Disability-Inclusion: How to be Better Digitally Connected

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2022, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to innovation and investment, digital economy, and regional mobility.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are over a billion people in the world who live with a disability; the global figure is, moreover, estimated to magnify up to two billion by 2050. While the advancing digital economy has created countless opportunities for people around the world, there remains a strong risk of digital barriers that seems to further worsen the digital divide at the expense of disability inclusion. As persons with disabilities (PWDs) in the Asia-Pacific region, which accounts for the majority of the world’s PWDs, continue to be affected by economic exclusion and discrimination in many areas, it is increasingly crucial for us to mend digital gaps, especially considering the importance of digitalization in pandemic recovery responses.

The present-day digital world of work may already present many challenges for the average individual which is sure to be even more of a hurdle for PWDs adding onto their general unfavorable conditions of lower education levels, pay gaps and difficult working conditions. However, the emergence of digital tools and platforms has broken down several disability-related barriers in recent times; for a more long-lasting impact to be made, more emphasis on helping PWDs learn and adapt to the digital world is crucial. A joint publication by Fundación ONCE, the ILO Global Business and Disability Network in 2022 highlights the three main levers in enabling concrete and consistent disability inclusion in the digital economy: (1) accessibility, (2) digital skilling and (3) digital employment. 

Firstly, various digital tools should be accessible and usable by PWDs. Rarely are digital tools designed with an inclusive approach that bear the abilities of PWDs in mind, making these devices unsuitable for use; whereas, in other cases PWDs face challenges in accessing assistive technologies through factors such as high costs, limited production, low quality and lack of awareness. A number of ASEAN states such as Singapore has managed to confront the financial hurdle: for instance, its Assistive Technology Fund provides subsidies to support PWDs to acquire, replace, upgrade or repair assistive technology (AT). Despite this, Singapore has found in 2021 that not all social service agencies and organizations are familiar with the available AT solutions or have them on hand for their clients to try and assess the suitability of such solutions, which can affect their ability in providing AT services and support schemes. These have resulted in digital gaps on the ground, lowering the rate of assistive tech adoption even if affordable. Likewise, keeping up with the rapid pace of the digital world means that there is a risk of digital products becoming obsolete which worsens the accessibility aspect further since PWDs are infrequently the focus of major digital products. 

Secondly, digital upskilling is critical in this age of digital transformation. Although virtual learning platforms like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may be seen as fairly reliable, the aforementioned accessibility issues clearly prevent PWDs from maximizing their potential. This forges further difficulties in integrating into the new normal. In particular, reskilling is key for PWDs in ensuring they have the adequate knowledge for new jobs in the soon-to-below-carbon, circular digital economy. As a result, there should be a strong need for civil societies as well as the corporate sector to create this accessibility: by taking on a more intersectional approach in their digital skills. Thailand’s third largest mobile operator, DTAC, for example, has launched such programmes in March 2022. It aims to conduct digital upskilling training for 21 occupational groups and vocational rehabilitation centers for PWDs while building a sign-language video call center to provide digital assistance; thereby, encouraging and enabling PWDs to be a part of the digital economy.

Thirdly, digital employment initiatives with a focus on PWDs should be developed. Regardless of the abundant digital tools and qualifications, it is likely to be difficult for PWDs to become adapted into the digital transformation if we continue to neglect PWDs as an untapped source of talent. As recommended by the joint report, programmes such as those that collaborate with PWDs through the hiring process or that promote the experiences of PWDs in the labor market will bring a far more inclusive impact on their employment prospects. In this case, the work of civil societies has been especially contributive: the 2020-22 Go Digital ASEAN Initiative in raising digital participation reached nearly 2000 PWDs. Similarly, social enterprises such as Enablecode in Vietnam targets bringing PWDs into careers in technology. With the aid of Amazon, World Bank and UNICEF, Enablecode has produced opportunities for PWDs not only to find work and earn more but also to help resolve obstacles their communities face in the gig tech economy.

In conclusion, the digital transformation has produced various setbacks for PWDs – accelerated by the pandemic – but as well as equal opportunities. It is significant for us to advocate and help adapt our digital tools and platforms to PWDs. Although it is clear that different member states’ policies in response will have varying degrees, it is greatly important that measures should be as collaborative and intersectional as possible in order to bring a strong collective global impact.

This article was written by Hninn Thit, edited by the Diplomacy Team, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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