UNESCO Commemorative Event on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities ~INCLUSION MATTERS: access and empowerment for people of all abilities~

Paris, France

Before I begin, I would like to offer my deep condolences to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris, and to their families and friends. It is very hard time for everyone. Our thoughts are with you.

The Nippon Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Japan. For many years, we have been engaged in various projects both in Japan and abroad. Our aim is to build an inclusive society where each member can realize his or her potential and live with dignity. My work as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination is one part of this effort. Through our activities that aim to both eliminate leprosy and end discrimination against people affected by leprosy, we are working to enable them to participate fully in society with dignity.

Together with our efforts in the area of leprosy, we are also committed to the empowerment of disabled persons. “Access and Empowerment” is our theme for today. It is a well-known fact that Information and Communications Technology or ICT promotes the empowerment of disabled persons.

Today, I would like to tell you about a young man who constantly challenges the possibilities of ICT. His name is Michael Curran and he comes from Australia. From birth, he had no vision in one eye, and relied on the other eye, but at the age of fifteen, he became totally blind. Michael majored in computer science at university, and as a student, he realized just how inconvenient computers could be for vision-impaired people to use. Together with a friend, he developed what is called Nonvisual Desktop Access or NVDA, a new screen reader.

A screen reader makes it possible for blind or visually impaired people to use computers because it converts the text on the screen into a synthetic voice or braille display. It reads the text on the screen, and tells the user where to input letters, for example. This enables not only word processing and calculation, but also the use of a wide range of software. However, these high-functioning screen readers are often expensive, and it is difficult for visually impaired people especially in developing countries to have access to them.

Michael made NVDA an open source software, which means it is free and accessible to anyone. Thereby, Michael has helped to contribute to the empowerment of visually impaired persons. The Nippon Foundation is a partner with Michael, and we support his activities.

The Nippon Foundation is engaged in a number of activities and projects that seek to empower disabled persons in various ways. Let me give you another example of our projects that makes use of ICT.

We have found that one factor that prevents disabled persons from fully participating in society and realizing their potential is the lack of systems and insufficient environment. To address this problem, The Nippon Foundation helped to establish IDPP, Institute on Disability and Public Policy. This institute offers graduate programs in public policy for Asian students with various disabilities. By enabling them to participate in the decision making process in government and social sectors, social systems and environment will become more inclusive, better reflecting the opinions of disabled persons.

One of the notable features of this institute is that part of its study program is offered online which allows students anywhere in Asia to pursue studies and obtain an academic qualification. These classes make use of ICT. I believe that this technology has dramatically increased the opportunities for education for disabled persons.

As you can see from these examples, ICT has great potential to empower disabled people. However, we are aware that ICT is not the perfect solution. In order to effectively use this technology, education and training are necessary, in particular, in developing countries. In this regard, we are very happy that UNESCO and The Nippon Foundation have agreed to work together in order to provide education and training in ICT on a global scale.

The Nippon Foundation will also be working together with UNESCO to organize a festival of disabled artists in conjunction with the Paralympic Games. In 2020, the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be held in Tokyo. The Paralympics is a shining example of an event which, in the words of the Paralympic movement, enables disabled persons “to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.” Just as athletes capture our hearts with their athletic prowess, artists touch our souls through their artworks and performances. I believe that an art festival, such as the one we are planning, can be a transformative experience, not only for those who visit, but also for the artists themselves.

The Nippon Foundation has hosted art festivals for disabled persons in ASEAN countries. At these events, I have been moved by the power and beauty of the artworks and performances I have seen. They ignited the atmosphere of the venue. I felt then the need to share this experience with others on a global level.

The Nippon Foundation and UNESCO will work together to ensure that the art festival will promote inclusion and realize empowerment for people of all abilities. If the art festival together with the Paralympics allows people to develop a new perception and focus on abilities, not on disabilities, we will have taken a large step towards realizing a truly inclusive society.

Thank you for having me as part of this panel. I’ll be happy to take your questions later.