Technology is a tool (hardware or software) that removes barricades and eases work. It has brought dramatic advantages for persons with disability and the physically frail, enabling them to lead able and fulfilling lives. For instance, assistive or adaptive computer technology has shattered many barriers to fruitful educational, professional and personal lives of the persons with visual impairment or dyslexia. In addition, physical modifications to two-wheel vehicles by adding additional stabilizing wheels have enabled physically disabled persons to access private transportation, resulting in a dramatic improvement in their mobility.
Without technology, even the most able of us are easily crippled, although we possess healthy mind and body. The fact is that human beings have depended on technology ever since the first man attached a wooden handle to a stone to ease his workload and improve efficiency. Just imagine how many people would be visually impaired if the eyeglass had not been invented! The same can be said about advancements in modern communication technology that have revolutionized the way in which we communicate and in modern transportation that have drastically cut down on travel time. With respect to persons with disability (PWDs), technological advances have been revolutionary in maximizing their opportunities, helping them break barriers and enabling them to engage with the mainstream society. This has led to rejection of negative stereotypes associated with disability and enhanced creativity and productivity of PWDs, allowing them to lead dignified lives.
Technology is central to improving the lives of PWDs and allowing them to be productive members of society. Nepal has for many years imported wheelchairs, materials for prosthesis/orthosis, hearing aids, computer hardware and software and other technological equipment for rehabilitating/habilitating PWDs. Yet these things are beyond the means of the majority of PWDs. Nor are there enough local resources to support them. For instance when a printing press operated by an NGO to print textbooks in Braille stopped working not long ago, there were no technicians to fix it.
The organization in the end was thinking about hiring expensive consultants from India to fix the problem, which would cost it IRs 60,000. But a team of mechanical engineers from Nepal Engineering College not only diagnosed the problem, but was also successful in resolving it, saving the NGO a considerable sum. When the same machine had caused problems earlier, the NGO was forced to hire consultants from Norway at the cost of Rs 350,000. Furthermore securing or repairing small assistive technological devices like crutch, artificial limb and special eye glasses calls for visits to cities like Kathmandu, Biratnagar and Nepalgung, a long way from remote districts/villages where such services are the most needed. These are just few examples of the scenario of technology vis-à-vis disability in the country.
Nepal Engineering College must be commended not only for their help in repairing the Braille printing press but also for initiating a collective effort to empower PWDs technologically. The workshop organized by the college’s Centre for Research in Social Defense Technology Team (CRSDTT) highlighted the role of technology in rehabilitation of PWDs who make up almost 15 percent of the population. It outlined the kind of commitments expected from the government, industrial-commercial-educational organizations and other relevant individuals and institutions to aid technological empowerment of PWDs in order to make them socio-economically productive, independent and dignified citizens.
The workshop concluded with the Chautari Declaration 2012 that addressed the following problems:
1) All types of higher educational institutions offering degrees and certificates in science, technology, medical sciences, and vocational training must include disability-centered subjects of a minimum length of five credit hours (or, 75 contact hours);
2) All types of higher educational institutions offering degrees and certificates in science, technology, medical sciences, and vocational training will priority-wise allocate five percent of their student enrollment for students with disability or students who have worked for a minimum of two years as full time caregivers of the disabled, provided these students fulfill minimum criteria.
3) All individuals and institutions related to the construction industry (such as professional bodies of the architects, engineers and contractors, the central and local government offices that issue permissions and clearances on any type of construction) issue a set of guidelines for assessing whether disability-friendly designs and construction is implemented.
4) All types of industrial, commercial and financial institutions declare a target investment and services to promote employment of the people with disability, and also make public the reasons for missing such targets periodically, should that be the case; and
5. All establishments related to information, mass communication, and industries and commerce invest a certain share of money under their corporate social responsibility programs for disability-friendly construction and services, in promoting disability-related study and research, and in producing and disseminating assisted technologies and products.
In the absence of adaptive or assistive technological tools to make their social milieu more accessible, PWDs have traditionally been deprived of opportunities in areas as wide as employment, education and health, and rendered them unable to function on an equal footing with their able-bodied counterparts. Thus the need to develop or modify adaptive technology, which should go hand-in-hand with other efforts to maximize the performance of individual PWDs in order to achieve their professional, personal and educational goals.
Judicious application of technology through joint effort among relevant government and non-government bodies can revolutionize the lives of Persons With Disabilities.
Towards this goal, the Chautari Declaration is a comprehensive guideline prepared with active participation of PWDs and disabled peoples organizations as well as other relevant stakeholders. It paves the way for the rehabilitation of PWDs not only technologically but also economically and socially. The Declaration solicits partnership between the government, media, civil society, technological and corporate world for civic action to honor its spirit and content. The CSDTT, for its part, has formed a Google group to further accelerate action in this area, which is in keeping with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disability (CRPD) to which Nepal is a signatory. The CRPD defines disability rights as mainstreaming the issue via overall development arena, ensuring reasonable accommodation as per the need of the population, like technological empowerment that allows them to join mainstream society. This entails generating awareness and enhancing the capacity of various institutions as well as individuals.
In others words not only should PWDs be supported in their quest to gain necessary skills, knowledge and tools, it is equally important that the government, civil society, donors, the corporate world and the general people join hands to remove the barriers these people have been facing over the years. This technologically empowering process necessitates a combined effort of concern stakeholders. So here a constructive facilitating role of the Ministry of Science and Technology will be vital in coordinating efforts between different stakeholders to expand various technologies that aid people with all kinds of disabilities to overcome their predicaments. In order to achieve this it is crucial that concerted effort is made by all stakeholders, informed by resilient and unified movement of PWDs.
The writer is human rights/disability rights activist associated with ActionAid