Growing the Internet

A Step Further in Making Pakistan Digitally Accessible

In a bid to improve digital accessibility in Pakistan – a country with about 30 million persons with disability (PWDs), according to the World Health Organization –  we recently partnered with the Ministry of IT (MoIT) and the National IT Board (NITB) so that more existing government websites could include accessibility features and future websites could incorporate such designs. We set out to make five websites more accessible – as a start – and are already seeing encouraging results.

According to local study and research paper, a majority of websites in Pakistan, including government, are not accessible for PWDs. PWDs face various challenges in using websites based on their impairment.

For example, persons with visual impairments can face compatibility challenges when screen reader software is used to access visual displays that are not labelled or hyperlinks that do not make sense when read out of context. Those with low vision are not able to access websites that cannot be adjusted for font type and size, contrast, and use of colors, and individuals who are deaf are not able to understand the narration in an online video if it is not properly captioned.

As part of this commitment given by the government, we organized a 3-day training workshop in Islamabad for web developers/administrators (particularly from government departments). The workshop hosted an extensive learning experience environment, using various tools, techniques, and practical demonstrations. David Berman, an expert in accessible communications design, web strategy, analysis, and training, and his team lead the training covering introduction to web accessibility standards, assistive technologies, good design practices, W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (2.0, 2.1) success criteria, auditing models, and how to make accessible documents for websites.

It was the first of such training in Pakistan, and we were not surprised to hear from the participants that they never heard, nor were they familiar with these website accessibility guidelines and practices. The workshop participants took a keen learning interest, calling the workshop as an ice-breaker to enable accessible websites in Pakistan. I recall Muhammad Shafique, who is visually impaired, saying: “the workshop is game-changer. It made government realize that PWDs require equal access to public websites, to feel part of an inclusive digital society. We are already behind many countries in digital accessibility, but as they say it’s never too late.”

We also witnessed some great commitments from the Ministry and NITB senior officials in reference to recently approved Digital Pakistan Policy that lists several policy measures to enable  digital accessibility for PWDs. They labeled the workshop as a beginning towards implementation of Digital Pakistan Policy, gave affirmation to build a digitally accessible environment, and invited open collaboration on similar initiatives.

The workshop has built local resources by training 30 website developers and professionals, who would now put their learning into practice by adding web accessibility features in government websites. They are also expected to train their peers to build further knowledge.

The journey has not been easy, but now that more government websites are poised to become more accessible and more website developers are more aware of the needs of the PWDs, the results convince us that it is right to try to improve digital accessibility in Pakistan! We hope that the government will continue its support towards an accessible Pakistan so that soon PWDs will benefit from information and services available on all public websites.

The Internet is for everyone! Visit the Accessibility Toolkit page to learn how you can contribute to a more accessible Internet and join A11ySIG!

Growing the Internet

Reducing Barriers: A Recap of the Webinar on Digital Accessibility

Accessibility for persons with disabilities isn’t just for people who are disabled. It benefits everyone – and there’s even a business case for it, too. That was the key message of the Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) event organized by the Internet Society Accessibility Special Interest Group (A11ySIG). The webinar was A11ySIG’s very first, only a month after its formation!

The purpose of GAAD is to get people talking, thinking, and learning about digital access and inclusion (including web, software, mobile, etc.) and about people with different disabilities.

The webinar “Digital Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities” was facilitated by A11ySIG’s president, Muhammad Shabbir Awan. Dan York, the Internet Society’s Director of Web Strategy was a guest speaker together with the founders of A11ySIG.

Joly MacFie, A11ySIG’s admin, outlined the historical context of the Special Interest Group, which grew from the Disability and Special Needs Chapter, the first non-geographical Chapter. Joly paid tribute to the Chapter’s Cynthia Waddell, who was a pioneer of web accessibility and an inspiration to many.

Dan York reinforced the Internet Society’s vision “The Internet is for Everyone” and stated its goal for accessibility across its websites. He explained that the work being done includes:

  • Accessibility audits
  • Triaging specific issues
  • Identification and implementation of appropriate new tools
  • Training for content creators

Dan emphasized that content development is the main challenge for ongoing web accessibility and needs to be baked into the DNA of a website. He added that designing for mobile devices brings challenges and opportunities.

Gunela Astbrink, A11ySIG’s vice president, spoke about the double disadvantage faced by women with disability who also have to deal with cultural barriers and discrimination. Through video and wikis, women with disability build a stronger voice. For creators of content, the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG), and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) have an important role to play to increase accessibility in content, social media platforms, media players, blogging tools, and content management systems.

