United Nations Expert Group Meeting on Building Inclusive Society and Development through Promoting ICT Accessibility: “Emerging Issues and Trends”

Tokyo, Japan

I would like to first of all welcome the representatives of the thirteen countries who have travelled all this way to attend this expert meeting. We will also have more people participating from overseas by internet in tomorrow’s session. I would like to convey my sincere appreciation for the efforts and dedication that so many have poured in to make this three day meeting possible.

The Nippon Foundation has been aiming to build an inclusive society where everyone is given equal opportunity and rights to make their own choices and decisions. Therefore, we believe that disability along with poverty, disease and discrimination should not interfere with one’s rightful participation to society. But in reality, many people with disabilities have been robbed of their freedom to choose and denied their rights to equal opportunity. To change the situation for people with disabilities around the world, The Nippon Foundation is implementing various programs to provide opportunities for self-advocacy and empowerment.

In terms of support for people with visual or hearing disabilities, our main focus has been on improving their access to information through ICT. We have been working with institutions such as NTID at Rochester Institute of Technology, Gallaudet and Overbrook School for the Blind to support people with visual or hearing disabilities in areas such as higher education and human resource development. Utilizing ICT to its full capacity has made it possible for our program beneficiaries to reduce the barriers they often face, in environments such as schools and workplaces.

Let me share an extraordinary story about a man whose life was changed from that of despair to one of hope by his encounter with ICT. Mr. Boun Mao is a Cambodian native who lost vision in both his eyes in an unfortunate accident. The loss of his vision forced him to withdraw from university and break off an engagement with a woman he was hoping to spend the rest of his life with. Still wounded by his loss, he attended one of the computer training programs offered by The Nippon Foundation where he learned the basics of ICT such as how to operate a computer and use the internet. This new discovery shed light to his darkened world and gave his life new meaning. After that, there was no stopping him. He went on to establish the first organization of blind people in Cambodia in the year 2000. Mr. Boun has been exhibiting great leadership by offering ICT training and vocational programs to the members. Every time I visit him, I am encouraged by his motivation to help his fellow blind men and women in Cambodia.

With the power of ICT, we will continue our efforts to help transform the lives of those with disabilities who have not yet been given such opportunity so that more leaders like Mr. Boun can be nurtured.

For Mr. Boun and many other people with disabilities, gaining access to technology has made their everyday lives much more convenient, productive and enjoyable. We are confident that our initiatives are slowly paving the way to an inclusive society. However, the earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan on March 11, 2011 has posed several new challenges that must be addressed if we are to continue our progression.

Relief and recovery following the disaster were in three stages: immediate response, mid-term recovery and long term reconstruction. While the general population did face difficulty in each phase, the difficulties that people with disability faced were much more.

During the immediate response, tsunami warnings were announced in the coastal towns and villages by sirens and loud speakers. However, people who were deaf or hard of hearing were unable to get this information. Unaware of the approaching tsunami, those that survived were only able to do so because their families or close neighbors took them by the hand and led them to elevated ground.

In mid-term recovery, people who were evacuated in emergency shelters retrieved important information such as when and where to receive meals or other aid supplies from the postings that were made on the bulletin boards but people with visual impairment were unable to get this information.

In long term reconstruction, those who were deaf or hard of hearing were having a hard time registering for temporary housing and other services because appropriate means of communication had not been secured between them and the public agency staff. Learning of this difficult situation, The Nippon Foundation set up a remote sign language interpreter service using smart phones and tablets. However, in implementing this program we encountered a pitfall. We had anticipated that the deaf or hard of hearing individuals whom the program was trying to support may have difficulty in using the technology since many of them had neither touched nor seen a smart phone or tablet before. However, we were surprised when we discovered that many of the sign language interpreters who were providing the service were also unfamiliar with the technology and were reluctant to learn. As can be seen from this example, even though access to communication had been made available, many were unable to use the technology needed to access it.

ICT has potential to become an important tool of communication in times of emergency. However, unless people are familiarized with the technology on a daily basis, they cannot possibly be able to use it in times of emergency. The disaster inadvertently exposed this fact.

ICT is still an unknown technology to many people with disabilities. In order to get more people to adopt these new technologies, we must put ourselves in their shoes and make the technology more user-friendly. At the same time, governments, local municipalities and NGOs like The Nippon Foundation will need to work together to equip people with disabilities with the necessary skills and knowledge and raise awareness to people who support the disabled about the importance of ICT, so that the technology is disseminated and utilized to its full capacity.

It is my hope that your lively discussions and exchanges of ideas during these 3 days will lead to further development and wider use of ICT and bring us a step closer toward achieving an inclusive society.