Dialogue on Communities, Disabilities, and Technological Inclusion
Since 2008 when I traveled to the European Union as a Marshall Memorial Fellow, the hastening pace of technological change has opened opportunities for people with disabilities. As a bibliophile and a leader active on the public square, I utilize, for example, my voice output software—a form of accessible technology or assistive technology—to pen this column or to read on an auditory basis. Moreover, I now own a mobile telephone that provides more accessibility functionality then many of my early computers as a blind college student. For all of our remarkable innovations, people with disabilities remain disenfranchised or otherwise bereft of equal opportunity. Dialogues held in 2014 and in 2019, which I hosted at the German Marshall Fund, discussed the “information gap” by people with sensory-based disabilities. Considering the impact of emerging technology on people with disabilities, I felt honored in co-facilitating a 2020 work group at the Technology Inclusion Summit.
During the new Inclusion Revolution, the transatlantic partnership must liberate science and technology to promote the public good of all minorities, not stymie their progress economically, financially, and socially. Specifically, Transatlantic communities must combine the marvels of science and technology and the uniqueness found in people with disabilities for our collective advancement.
Science and technology should be leveraged to open doors to opportunity across all groups, including by people with disabilities. According to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, people with disabilities comprise the world’s largest minority population, equaling one billion persons. From smart cities and transportation to public health, emerging science and technology can equalize and include this populous or can worsen their historical marginalization and exclusion.
No matter the specific public policy question, certain social disparities or resource disparities worsen inequities. Factors of rural versus urban and affluence versus poverty hinder technology accessibility, inclusion, and usability. According to the World Bank Group and its 2020 disability inclusion overview, people with disabilities domestically and internationally prove the most vulnerable: often under-employed or under-employed, and isolated even within large urban centers.
To ensure that the Inclusion Revolution encompasses people with disabilities, a standing work group could broker policy solutions, and could track their incorporation in the transatlantic partnership. I note the following issues.
An inclusion dialogue cannot occur, unless transatlantic policy influencers understand and otherwise commit that disability constitutes an equal part of a substantive policy agenda. To rely on words of a commonly bandied phrase: nothing about us without us. If one is not at the table, then one cannot influence important public policy decisions. As J.W. Goethe observed in The Sorrows of Young Werther, “misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness.” As an example of the substantive law and policy related to disability inclusion, Article 9 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, entitled Accessibility, directly imposes guidelines related to physical infrastructure and digital infrastructure. Therefore, a need exists for ensuring and otherwise fostering accessible, inclusive, and usable civic engagement at high levels of influence to implement law and policy.
According to the United Nations, sixty or more percent of the world’s population will reside in cities by 2050. Inclusive physical and digital infrastructure will be key to their prosperity, as the coronavirus pandemic’s spotlight on the digital sphere has revealed. However, transatlantic leaders have read too many reports about students or others needing to park in a local school parking lot to access the “web.” As a lawyer with a disability, I personally know the frustration of one hundred percent teleworking through a “hotspot” because my city does not enable full bandwidth. The accessibility of web-based platforms, of mobile applications, and of those plentitudes of online meetings many of us now attend prove themselves to be chief digital infrastructure concerns, especially by people with disabilities. In my experience, the instability of the bandwidth and my VPN also affects my screen reading software. With a transition to “smart cities,” these concerns are now in the forefront as part of the transatlantic partnership. Notably, there needs to be investment in the innovative ideas of people with disabilities through “angel funds” to work on policy problems.
The implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act shows the strong reason for disability as part of the policy agenda. Inclusion that benefits one group could concurrently help another group. For example, an accessible ramp or accessible curb cut also helps a non-disabled parent pushing a stroller. When a website works easily or quickly for a blind or visually impaired person; in my experience, that same website will more likely function for a sighted person. Therefore, the “smart cities” of the future must proactively adopt law, policies, and best practices that commit to full inclusion and integration. A work group with a focus on inclusion could collaborate with stakeholders to promote a “smart cities” accessibility pledge. A summit with small municipal officials should occur.
In conclusion, the future economy and world in which we will live will never be “normal” once again. Disability related inclusion must prove a substantive part of this new Inclusion Revolution.
Gary C. Norman, a Marshall Memorial Fellowship alumnus, is chair of the board of commissioners at the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.