Judith Hellerstein, A11ySIG’s secretary, discussed how these WC3 guidelines make web content more accessible for people with disabilities and specific needs. The WC3’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) develops web accessibility standards for the different components: WCAG and ATAG address web content and are used by developers, authoring tools, and accessibility evaluation tools; UAAG addresses web browsers and media players. Web accessibility depends on several components working together and improvements in specific components could substantially improve web accessibility. It is essential that several different components of web development and interaction work together for the Web to be accessible to people with disabilities. The main problem is that the implementation of these guidelines varies among countries. While some websites that belong to government entities require standards to be implemented, this is not true for websites belonging to the private sector which are often not covered by legislation.

People from many parts of the world took part in the webinar. Naveed Haq, the Internet Society’s regional development manager, Asia-Pacific, offered his perspective on accessibility in the region and discussed how bringing developers together with people with disability helps issues to be understood better. This year, a project in Pakistan will use this method to help make five government websites accessible.

Participants discussed that devices and software such as screen reading programs are not affordable for people with disability, especially in developing countries. Open source software and discounts on commercial software make a difference. Device manufacturing in some developing countries can bring down prices significantly. However, these devices can be less accessible compared to high-cost devices. It was indicated that local production of devices was a good sign and it was hoped that soon these would be accessible, too.

It was also pointed by the participants of the webinar that if a website, device, software, or content is made accessible for people with disabilities, it also benefits people without disabilities. Moreover, with about 15 percent of the world population consisting of people with disabilities, building in accessibility offers immense business opportunities, too! To reap the true advantages of accessibility, it has to be made part of every process. It should be part of planning and design right from the start – and not added as an afterthought or piecemeal.

Watch the captioned webinar and stay tuned as A11ySIG plans future webinars.

The Internet is for everyone! Visit the Accessibility Toolkit page to learn how you can contribute to a more accessible Internet and join A11ySIG!

Events Growing the Internet Internet Governance

Muhammad Shabbbir Awan: Reflections on the WTDC17

It’s been 5 months since WTDC17 concluded and I had time to reflect on the outcomes of the conference and the experience itself. WTDC sets the ITU’s development agenda and in Argentina last October over 1000 government delegates from close to 135 countries gathered during the two-week period. They were there to discuss a range of issues and shape the development sector’s priorities for the next four years. For me, it was a trip of many firsts: my first experience as an observer participating in a multilateral conference; my first trip to South America; and, as a visually impaired person, the eighteen hours flight duration was my first such experience.

To recall, I was a member of the Internet Society delegation as a Fellow. For me, the two motivators to apply for the fellowship opportunity were: first, the theme for WTDC17 (“ICTs for Sustainable Development Goals”) and possibility to make a difference. Second, my quest to learn even more about Internet Governance processes and to participate in the discussions.

WTDC17 had a packed agenda that included ceremonial events marking the 25th Anniversary of the Development Sector and side events on a range of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) topics.

My blindness posed a challenge, but not enough that we could not overcome it except in a few cases. Nonetheless, one challenge that we could not bridge was related to the accessibility of the “ITU Sync Tool” with my screen reader. It is the tool participants can use to access the conference documents. Despite the efforts by the ITU technical staff there was no immediate fix. The only solution was to rely on my fellow delegates to share the documents with me. I hope the issue has been fixed in the 6 months since then, because it was disappointing not to have the required updated documents available while they were being discussed in the sessions.

Another misperception that I tried to change was the low expectation that people had about people with disabilities (PWDs). With my participation I hope that more people understand that PWDs are just people who cannot see, hear, or have physical impairment. Any impairment is a physical characteristic, but it is not the characteristic that defines them or their capabilities. Plus, it is the societal barriers that turn an impairment to disability. Therefore, policy makers and technologists should work with PWDs to remove the ICT-related policy and technical barriers in our quest to shape a better tomorrow.

At the same time, a sad fact that I observed during the conference was the very low participation of PWDs. There was a lot of discussion on accessibility-related issues in a number of resolutions, which would not have been possible without input from PWDs. However, there was not a single organization that highlights mainly issues of PWDs. Therefore, PWDs should also realize that they need to come out of their comfort zones; get themselves composed and united; participate in such conferences and forums; and raise their voice to resolve their issues. I am a firm believer of the dictum “nothing about us without us” meaning that no one can express the problems and issues of PWDs better than PWD themselves and no solution should be implemented or can be successful without our active participation. However, PWDs themselves need to be fully prepared and participate in these discussions actively. Policymakers have a role to play as well. They should include PWDs on issues related to PWDs in their national preparatory processes and on delegations.

