most of countries.
Accessibility is one of the General Principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
(UNCRPD), and must be considered as a pre-condition to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Convention. In its standalone Article 9 on accessibility, the UNCRPD specifically mentions access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), making it the first human rights treaty that recognizes its importance.
Persons with disabilities still face significant barriers that limit their access to goods and services and the labour market, as well as to key public and private services such as health, education, information, culture and leisure. Given the increasing permeation of ICT into all aspects of life, designing these technologies to be accessible will open up a wide range of opportunities, as well as facilitate independent living and the full participation of persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others. However, if this chance is not seized and digital infrastructure, products and services remain inaccessible or create new digital barriers, persons with disabilities will most likely continue to be left behind. For this reason, accessible technologies must also be used as a driver of the Sustainable Development Goals
and the full inclusion of persons with disabilities, as highlighted by the International Disability Alliance
, serving as a tool to fulfil the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
’s call to "leave no one behind".
Factors supporting accessible technology
In our opinion, there are several factors that could work in our favour in this endeavour:
- The rapid evolution, the substantial financial support of the ICT sector and the interest of governments in supporting digitalization.
- Due to their intrinsic and always changing nature, new technologies are also more easily adaptable to the needs and expectations of the users.
- Years ago, technologies were deployed in isolation from each other: for example, early Internet, mobile or media technologies were developed separately; today, most technologies converge.
- Accessibility has proved to be most cost-efficient when incorporated from the outset, rather than retrofitting something not designed properly.
- Accessibility is crucial to persons with disabilities, but beneficial to all, since it also increases usability for everyone, as demonstrated by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s Web Accessibility Initiative. Therefore, it can be argued that it makes sense from a business perspective to achieve accessibility.
What is the situation in the EU?
Despite the fact that the European Union and 27 of its Member States have ratified the UNCRPD, the EU as a whole does not currently perform as it should regarding accessibility to ICT. That is why the European Disability Forum
(EDF) and its members intensively advocate for the right legal framework to live up to the UNCRPD obligations with a twofold approach: working on the one hand to pass legislation specifically addressing accessibility, such as the Web Accessibility Directive
and the European Accessibility Act
, currently under discussion, and on the other hand, advocating for accessibility to be mainstreamed into key ICT legislation on other topics such as the forthcoming EU rules on audiovisual services and telecommunications. So, things are finally moving forward, slowly but surely.
Boosting accessible technologies
From our experience at EU level, and the work of EDF members in each Member State, there are three recommendations that can be made to advocates working on boosting accessibility in the ICT domain.
- Raise awareness not only among the general public and policy makers, but also among current and future ICT professionals.
- Ensure the meaningful participation of persons with disabilities and their representative organizations when new solutions or policies are being developed, to avoid the creation of new barriers or "solutions" which do not meet the needs of the people.
- Always set out a clear legal framework. Nothing boosted the development of new accessibility features by big ICT providers more than accessibility laws in the US. In Europe, we hope that the European Accessibility Act will have the same effect.
However, accessibility is not a black and white issue. Legislation ensuring accessible technology will need a comprehensive scope and unambiguous accessibility requirements. Legal texts which use the words "accessible" or "accessibility" without further detail will always produce uncertain outcomes. Well-defined accessibility requirements will also result in accessibility standards, such as the US Section 508
or the European Standard EN 301 549
on accessibility requirements for ICT products and services, that guide industry as it further develops new technologies. And last, but by no means least, a robust enforcement mechanism is needed to ensure that the legislation is respected by all players.
Thus, once everyone is aware of the broad diversity of users, these users are involved in the development of new ICT solutions, and the legal framework is clearly laid down with the aim of creating more sustainable, inclusive and fairer societies, then we will be able to ensure that technology is a true catalyst of progress that leaves no one behind.
The European Disability Forum
(EDF) is an independent NGO that represents the interests of 80 million Europeans with disabilities. It is a unique platform which brings together representative organisations of persons with disabilities from across Europe. EDF is run by persons with disabilities and their families. We are a strong, united voice of persons with disabilities in Europe.