The 3rd December is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and this year’s theme focuses on empowering persons with disabilities for an inclusive, equitable and sustainable development as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
On this day, the GSMA is pleased to announce its involvement in the “AT 2030 – Life Changing Assistive Technology for All programme”, funded by DFID, to test new approaches and widen accessibility of Assistive Technology; the GSMA is also publishing a landscaping report “Leveraging the Potential of Mobile for Persons with Disabilities” based on the review of existing research and key informant interviews with ecosystem actors and Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) in five emerging markets.
The reality of disability and assistive technologies
As stated by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), article 1: “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which – in interaction with various barriers – may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.
Disability affects more than a billion people worldwide. According to WHO estimates, 80% of people with disabilities live in developing countries and estimates of the World Bank show that 20% of the world’s poorest people have a disability.
Consequences of disabilities include fewer education opportunities, lower employment rates, widespread discrimination and higher poverty levels, making people with disabilities extremely vulnerable and marginalized. It has been estimated that 90% of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school, that level of unemployment for persons with disability can reach up to 80% in some countries and that children with disabilities are 3.7 times more likely to be victims of violence.
In the years ahead, disability will be an even greater concern because its prevalence is on the rise. This is due to ageing populations and the higher risk of disability in older people as well as the global increase in chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health disorders.
A person’s environment has a huge impact on the experience and extent of disability. Inaccessible environments amplify a person’s disability by creating barriers to participation and inclusion. Assistive technologies (ATs) are designed to improve the functional capabilities of people with disabilities, and enable people to live healthy, productive, independent, and dignified lives; to participate in education, the labour market and civic life. However today, only 1 in 10 people who would benefit have access to assistive technology due to high costs and a lack of awareness, availability, trained personnel, policy, and financing.
Mobile and digital applications are increasingly becoming tools for inclusion and the CRPD refers to the role of ICT in promoting the independence and full participation of persons with disabilities across life domains, including education, employment, e-governance and civic participation, financial inclusion, and disaster management.
As more services become ‘digital by default’ in developed and developing markets, there is an increased risk that PWDs may be left behind if technology products and services are not made accessible and affordable to all.
Key learnings from “Leveraging the Potential of Mobile for Persons with Disabilities”
As mobile connectivity continues to transform the lives of billions and has a profound impact on the Sustainable Development Goals, it is time for the mobile industry to take action and maximise the positive impact on the lives of PWDs. Our study released today, gathers insights on the current state of play for mobile access and impact for PWDs; maps promising initiatives and start-ups in the field of mobile as an assistive technology; and identifies key areas of focus for the GSMA.
The study identified five broad barriers that people with a disability face among the surveyed countries: isolation, ICT inaccessibility, misalignment of efforts of actors in the ecosystem, lack of engagement of the private sector, general and widespread lack of awareness around disability issues.
Although mobile phones can provide services to mitigate the conditions of disability and to tackle the barriers that derive from the disability, more remains to be done to fully harness its potential and address barriers the ecosystem is facing: chronic underfunding of disability for decades, ecosystem fragmentation, lack of coordination, irrelevant content and costly hardware.
With the increasing availability of smartphones (although cost of ownership remains a barrier), there is an evolution in Assistive Technologies from hardware to software and there are positive examples of mobile technology that assist people with disabilities including accessibility features offered by main mobile Operating Systems. It is imperative that devices and services are designed with accessible features, allowing everyone to use their mobile device independently, when accessing information on the internet, making calls, using social media and other educational platforms.
The technology ecosystem addressing disabilities is still nascent, but technology giants such as Microsoft and Google are increasingly active, through Big Data & Artificial Intelligence, including real-time speech-to-text transcription or visual recognition services. The GSMA believes mobile operators have a central role to play to drive the creation of a fully inclusive digital ecosystem. Making services more accessible to all is an untapped commercial opportunity and as outlined in the 2014 report titled “Accessibility for the Disabled in the Increasingly Mobile World”, the author talks about the “Untapped Billion” when referring to the accessible ICT market. Initiatives such as from Safaricom in Kenya making M-Pesa more accessible to people with visual impairment, aiming to reduce the risk of being defrauded, are encouraging and needs to be further supported and replicated.
AT2030 Partnership and looking forward
Led by the Global Disability Innovation hub, the AT2030 programme is the first to join the ATscale partnership which will target to reach 500 million people globally by essential Assistive Technology by 2030. In partnership with other leading technology organisations, the GSMA will contribute to building evidence on the current mobile access gap for PWDs in emerging markets, assess the benefits to mobile operators to close the current disability gap and potential current untapped market, and shine a light on mobile innovations for assistive technologies.
Looking forward, the GSMA will increasingly leverageits network to advocate for the importance of inclusion of PWDs and push the issue onto the agendas of government and regulators in emerging markets; promote accessibility as a business opportunity across its members; foster and nurture innovation to grow in the mobile ecosystem, from entrepreneurs to mobile operators.
“AT2030 is a new approach to AT provision. We are working with partners such as GSMA to ensure mobile and accessible ICT power the next generation of accessible solutions. More than this we see mobile as a means to develop leapfrog solutions for People with Disabilities, to ensure that no one is left behind and actually all people regardless of ability are included in the digital revolution”. Dr Cathy Holloway, Academic Director, GDI Hub
 UNICEF, 2014
 International Labour Organization, 2002
 World Health Organization, 2012