I am often asked how “we” – development professionals and practitioners at large - can make a difference to social exclusion. It is an opportune day to reflect on this by thinking about a diverse group of historically excluded people. The focus of today’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities is appropriately on “Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology.” Because the power of technology in rehabilitation and hence, for inclusion, is uncontested. Let me quickly add that technology is a necessary, but by no means a sufficient condition for enhancing the functional ability of persons with disabilities.
Technology attenuates many barriers that disability raises. It has changed the way persons with disabilities live, work and study. The seminal World Report on Disability emphasizes the role of technology for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in markets, in services and in physical, political and social spaces. It points out for instance, that assistive devices can substitute or supplement support services, possibly even reduce care costs. The National Long-Term Care Survey in the United States found that higher use of technology was associated with lower reported disability among older people. The fascinating Digital Accessible Information SYstem (DAISY) consortium of talking-book libraries aims to make all published information accessible to people with print-reading disabilities. And the examples could go on.
We released a report last year, “Inclusion Matters: The Foundation for Shared Prosperity” which emphasizes “ability, opportunity and dignity” as the triumvirate that enables excluded groups to move towards greater inclusion. This triumvirate is particularly salient for persons with disabilities, who are often subject to negative attitudes and perceptions. For instance, perceptions about what they can achieve, aspire to, and how they should be treated, come together to envision disability as an immutable constraint. This view is especially pronounced in less developed countries. Yet, disability is about functional limitation, not about how limited someone may be based on their physical or mental condition. And technology can enhance functional ability, it can open up opportunity and so, a life of dignity.
But the converse is also true. Where technology is a great enabler, it is also a great excluder, and can widen the chasm between two people with the same disability. The internet is still very expensive in many countries, with urban residents, people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and those who speak English having clear advantage. Even apart from the internet, many cannot afford the basic solutions that technology can offer.
Fortunately, innovation continues despite constraints. Thousands of community based rehabilitation initiatives have generated local technological solutions, which when combined with a menu of services, enable strides towards social inclusion. This is where “we” – development professionals and practitioners at large can play a role - by strengthening the hands of these groups, connecting them with others, linking them to sources of funding and making them a part of projects and programs, such that persons with disabilities become equal partners.