Harnessing ICTs to Empower Persons with Disabilities: UNESCO International Conference Opens in India

In a powerful show of commitment, three Ministers from the Indian Government joined Director-General Irina Bokova in opening the UNESCO International Conference on the Role of ICTs for Persons with Disabilities in New Delhi, India on 24 November.

The Conference seeks to harness the unprecedented opportunities that ICTs offer for empowering persons with disabilities, by sharing best practices, solutions and knowledge.

Across the world, there are over one billion women and men with disabilities, with 80 percent living in rural areas of developing countries. They are more likely to experience poverty and unemployment, to suffer from illiteracy and social exclusion.

“Promoting the rights of persons with disabilities is about human dignity -- it is also about sustainable development of communities and peoples,” said the Director-General.

“To move forward, we must do more to harness the power of information and communication technologies – to reach the unreached, to facilitate their participation in political, economic, social and cultural life, to widen access to information and benefits. This requires stronger action by Governments, greater awareness within societies, and mobilizing the innovation of the private sector.”

In a video message, Professor Stephen Hawking, author of “A Brief History of Time,” appealed for the “need to make sure this technology becomes available to those who need it so that no one lives in silence. I speak for people who cannot hear. Without technology, I would not be able to ask for a cup of tea, let alone speak about my theory of the universe.”

Opening the conference, Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister of Communications and Information Technology, affirmed that the Digital India programme was a priority of the Indian Government.

“We want to encourage e-education, e-health and e-commerce. This is a quest for empowerment. When we talk about bridging the digital divide, the gap between rural and urban India, the interest of disabled people must be taken on board and the Government of India is committed to doing this.”

The Minister of Human Resource Development Smt Smriti Zubin Irani, placed  emphasis on making quality education available to all, and outlined measures taken by the Government to facilitate access for people with special needs at all levels of the system. This includes specialized assistance in primary and secondary schools, as well as in technical and vocational education; an India-based platform for delivering massive online open courses, a scholarship scheme as well as special training for teachers.

“Quality education should be available to all and access should be easy. We hope to engage with best practices and adapt them, so that through ICTs, education will be spread to the remotest corners of the country, so that those who are excluded today are empowered tomorrow.”

The Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment Shri Thaawar Chand Gehlot outlined initiatives, including specialized training centres and technological innovations to improve the status of persons with disabilities and promote inclusive societies.

In a keynote speech, Dr Karan Singh, Member of India’s Upper House of Parliament and India’s representative to UNESCO’s Executive Board, stressed the importance of accessibility, legal rights and public awareness.

“ICTs can play a very valuable multiplier role in helping public awareness, treatment and rehabilitation of people with disabilities. Resources are still woefully inadequate, whether financial, technical or societal. Unless there is a change in attitude among the general public, we will not be able to tackle this problem. A massive public education campaign is required.”

Sir Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), spoke about the benefits of practicing para-sport and how ICTs have made it easier for the Paralympic Movement to engage global audiences, with the London 2012 Paralympic Games reaching a TV audience of 3.8 billion viewers. “One of our key goals is to raise awareness of the huge benefits that practicing and seeing para-sport can bring. ICTs have played a huge role in us achieving this goal and will play an even greater role in the future.”

Around 500 women and men from around the world are participating in this Conference, to promote the human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities and to encourage all stakeholders to take concrete measures for the empowerment of persons with disabilities through the effective applications of ICTs.