Here’s how tech, standards and collaboration can improve inclusion for persons with disabilities


Once again, unfortunately, we find ourselves facing a new COVID-19 variant that has put the world on alert.

This fragile situation reminds us just how dependent we are on information and communication technologies (ICTs) to carry on our work and keep connected to each other.

Earlier today, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I had the honour to address a “Reducing Inequalities Through Technology” discussion co-organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), and Qatar’s Permanent Mission to the UN.

Most of us at ITU, like many other organizations, have been working from home for over 20 months now. While I gave the remarks from my home in the snowy Alps, I assured listeners with vision impairment that I had – as always for such events – put on my office suit and tie.

ITU data released earlier this week show that Internet uptake has accelerated during the pandemic, with almost 800 million people estimated to have come online since 2019.

However, the pandemic has also highlighted how significant areas of inequality and exclusion remain in the digital world, especially for more than 1 billion people who live with some form of disability.

This number is expected to reach 2 billion by 2050, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). By then, the number of people aged 60 years and older will have also doubled. These factors make universal access to digital technologies a high priority.

Envisioning an inclusive digital world

The International Day for Persons with Disabilities offers us an opportunity to reflect on the kind of a world we want to rebuild in the aftermath of the pandemic. ITU’s vision is one where everyone can take an active part in our increasingly digital world, regardless of ability, age, gender, location, or any other factor.

ITU – as the UN specialized agency for ICTs – plays a leading role in the UN system and among international organizations to make this vision a reality.

Take, for example, the development of international technical standards – a core function of ITU.

Nothing of what we do today, including the event I addressed, would be possible without them.

Standards for accessibility

The first ITU standards to address accessibility issues date back to the early 1990s.

The turning point was the resolution adopted at the 2008 World Telecommunication Standards Assembly – my first as then-Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau – which ensured that all new ITU standards would account for the needs of persons with disabilities, right from the design stage.

ITU has achieved a lot for accessibility across its radiocommunication, standardization and development sectors, supporting decision makers with policy and strategic advice to promote inclusive digital communities.

Collaboration is key for inclusion

Collaboration and cooperation with partners are essential. ITU has worked closely with our sister UN agencies, including the World Health Organization (WHO) on safe listening standards and the International Labour Organization (ILO) on the design and development of accessible online job applications. Further, we contributed to the WIPO Technology Trends 2021 publication dedicated to assistive technology.

Finally, a special track of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum, focused on ICTs and accessibility for persons with disabilities and specific needs, shows how governments, industry, academia, civil society and others can collaborate to help break cycles of exclusion while accelerating progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

ITU makes every effort to ensure that persons with disabilities can participate in and contribute to our work.

Only with their help can we ensure that new tech meets their requirements.

I was glad to hear from today’s panellists and looks forward to working further with all our partners and stakeholders, as we strive together to build a world where no one is left behind and where opportunities have no boundaries.

Based on Mr. Johnson’s opening remarks at the Commemoration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities organized by ITU, WIPO and UNDESA, with the support of the Permanent Mission of the State of Qatar to the United Nations in New York.

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