Despite all this, it was a wonderful experience. Most importantly, it was collectively a challenging, thought provoking and exciting opportunity. It led me to think about how I could best improve myself. and what more can be done to improve ICT accessibility for PWDs. It also taught me how to make the best of whatever opportunity and circumstances you have. One of the most exciting parts about this experience was sharing my WTDC17 experience with members of the Internet Society’s Islamabad, Pakistan Chapter.

Having navigated the ITU system for about a year and having attended WTDC and experienced most of the accessibility related issues myself, I believe that it is high time that the ITU designate a focal point for telecommunication/ICT accessibility for persons with disabilities to strengthen the Digital Inclusion programme and to make ITU conferences more inclusive and accessible for us. This will allow PWDs to raise the accessibility-related issues within ITU and will save them the time and resources to log their request at the right forum. The issue emerged during WTDC17 under Resolution 58 (“on telecommunication/information and communication technology accessibility for persons with disabilities, including persons with age-related disabilities”) and consensus was reached to take it to the 2018 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-18) in October as this body adopts the ITU’s four-year strategic and financial plans.

Since regional and national preparatory meetings for PP-18 are underway, one can hope that a focal point is designated within the ITU to deal with accessibility related issues. Moreover, to achieve the goals for ITU’s Connect 2020 global agenda and the SDGs, which reference ICT accessibility for PWDs, the issues need to be identified and highlighted. And, I am sure that having a focal point for accessibility would ease the process.

In a nutshell, I am happy to say that the promise that technology holds for enhancing people’s lives is extraordinary. However, it is equally true that technology, if not appropriately-designed and implemented, is the biggest threat to an inclusive digital future. Harnessing the extraordinary promise of technology is within our reach, but it will take leadership, commitment, and ongoing oversight. The alternative is a future where we spend our time, money, and innovative capacity retrofitting bridges to patch the digital divide rather than enjoying the economic and social advantages gained by the increased usability of technology and the increased leveraging of human capacity that results from technology that is designed and built to be accessible to all. I would reiterate my earlier statement that “if we want to build a digital future where people come first, accessibility needs to be at the heart of Internet policy, planning and design”.

Read more about Digital Divides in the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future.

Take action! Help shape a digital future that puts people first.

Growing the Internet

Internet for Differently Abled Communities in Uganda

AfChix Uganda is a chapter of AfChix Africa, a network of women in technology started in 2004 with a mission to network with women and potential girls in computer science/ICT for purposes of supporting them to grow in their careers and to encourage young girls to take up ICT/Computer Science programs for their careers.

AfChix Uganda consists of a team of young girls and women engineers and computer science graduates.

During their research for the Grace Hopper Paper 2013, a team of four members (Software Engineering Students) from Makerere University chose to write about: “Mobile Experiences for the differently abled users” and the Uganda Society for the Deaf Vocational Training Institute was their major case study.

Through an interpreter, the team interacted with the deaf students who were in the computer lab and being their first time to interact with the deaf, they were surprised at the level of understanding by the deaf students. The students had amazing vocational skills yet there was need for them to make their products and services known to the world but the only difference here was the language; They were passionate about ICT but the computers that were considered to be working at the time were only four, very old models and according the school adminstration, and they were received in 2004!

As the team left after the research, we knew we could play a role in making their voices heard!

The starting point was when there was a call for proposal by Internet Society (ISOC). Being a member of ISOC, on behalf of the team, the project coordinator of AfChix Uganda wrote and submitted a proposal to ISOC for the same and the proposal was considered.

Our objective was to enhance the computer/ICT facility by providing 20 better computers and connecting them to the internet, provide training to the deaf students through the interpreters which will eventually allow the students to take advantage of the benefits that come with the internet and ICT in general.

After receiving the grant from ISOC, our project attracted a number of other partners who came on board and were willing to assist. Among these we have Orange Uganda who offered bandwidth and other accessories and Bank of Uganda who recently donated 10 computers to support the project.

The team already did the base line survey of the network, found out the level of understanding of ICT knowledge by the students, got quotations from over 10 potential suppliers and the selection committee chose the right suppliers who are now working on the network with our team. Due to the long procedures from the new donations from Bank of Uganda who kept us waiting for the computers, our work was slowed down and we are now only targetting to finish with the networking of the computers by first week of May.