Advocates from Ghana and Uganda have urged better online access for deaf people in Africa, citing current systemic obstacles confronting over 136 million people with hearing loss from accessing digital platforms and content.
They highlighted the importance of improved online accessibility in guaranteeing equal opportunities and fostering inclusivity for deaf people across the continent, and that removing these barriers would allow deaf people to participate fully in a wide range of activities.
The activists, Mr Juventus Duorinaah, a Professional Law Student at Ghana School of Law in Makola-Accra, and Mr Egwelu Timothy, a Ugandan lawyer and Disability Policy and Inclusion Consultant, in a report copied to the Ghana News Agency.
The report by Mr. Duorinaah and Mr. Timothy was unveiled in observance of this year’s International Day of Universal Access to Information, observed annually on September 28.
The day is observed to promote the importance of enhancing legislation and its enforcement in relation to digital rights and to expand access to information.
The duo provided insights into legal and disability policies, proposing the integration of features like closed captions, sign language interpretation, and visual cues on websites and online platforms to enhance a smooth digital experience for deaf people.
The 2021 World Report on Hearing released by the World Health Organisation (WHO), estimates136 million individuals in Africa are affected by varying degrees of hearing loss.
However, the majority of this population faces multiple challenges when accessing online and digital content.
Mr. Duorinaah and Mr. Timothy noted that digital rights had emerged as a critical factor in guaranteeing online accessibility and inclusive design for individuals who are deaf in Africa.
He said the internet had become an essential component of people’s everyday lives, offering a multitude of opportunities for communication, learning, information retrieval, and global interaction.
It also sparked a revolution, resulting in the digitization of numerous resources and offering a multitude of advantages, citing a substantial portion of educational materials, which are now available on online platforms.
These online platforms have been found to significantly improve the overall quality of life and expand opportunities for individuals.
The two advocates said online platforms offer various benefits and improve overall quality of life, including improved access to timely and dependable information, education materials and services, employment prospects, healthcare options, and social inclusion.
According to them, inclusive design, which entails the consideration of all individuals, including those with disabilities, is of utmost importance in guaranteeing online accessibility for the deaf community.
The said online inclusive design should encompass the incorporation of various features, such as closed captions or transcripts for videos, text alternatives for images, and sign language interpretation for live events or video conferences.
Mr. Duorinaah and Mr. Timothy noted that the incorporation of these elements not only benefits the deaf community but also enhanced usability and accessibility for a wider range of individuals.
In Africa, they said, limited resources for providing reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities had prompted the exploration of digital resources as a means to enhance the integration of the Deaf community into society.
Noting that automatic speech recognition technology has the potential to facilitate real-time conversion of spoken words into text, enabling deaf individuals to actively engage in online conversations and video calls at a relatively low expense.
For instance, video relay services have the potential to improve communication between deaf individuals and those who can hear by providing them with greater access to qualified sign language interpreters.
“This is particularly beneficial in remote or hard-to-reach areas where such interpreters may be scarce or not readily available in person,” their report said.
They also raised ethical and legal issues on online accessibility and inclusive design legal obligations.
Most African countries have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which acknowledges the significance of accessibility and inclusive design in promoting the overall inclusion of disabled individuals in society.
It emphasises equal access to information and communication technologies, obligating that we facilitate the inclusion of individuals with disabilities by promoting their access to “new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet.”
According to data released by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), an estimated 32 million individuals in Africa, are classified as deaf.
The African population subgroup faces marginalisation and exclusion.
Despite its significant size, many have trouble accessing the internet and digital information owing to a lack of closed captioning or sign language interpretation in videos and webinars.
This is hindering their ability to fully participate in various aspects of life, including education, employment, political engagement, and daily activities.
It also limits the ability of deaf people in Africa to engage in online discussions, take advantage of the wide range of services available on the internet, such as participating in policy consultations, and engage in independent online interactions with both governmental and non-governmental entities.
“Online resources in Africa, including online videos, often lack captioning or subtitles,” said Mr. Duorinaah and Mr. Timothy, describing it as a significant drawback for users with hearing impairments.
Multiple studies and reports have also underscored the lack of accessibility of African online resources for individuals with disabilities.
According to a report by AbleGamers, a nonprofit organisation, a mere 7% of websites in Africa have been found to be fully accessible for individuals with disabilities.
This means that a majority of websites and digital platforms are not designed to accommodate deaf individuals.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) also revealed that only 60% of African countries have policies or legislation in place to promote accessibility for people with disabilities.
The report called for robust regulatory frameworks and enforcement mechanisms that prioritise the rights of deaf people and guarantee their equitable access to digital services.
Deaf individuals face barriers to accessing films, educational videos, tutorials, and other audiovisual content, hindering their ability to enjoy such media.
The lack of online accessibility and inclusive design poses significant obstacles for Deaf individuals, impeding their full engagement in the digital realm and depriving them of their essential rights to communication and information.
But equal access to digital services and platforms is crucial for enabling deaf individuals to fully engage in the digital realm, allowing them to access information, services, and opportunities.
This commitment aligns with the transformative agenda of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which emphasises the principle of inclusivity and ensuring that no one is left behind.
On the International Day of Universal Access to Information, the advocates called on African leaders and fellow advocates for disability rights to prioritise digital access to information and inclusive design in line with the principles of CRPD to foster the complete inclusion of deaf individuals within society.
Governments should also muster the political will and effective oversight necessary to promote the inclusion of deaf individuals on digital platforms.
Under Article 9 of the convention, signatories are obligated to take positive actions in order to facilitate the realisation of accessibility for individuals with disabilities.
African leaders are urged to fulfil their obligation under Article 9 of the CRPD by taking steps to enhance access for deaf individuals by ensuring that all websites, applications, and digital content are designed in a manner that is accessible to people with disabilities, including those who are deaf.
Website designs should include active auto-captioning features to ensure accessibility for deaf individuals, and civil society organisations and investors should actively engage in various initiatives to improve online access, with states lending their support by way of granting text exemptions.
Domestic legal frameworks should also be realigned with international obligations in the CRPD.
The advocates commended ongoing efforts in several African countries, like Kenya, that have recently implemented the Persons with Disabilities Act, a legislative measure that requires the availability of accessible information and communication technologies.