The paper that follows below was presented at the first ever conference on ICT for disability in Bangladesh. Held on August 14, 2007 at the National Conference the conference was titled “ICT and Persons with Disability: The Context of Bangladesh.” It was an exciting meeting and I expect that many great projects will follow out of the many ideas that were discussed on that day.
Information and communications technologies (ICTs) are indeed poised to revolutionize communications and information sharing as we know it. As an American, I have witnessed these changes in technology and communication as they effect individual citizens, students, and institutions like NGOs in the US. With the help of ICTs we are able to complete formerly time consuming tasks in record time and connect with others around the globe in an entirely new way.
From America to Bangladesh for example, I was able to start a conversation with Mr. Huq and his staff from BERDO about ICT and the value of information. Following that conversation, I undertook the steps that have brought me before you now as a Peace Fellow of The Advocacy Project, a US-based NGO, and a new partner of BERDO. Now I would like to take this opportunity to comment on the potentials of ICT in Bangladesh, the successes of ICT in America, and our role as advocates for the creative application of these tools to improve the life skills and employability of persons with disability.
Having some experience with ICT in the context of America, it is very exciting for me to witness the potential of ICT being recognized in Bangladesh. I have been particularly impressed by the inclusive nature in which many are seeking to use growing ICTs. As this conference has recognized, ICTs have the immense capacity to empower those who may otherwise be marginalized, particularly disabled individuals. It is hugely reassuring to see that steps are being taken to ensure that the promise of ICT will be held for persons with disabilities in Bangladesh.
As noted in the conference flyer that I received with interest several weeks ago, “ICTs have brought new opportunities for individuals to acquire ‘the ability to compensate for physical or functional limitations… by enlarging the scope of activities available to them.’” ICT is indeed a vital tool and I encourage everyone here today to think about new ways in which these tools may be used. From sending letters across many miles, to talking phone software that allows visually impaired people to navigate the phone system through audio commands, the uses of ICTs are nearly endless.
For example, I would like to share with you some projects that have been distinguished for their success in the United States. The first example, an online journal program, EasyJournal at www.easyjournal.com, has been celebrated for its accessibility to blind, visually impaired, and physically disabled users. Designed to be accessible to persons with disabilities, particularly those using assistive technology like screen readers or voice recognition, EasyJournal is a space for all persons regardless of disabilities to voice their opinions on the web, connect with others through technology, and join in a variety of virtual discussions. Online journals, often called blogs, are a huge force in connecting, informing and mobilizing people across the world and it is exciting to note that developers are making sure that this technology is accessible.
Another success has also involved harnessing the power of the internet to serve other persons with disabilities, including those who are intellectually disabled. e-Buddies, part of Best Buddies International, a U.S.-based non-profit organization, works to enhance the lives of people with intellectual disabilities by facilitating friendships through technology. The e-Buddies project provides opportunities for one-to-one e-mail friendships between intellectually disabled and non-disabled individuals. Through these friendships, intellectually disabled individuals not only gain the support of a new friend, but also have a chance to learn and practice valuable computer skills. With these skills, intellectually impaired persons are better poised for success in school and work.
Yet another successful ICT project is called ATSTAR and can be accessed at www.atstar.org. ATSTAR, AT meaning Assistive Technology, provides a host of resources online to assist teachers in finding assistive technology solutions for students with disabilities. One of their success stories involves a young girl with cerebral palsy at a small school in rural America. Due to cerebral palsy and related mobility and speech impairments, the child needed alternative input and output devices for communication of her lessons. By using ATSTAR’s online training modules, the teacher and parents have been guided to a solution that has increased the student’s success in school.
While all of these great projects have been successful in the United States, my experience unfortunately does not allow me to comment extensively on the present state of ICT in Bangladesh, but I trust that the many experts present today will impart their valuable knowledge.
I’d like to emphasize that this time is an important opportunity for innovation. Technology is not only changing our world, but can be changed to our individual specifications. ICTs are “dynamic instruments of change.” As persons with disabilities seek to harness the power of ICT to improve life skills and employability, I urge you to think about both new and old ways to use technology. Persons with disability in Bangladesh will inevitably have needs and uses for technology that no one may have considered before.
For example, persons with visual impairment may need an opportunity to network with each other from across the country. To fill this opportunity, one creative option is to develop an accessible website in Bangla and English to act as a forum where visually impaired persons in Bangladesh can share information and opinions both audibly, via sound clips that can be uploaded and downloaded by users, and through text as well with facilitating software like Jaws screen reader. Like Facebook or MySpace, two sites that have a huge followings particularly among youth around the world, the networking site could be a place for people to connect to one another in new ways, to gain information, to share job and training resources, and to generate collective action and social change.
As a report recently noted, “e-inclusion and e-participation are ‘moving targets’.” It is important to remember that “while on the one hand, innovations in ICT continue to create new gaps or exacerbate the digital divide for the vast majority of people in the world, several underprivileged communities are also learning to bridge the gap by developing creative ways of using ICTs, individually and collectively.” It is these creative ways of using ICTs where the most exciting potential benefits lie.
At the same time, each of us who recognizes the potential of ICTs to empower persons with disabilities must become an ambassador for that message. Already, on an international scale there is immense interest in ICT. NGOs, funding agencies, and governments are coming together to brainstorm about the uses of ICTs in particular contexts. Representatives from Bangladesh, particularly persons with disability and those who work to empower them, must be sure to have a seat at these tables where decisions are being made and discussions are taking place.
Moreover, for each of us that recognize the power of ICT and understand its uses, there are many more that are unfamiliar with ICT or its application in Bangladesh. In order to generate popular understanding and support, our advocacy is ever more critical. The good news is that the tools are already available – placing a well aimed phone call from your mobile to local government officials, sending a letter to the editor by fax or email to newspapers from your local technology center, or posting on a website built specifically to discuss ICT (and there are many in existence, http://www.netsquared.org for example) – each of those steps will help bring ICT for disability in Bangladesh into the public eye, both locally and internationally.
In closing, I want to say again that it is a very exciting honor to be here with all of you to discuss this important topic. While I have only been in Bangladesh for a few short months, I am very confident that all of your efforts will not go unrewarded. I have been consistently impressed by both the resourcefulness and forward looking outlook of all of Bangladeshis that I have met. As we move ahead, I urge you to remember that your advocacy must be ceaseless in its insistence. ICTs have great potential to improve the lives of persons with disabilities in Bangladesh, but it is your efforts that will help make that potentiality a reality.
The conference also received attention of media in Bangladesh. Please visit RI-SOL’s website (www.connect-bangladesh.org) for links to the stories published in newspapers and You Tube to view the video clip of the Channel i TV news.
The Daily Star :
You Tube video : Channel i TV news
The Daily Independent:
Posted By Caitlin Burnett
Posted Aug 22nd, 2007