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 Speech at the Internet Governance Forum 12 November 2007
Intersection of Open Standards, Development and Public Policy

Submitted by Cynthia D. Waddell, Juris Doctor
Executive Director and Law, Policy and Technology Subject Matter Expert
International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet
 

Good afternoon. My name is Cynthia Waddell and I am the Executive Director and Law, Policy and Technology Subject Matter Expert for a NGO – the International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet. I am also Vice-Chair of the Internet Society Disability and Special Needs Chapter and wear another hat as Lecturer in Law at Santa Clara University School of Law.

My comments today concern public policy, ICT (information and communication technology) standards and the accessible design of ICT as mandated by the new United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

I will begin with a very brief background on the convention or treaty, and then I will offer a proposal that all Dynamic coalitions include accessible design of ICT as a platform or point in their mission statements and goals. I will also provide examples on how accessible design has a direct impact on each Dynamic Coalition and why it must be addressed.

First – the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is the first human rights treaty of this millennium to address rights of 650 million persons with disabilities and impacts 2 billion persons including families of persons with disabilities.

The Convention opened for signature last March with the highest number of countries signing a convention in history. Last I looked, 118 countries have signed it.

Countries that ratify the Convention must align their legislation and regulations with the requirements of the Convention unless their legislation and regulations are already more favorable.

This alignment activity is already underway. The ICT industry and Standards organizations need to be engaged.

Why do I say this?

ICT mandates are significant components of the Convention. Fourteen out of the first thirty-two non-procedural articles of the Convention explicitly mention ICT obligations of States.

These obligations are generally defined as a desired outcome, rather than in specific technical terms.

Ratifying States are obligated to enact laws and regulations reflecting these requirements and these laws may entail specific technical requirements.

States must promote accessible design of ICT-based services and applications for government, employment, education, media and the Internet, consumer services, emergency response and cultural life.

States must support ICT- based assistive services for persons with disabilities.

States must support research and development efforts for assistive technology.

States must encourage Universal Design or Design for all.
They must also engage in international cooperation to support new technologies and seek to lower the cost of accessible technology as well as assistive technologies.

ICT applications addressed in the convention also involve freedom of expression, personal mobility and independent living.

Why am I calling for Dynamic Coalitions to include ICT accessible design in their effort?

The short reason is this – if you do not address this mandate, you may continue to erect new barriers for persons with disabilities and not be in alignment with national legislation for compliance with the treaty.

As I reviewed the mission and goals of the Dynamic Coalitions, I noticed that accessibility and disability issues impact the majority of Dynamic Coalitions currently underway. At this stage in our dialogue, I wonder if it would be most effective for each Dynamic Coalition to mainstream disability and address the theme as it impacts their domain.

Accessible design is a broad-cutting issue. Each Dynamic Coalition should be reporting out on this issue or perhaps appoint someone who is on task to carry the accessibility work forward.

So, you ask, how does this issue impact my Dynamic Coalition. Here are some examples:

Open Standards –
Let’s look at paragraphs 8 and 11 of the Open Standards Statement. Paragraph 8 states that the future of the global infrastructure for ICT standards is in jeopardy - that ICT standards are being privatized that will ultimately hurt consumer choice, equitable access, competition and innovation.

I first spoke about the problem of accessibility being privatized and the need for accessibility to not be proprietary in my Digital Divide Paper commissioned by President Clinton’s administration in 1999. That paper is entitled the Growing Digital Divide in Access for People with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers to Participation. Open standards for accessible design would also assist with another serious issue – interoperability for assistive technology. You may not be aware that a serious controversy arose when the State of Massachusetts announced that Open document Format would be the new standard for all files as of January 1, 2007. The community of persons with disabilities were extremely vocal because there was no existing technology that would enable screenreaders to read documents in Open Document Format and demanded that this problem be addressed. A request for bids or a tender was offered and a solution was quickly developed in the marketplace. As a result, the State now funds a technology lab to test all technology procurements to ensure that they are accessible to persons with disabilities.

Paragraph 11 talks about how open standards enable greater diffusion of technology and more equitable and affordable access to ICT. Quote “The failing health of the ICT standards ecosystem thus disproportionately hurts developing countries, which can ill afford the constraints on consumer choice and competition that are the results of this failure.”

This problem with the ICT standards ecosystem is evidenced by the passage of the UN Convention and its attention to accessible design of ICT. The failure of ICT standards is also found in the United States Section 508 legislation mandating that the US federal government procure accessible technology. A civil rights mandate wrapped around a procurement requirement had to be legislated in order to meet our needs.

Moving on to the Online Collaboration Dynamic Community – a community participation website for the use of stakeholders for providing best practices and tools, among other things- the website is not designed to be accessible. This means that even though the goal of the website to provide a forum for remote participation in the activities of the Internet Governance Forum, persons with disabilities cannot participate. This barrier could be overcome by implementing accessible web design using industry technical guidelines recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative – W3C WCAG 1.0.

I then took a look at the StopSpam Alliance – another Dynamic Coalition dedicated to combating spam and other security threats. I wondered if the coalition was aware that the use of captchas is another barrier that prevents people using screenreaders from being able to enter a website secured in this manner. Captchas are a type of challenge-response test used to determine whether the visitor is human in order to prevent spammers from entering the website. Humans with screenreaders cannot get through.

Another one – Dynamic Coalition on Privacy. Did you know there are specific disability rights laws the protect privacy of persons with disabilities? Is this disability dimension being addressed?

Another one- Access and Connectivity for Remote, Rural and Dispersed Communities – here I find their website referring to persons with disabilities who benefit in telecommuting – You guys are right on!

And the Dynamic Coalition for Internet Bill of Rights – rights and duties of Internet users - Will you be addressing the principles in the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the mandates for accessible ICT?

And the Dynamic Coalition for Access to Knowledge at IGF, - a coalition providing online access to knowledge and best practices – again, are you addressing accessible web design and accessible open document, for example?

Finally, the Framework of Principles for the Internet – a Dynamic Coalition addressing global public policy for the internet and hard and soft law, are you including the UN Convention mandate for Internet accessibility and universal design?

Some here may see other related issues not mentioned and so I offer this proposal for your consideration. I would also like to refer you to my September 2007 paper commissioned by the International Telecommunication Union on ICT access and service needs for persons with disabilities. It discusses best practices and provides a global snapshot of the situation. Thank You.

 

If you have questions or comments please e-mail them to  icdri@icdri.org

 

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