Wednesday, December 3, 2014

As Stephen Hawking gets a new Machine for Easier Communication Today, Some Thoughts on Digital Inclusion and the Differently-Abled


A Special Article on the Occasion of the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities, 3rd December 2014
Stephen Hawking with actor Eddie Redmayne.(Photo: Liam Daniel, Focus Features)
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A report that appeared today in USA TODAY: "How a groundbreaking device is helping Stephen Hawking communicate" ( talks about

The new system — called ACAT (Assistive Context Aware Toolkit), created by a team that includes scientist Lama Nachman —( was) announced Tuesday by Intel. Its goal: To help millions like Hawking more easily communicate.”

The Report further adds:

"Intel has been supporting me for more than 25 years, allowing me to do what I love every day," Hawking said in an e-mail to USA TODAY. "The development of this system has the potential to improve the lives of disabled people around the world."

          MND and quadriplegia affect more than 3 million people worldwide, causing deterioration of  voluntary muscle activities for speaking, walking, swallowing and body movement. It eventually leads to death.

Stephen Hawking remains an enigma for all of us, but the fact that his life is worth living because of the technology that enables him to contribute and communicate should make us think about the significant issue of digital inclusion for all differently-abled persons.

As technology encroaches upon our lives becoming an enabler as well as posing new challenges of behavioural adjustments, it is but natural that we also talk about the ways to make it inclusive and all-embracing. In fact, it really stems out of our expectations from digital revolution that we hope it to be completely inclusive, whereas there have been many a ‘revolution’, which has always been quite exclusive for chosen few. However, it seems that in the context of digital inclusion, first the very idea of inclusion needs to become more inclusive, as is clear from the fact that most of the discussions, roundtables, conferences, policy initiatives, media coverage etc. do not take into account the needs of the differently-abled.

In fact, when the New York Times did a significant story on digital divide in August 2013 titled, ‘Most of US Is Wired, but Millions Aren’t Plugged In”, it got a Letter to the Editor, written by Lainey Feingold. The Letter which was gracefully published by the paper needs to be re-produced in full for the benefit of the present discussion and to provide a better perspectives to the reader:

Lainey Feingold is an eminent disability
rights lawyer in USA
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            Dear Editor:

Your otherwise excellent article about the digital divide (“Most of U.S. Is Wired, but Millions Aren’t Plugged In,” Business Day, Aug. 19) missed an opportunity to discuss the significant digital divide between people with disabilities and those not (yet) disabled.

The Commerce Department report on which your article was based recognized the impact of disability. It found that Internet use among those with a disability is only 48 percent compared with 76 percent for those with no disability. In every metric used in the report, people with disabilities lagged behind. Your reporters rightly covered the digital divide based on race, age, education, class and geography. Disability deserved to be covered as well.

In my experience as a disability civil rights lawyer working with the blind community on technology and information access issues, the disability divide has two major components. First, disability cuts across and magnifies all other factors you mention.

Second, and equally important, there is a digital divide for people with disabilities because of a lack of accessible online content. Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, recognized that, saying “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

Lainey Feingold
Berkeley, Calif., August 19, 2013

If the New York Times can be sort of lopsided in its rather well-intentioned report on issues related to Digital inclusion and divide, then it would almost be a natural thought-process for those who think themselves to be abled without realizing that they are actually disabled to think about the differently-abled. 
As per the Policy Paper of ‘Government Digital Inclusion Strategy’ of Government of UK, Updated 10 November 2014 and available on

Digital services must be compatible with the tools some disabled people use, like screen readers or Braille software. It’s illegal to make public services online inaccessible to disabled users.
It further recognizes and underlines:
People with disabilities - are less likely to have digital skills and capabilities

ONS estimates 3.6 million disabled adults had never used the internet. This represents 31% of those who were disabled and over half (53%) of the 6.7 million adults who had never used the internet. Of those adults who reported no disability, 8% (3.1 million adults) had never used the internet."

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This Policy paper is also important because of its realization about lack of enough digital infrastructure, and programmes for making all individuals of UK digitally skilled.

As Francis Maude, Member of Parliament, states in his ‘Foreword’ to the paper:

   "…recent research published by the BBC has found that 21% of Britain’s population lack the basic   digital skills and capabilities required to realize the benefits of the internet. Around a third of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) don’t have a website, and when we include voluntary, community and social enterprises (VCSEs) this figure rises to 50%. Independent analysts Booz and Co. estimate full digital take up could add £63 billion value to the UK economy."

For a country like India, then, the message is loud and clear. We need to develop large-scale digital skills enhancement programmes, as well as for digital inclusion, including bringing into its fold the needs of the differently-abled before we can make credible noises about going digital.
--Kumar Vikram

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