One section of the Nigeria society that seems not to have been carried along in both services and programmes such as promos by telecommunications operators is the Challenged Group.
Challenged group comprises people with one form of disability or the other which incapacitated them from competing effectively with physically fit in the society.
In recognition of this ugly trend, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) sometime last year held an interactive session with the group and found that they are left out and exposed to compete with physically fit in the society in the use of services provided by telecom operators when their disability did not allow them.
It was in view of this that the commission held a consultative forum with operators in the telecommunications industry in July last year on how to assist this group and old people through a special service and tariff.
Ms. Lola Emekporia, director, Consumer Affairs, NCC, said the commission also discovered from the commission’s interaction with the group that they constitute 25 per cent of the society. She stressed the need for urgent attention as to the way services are provided in order that they are carted for.
It was also noticed she added, that billing platform that support checking of account balance through short message service does not accommodate this group as those of them that are visual impaired can not know their account balance. Deactivation of audio/voice prompt facility used by visual impaired people by GSM operators. It added that the operators that have not deactivated the service charge between N20 to N25 for using that service. It was observed that promotions run by operators exclude challenged group by the way it is structured.
The neglect being suffered by the challenged group and old people in the country by telecommunications service providers is not specific to Nigeria, they are as well faced with similar neglect in some others countries that informed the focus of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Asia-Pacific Regional Forum on Mainstreaming ICT Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities, held in Bangkok, Thailand from 25 to 27 August 2009. The forum shared a range of critical policy and regulatory measures to promote accessible information and communication technologies (ICT) for persons with disabilities.
The Forum was hosted by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) of Thailand, and marked the first coordinated effort to promote implementation of the ICT provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). The Convention puts rights to ICT accessibility on a par with well-recognized rights to accessibility to transportation and the physical environment, such as ramps to buildings for those in wheelchairs.
The Forum was opened on behalf of Ranongruk Suwanchawee, Minister of Information & Communication Technology for Thailand, who in her message to delegates called the UN CRPD "a significant step for all of humanity, since its main purpose is to protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity."
It is expected that the UN Convention will make assistive ICT technologies as common as wheelchair ramps and audible signals for traffic lights, which have already become standard in many parts of the world. Assistive technologies include screen readers (which read content from websites out loud for the visually impaired), captioning or sign language on television for the deaf, cell phones that include features such as special volume control, large character touch pads and predictive text features, as well as the adoption of accessible website design by both the public and private sectors.
As of last month, 142 countries have signed the UN CRPD. "The 64 nations that have already ratified the convention represent over two-thirds of the world’s population. Gaining the right to ICT access for the 650 million persons living with disabilities around the world has made the legislative, policy and regulatory activities related to digital accessibility a major priority among ITU Member States," said Sami Al-Basheer, director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau.
The number of persons with disabilities is increasing worldwide, due to aging populations in some countries, as well as war and civil conflict, natural disasters, malnutrition and other causes.
ITU organized the Forum together with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). The event welcomed some 140 participants from 21 countries, including policy makers, regulators, operators, industry representatives, NGOs and disabled persons organizations, as well as experts and ICT professionals including disabled persons from across the region and beyond.
It was supported by the National Telecommunications Commission of Thailand (NTC), Australia’s Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE), and the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center (Nectec).
Dr Eun-Ju Kim, head of the ITU Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, said the Forum demonstrated that the Asia-Pacific region is leading the ICT accessibility agenda of the UN CRPD through multi-stakeholder partnership. "There is significant momentum in the region and a great level of awareness of the need to promote ICT accessibility. This Forum enabled countries in the region to not only provide a platform to all stakeholders but also share their innovative practices," she said.
The Government of Thailand, which has ratified the UN CRPD, is working on implementation by establishing learning centres nationwide that include assistive technologies such as Braille printers and digital talking books for use by the visually impaired. There are also plans to use closed captioning for television programming to promote use by hearing impaired users.
ITU and its partner, the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs (G3ict), recently teamed up to develop an online Toolkit for Policy Makers on e-Accessibility & Service Needs for Persons with Disabilities, to assist national regulators, policy makers and legislators to implement measures and foster national programmes supporting the digital accessibility agenda of the CRPD. At the same time, ITU is a major champion of the role of agreed international standards for ICT accessibility development. ICT accessibility standards applied to different technologies will help manufacturers gain access to global markets and leverage economies of scale in production and distribution. Users benefit through lower costs and the assurance that equipment will integrate and work efficiently with other ICT systems.
At the consultative forum NCC held with telecom operators, service providers pledged their willingness to support the challenged group through implementation of policies geared towards the benefit of members of the group.
Olajide Aremu, technical manager, Globacom, said that there should be clear policy on what is expected of operators to implement to assist the challenge group.
Operators were urged to look at designing a programme or service for the challenged group as part of their over all marketing strategy and not as if they doing the group a farvour, as such effort forms part of universal access which ensures that nobody is left behind in the provision of telecommunications services.
Deolu Ogunbanjo, president, National Association of Telecommunications Subscribers of Nigeria (Natcomms) said that his association had made representation to NCC at the commission’s consumer outreach programme held in Ile-Ife, in which they are seeking implementation of certain service and policies in favour of the challenged group.
He noted that the use of voice prompt to check account balance is yet to be implemented by GSM operators except GloMobile that charge for the service. He said if other operators in the GSM space which accounts for greater percentage of subscribers as well as coverage, provide the voice prompt platform for checking of account balance it would have taken care of agitation of blind people in the society.
Ogunbanjo, added that Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) service providers have both platforms on their network and are not charging for it.
He also emphasized on the need for operators to provide a system that allows deaf people to lodge complain and solve problems associated with service provision through data on their phone, which presently is not available. He explained that the argument by operators that such people could use internet and send email to their customer care department, did not provide access to greater percentage of deaf people as most of them don’t have access to the internet especially those living in rural areas.
Challenged group are as important as physically feet in the society and therefore should be carried along especially in the provision of telecommunications services by address their unique challenge through the provision peculiar services. NCC as the regulator of the industry need to monitor effectively the implementation of recommended challenged group and old people oriented services by telecommunications operators, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD).