By Sheila C. Serup, MBA
While people with disabilities around the world still face disproportional barriers, the messages from this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities bring renewed hope and optimism for the New Year of 2023.
This year’s UN global observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) on 3rd December brought empowering speakers and participants together from all continents. Virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom have changed how individuals from around the world can connect, learn, and discuss how transformative solutions are creating accessible and equitable communities and workplaces.
The theme this year and going into next year is current and relevant to us all. The focus for the 2022 IDPD is titled: Transformative solutions for inclusive development: the role of innovation in fueling an accessible and equitable world.
The overarching theme of innovation and transformative solutions for inclusive development was discussed in a public Zoom meeting on Saturday morning, December 3rd. And interestingly a panelist from Google spoke about the extensive work underway to extend and enhance speech recognition technology for up to1,000 languages in the next few years. (read below.)
Three interactive dialogues were held in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that form the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This is our roadmap for the future.
The three dialogues were timely and respectful of the complex and interconnected crises facing humanity today. Specifically, we are still being affected by the shock impacts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in the Ukraine and other countries, and the tipping point in climate change. In addition to these, the threats to the global economy impact everyone
In difficult times and crises, people with disabilities are often left more vulnerable and are often excluded and left behind. The central premise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to “leave no one behind.” The conversations during this webinar were focused on exploring collaborative and innovative solutions that government, public and private sectors can undertake to ensure a more accessible and equitable world for persons with disabilities.
Tarek Ladeb, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Tunisia to the UN, noted that people with disabilities today, in addition to experiencing marginalization and discrimination, are also disproportionately affected by food insecurity, economic conditions, financial crisis, pandemics and climate change. He observed that innovative solutions and approaches need to take into consideration these additional multipliers.
A Florida teen, Annika Emmeret, shared that “showing others that we are capable of more than they can see on the outside is an important factor because this is how the youth today will pave the way for generations to come.”
She observed that the world has changed significantly so that today people with disabilities are more “willing to put themselves on the front lines of adversity with all kinds of disabilities.”
“Our efforts today will bring change and opportunities for people.”
Innovation for disability inclusive development in reducing inequality (SDG 10)
Reducing inequality and ensuring no one is left behind is integral to achieving the sustainable development goal #10, noted Michael Rimon, CEO Access Israel. “The issue of disabilities, accessibility and inclusion has no borders. It affects all countries and cultures around the world.”
Panel speaker Walton Alfonso Webson, Ambassador and Representative of Antigua and Barbuda to the UN, opened by saying that “technology has transformed the possibilities for persons with disabilities, and it’s now up to us to take advantage of that in trying to achieve the objective of leaving no one behind.”
The issue of our cultures in being inclusive of persons with disabilities is more important than the technical or the skill. He noted that it is the culture within society and within companies that affect how inequality is reduced. Making a cultural shift within communities and organizations will transcend to a broader society.
Webson noted that people with disabilities face greater discrimination in employment, in opportunities, and receive less wages, and are less likely to be in leadership role. “Women with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed or inactive in the labour market, and are less likely to work in leadership and decision-making roles.”
The panel discussion focused on the fact that people with disabilities tend to pay for their own assistive technology, devices, and equipment for work and for education.
“More robust legislation and more targeted policy interventions are required within countries and within organizations,” Webson observed, “in order to change the culture.”
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, most people worked from home, and this presented greater and invisible challenges for people with disabilities. Webson noted that the pandemic revealed startling lessons in ensuring equitable workplaces for people with disabilities.
“You would have thought that the new transformation in work from home would be helpful in employment of persons with disabilities, but we saw in many cases that was a challenge.” Challenges arose in the use of technology, interfaces between people in remote places, and importantly how remote working diminished the social environment for people with disabilities.
“However, we can learn from the experiences of COVID-19 and build on the opportunities created in the recovery of the pandemic,” Webson shared.
In this recovery and realignment process underway in workplaces, he said, there are opportunities to ensure that people with disabilities are considered mainstream in policies and workplaces.
“Data from developing countries suggest that one-third of persons with disabilities consider their workplace as hindering or not accessible at all.” He observed that in many of the developing countries, simply getting around cities and towns is a hindrance.
He concluded that cooperation and collaboration is key at all levels – international, national, regional and local – to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in labour markets. The role of education is vitally important as a vehicle for reducing inequality.
Damiano Beleffi, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of San Marino, challenged listeners to think of innovation as beyond the technological dimension. “Innovation is not limited to this dimension, but it is a way in which we can see things differently. It could be a new vision, and consequently a new approach to disability.”
He stressed that diversity is a part of the human condition, and “from this new perspective in San Marino we have left behind a medical approach to disability in favour of a social perspective based on human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Enhancement of Speech Recognition Technology
Sara Bassan, Emerging Markets Accessibility and Disability Inclusion Lead for Google, stressed that reducing inequality starts with ensuring the “companies are hiring people with disabilities and that when you hire people with disabilities, they are part of all the company’s practices,” not just in specific silos where people with disabilities are slotted such as HR and communications, but they are in “technology, marketing, and so on.”
She stressed the importance of software companies such as Google that have robust procurement processes that prioritize accessibility in the procurement process along with everything else that matters to your company like security and privacy. “
“Companies need to make sure that the software they create and license has been evaluated and tested by people with disabilities centering on the actual community of people with disabilities for their critical feedback. And not at the final stages, but at all stages all the way through.”
“We hear a lot about artificial intelligence and machine learning. This creates huge opportunities for a more equitable workplace for people with disabilities. I’ll pick one example, speech recognition” which “has dramatically improved over the last few years, using machine learning, and it’s particularly critical in settings designed to prevent discrimination.”
“Say where you don’t have human captioners, you can now have really robust high quality speech recognition and transcriptioning available to better enable deaf and hard of hearing employees in the workforce to have a more equitable experience. And so this includes settings like hallway conversations and includes what happens when you are in a cafeteria eating lunch.”
Sarah Basson shared that Google announced a major initiative to develop language models for 1,000 languages over the next few years. “It’s still a work in progress, and it might take years until speech recognition is available for more rural communities.”
In conclusion, Michel Rimon, CEO Access Israel reiterated that innovation is about learning and “joining hands.”
To watch the full IDPD webinar hosted by the UN, please visit: