Adapting services for digital inclusion during COVID-19: Grameenphone’s Sign-Line

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to ensure that everyone is digitally included. However, mobile internet and digital content are out of reach for many. Women, persons with disabilities as well as those without electricity or living in remote areas are amongst the groups facing the greatest barriers to access.

Such barriers are intensified by the pandemic and evidence that those who are digitally and socially excluded are even more vulnerable due to the lacking universal accessibility of services and up-to-date accurate information. Many people with disabilities, for example, require information in alternative or accessible formats, whether it be an easy read guide for those with learning disabilities, or inclusion of a sign language interpreter during a daily news briefing for those with hearing impairment.

As the world reacts to the ongoing spread of the coronavirus, governments and service providers must not forget the 15 per cent of the world’s population living with a disability. Governments are committed to provide reliable information in accessible formats, with particular focus on ensuring access to information by those with limited internet access or where disability makes access challenging. People with disabilities are not only disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, but they also have specific support requirements which can make social distancing measures difficult to adopt and limited access to information means making well-informed decisions to stay safe much harder. To tackle this problem, some mobile operators are taking action.

In February, Grameenphone launched Sign-Line  – a sign language digital based care service dedicated to and operated by people with hearing and/or speech impairments. Simultaneously, ‘Kothagulo Hariye Na Jak Shobder Obhabe’ was promoted – an awareness campaign enabling interested members of the community to learn the basics of sign language through video tutorials. Grameenphone’s digital platform is committed to minimising the language barrier, reducing inequalities and widening digital inclusion.

Yasir Azman, CEO of Grameenphone, said “The power of spoken language has been taken for granted, but we also need to accommodate this non-verbal mode of communication to create an inclusive society for everyone. The power of the internet provides a simple way to access and learn this skill through online video tutorials, enabling anyone interested to learn sign language”.

COVID-19 has affected Sign-Line in more ways than one. As the lockdown made it increasingly difficult for people to move around the city, Grameenphone ensured that the team had an adequate working environment at home. Secondly, in addition to the queries on Grameenphone services, the agents have seen an influx of COVID-19 related questions. In response to this, Grameenphone have adapted to these new needs and provided fully accessible content including a COVID-19 awareness video.

The UN has called for a disability-inclusive post-COVID recovery. Sign-Line is an example of how mobile operators can contribute to this by providing accessible quality services to all of their customers. The Sign-Line team want to continue to expand – by providing necessary information and services to make life easier – therefore using mobile as an enabler of participation in society.

The GSMA Assistive Tech and Connected Society programmes continue to work with the mobile industry and key stakeholders to address the digital inclusion gap of persons with disabilities and those living in remote areas, and identify innovation opportunities that tackle the barriers to digital inclusion.

The Assistive Tech programme recognises the vital need to help and empower people through accessibility and aims to drive greater digital inclusion through:

  1. Research and insights on the mobile disability gap and approaches to reaching people with disabilities;
  2. Advocating awareness and action among stakeholders; and
  3. Supporting mobile operators in market to reach more people with disabilities.

Challenges faced by other vulnerable groups, such as people in remote areas or without access to electricity, are tackled by new business models, including by small organisations that are innovating to ensure more people gain access to the mobile internet. Off-grid energy solutions, such as solar pay-as-you-go (PAYG), are specialising in last mile distribution by bundling their electricity offers with smartphone and data packages for existing customers. Others are building small kiosks that are run by community influencers, where consumers can charge their phones, perform financial transactions and purchase a range of products, from electronics to scratch cards.

The GSMA Connected Society has launched a GSMA Innovation Fund for Mobile Internet Adoption and Digital Inclusion, which aims to support such innovative solutions to increasing mobile internet adoption and use. Start-ups and SME’s are eligible to apply for grants of up to £250k for commercially sustainable, scalable and replicable projects that focus on innovations in tackling the barriers to mobile internet adoption, including accessibility. The deadline for initial submission is tomorrow – 22 May. More details can be found here.

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