Access to Assistive Technology for Inclusive Development

Sarah Jonassen Bittman

Senior Technical Officer

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Every year, signatories to the Convention meet in New York at the UN Headquarters for a Conference of States Parties, where representatives from the country delegations report on their country’s progress in improving the situation for persons with disabilities, elect new members to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and hold high-level meetings to plan for cooperation at the international level to implement the CRPD.

Panelists at the "Access to Assistive Technology for Inclusive Development" side event in New York. (Photo: Sarah Bittman/MSH)
Panelists at the "Access to Assistive Technology for Inclusive Development" side event in New York. (Photo: Sarah Bittman/MSH)

The overarching theme of this year’s session was “Implementing the 2030 development agenda for all persons with disabilities: Leaving no one behind,” and many sub-themes were raised during the session: eliminating poverty and inequality for all persons with disabilities; promoting the rights of persons with mental and intellectual disabilities; enhancing accessibility to information and technology and inclusive development; and celebrating the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the CRPD.

Access and Affordability

The USAID-funded Leadership, Management, and Governance (LMG) Project collaborated with UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), USAID, and the International Disability Alliance to host a panel discussion on Access to Assistive Technology for Inclusive Development at the Conference on Tuesday, June 14. Uniting key actors and champions at the Conference, the discussion focused on increasing access to assistive technologies in developing countries.

The moderator, Venus Ilagan, Secretary General of Rehabilitation International, opened the panel by explaining that affordable assistive technology is a prerequisite for full participation by persons with disabilities in their communities. Access to good quality assistive technology at an affordable price can be translated into a reality, she said. It will not forever remain an aspiration for those living in developing countries.

Panelists Leah Maxson from USAID and Connie Laurin Bowie from Inclusion International agreed with this assessment of the importance of increasing access to affordable technology, and linked it to other development objectives. Without the full participation of all members of society, we cannot achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, civil and political participation and engagement can be dramatically increased by the use of captioning, and technology can be a tool to alleviate poverty and to increase economic, community, and educational participation.

However, involving persons with disabilities and their organizations in the development and design of assistive technology from the outset, while marketing the technology and ensuring that devices are useful to persons with disabilities in different parts of the world, remain a challenge. The International Disability Alliance Secretariat has made recommendations for how the disability community should be involved in the SDG process and to bridge the digital and knowledge divide in accessing technology.

Growing Demand

Chapal Khasnabis of WHO emphasized that there are about 1 billion people living with disabilities, but as health systems continue to strengthen and people everywhere live longer, it is estimated that by 2050 that number will double. He highlighted the huge inequality in access to assistive technology between the global north and south, and the fact that currently, wealthy people get high quality products, poor people get low quality products, and there is nothing in between. The majority of people who need assistive technology do not have access to it.

Dr. Khasnabis drew a parallel to a similar scenario that was the case in the medical and pharmaceutical industry 30 years ago, when companies could price medicines at high rates that made essential medicines inaccessible to millions in need. A key factor in changing this was WHO’s publication of an Essential Medicines List, which forced governments to procure products, create competition, and make medicines affordable. WHO is working now to do the same for assistive products. WHO sent out a survey in 52 languages, and received responses from over 10,000 people from 61 countries, to help narrow down the 50 highest priority assistive products that every country, especially those that have ratified the CRPD, should make available. 

Children with Disabilities

Roseangela Berman Bieler, the Senior Advisor and Chief of the Disability Section of UNICEF, also discussed the bottlenecks and gaps preventing most persons with disabilities from accessing assistive technology. In low- and middle-income countries, only 10-15% of people who need assistive technologies currently have access to them. She talked about the process of getting products from the vendor to the end user, and working through social protection mechanisms such as insurance to cover assistive devices, as is being done in the Philippines. In particular, she described how UNICEF is aligning with WHO on the list of essential products for children with disabilities.

Ensuring that children with disabilities can access assistive technology will have a huge social impact, helping them develop self-esteem and dignity, to interact with their families and communities, and to get an education. She emphasized the need to leverage existing international and national mechanisms such as the SDGs, the CRPD, the disability charter on inclusive humanitarian action, and others that are being created. These mechanisms have to highlight assistive technology for progress to be made in making it affordable and accessible to those who need it most.

Leaders with Disabilities

Finally, Carmen Reyes Zubiaga, Executive Director of National Council for Disability Affairs in the Philippines, spoke about her experience as an advocate for persons with disabilities in her country. Carmen, a past participant in the LMG Project’s Senior Leadership Program with a multi-sectoral team of government and Disabled People’s Organization partners from the Philippines, is a leader in the disability community both in the Philippines and on the international stage. She spoke about how assistive technology promotes independence and participation of persons with disabilities in political and public life, and described initiatives from the Philippines to improve rehabilitation services through multi-sectoral engagement to strengthen structures and services and empower persons with disabilities to demand their rights and participate in the development process. Each community may have unique needs, she said, but all should share the same principles and values of a rights-based, inclusive approach to ensuring that no one is left behind.

A brief question and answer session allowed panelists further opportunities to discuss issues such as public and private sector collaboration to increase access, building local capacity to provide assistive technologies for persons with disabilities in developing countries, and empowering consumers with disabilities to negotiate prices.

Venus Ilagan closed out the panel by highlighting the importance of a user-centered planning and evaluation process to increase access, quality, and effectiveness of assistive technologies. Devices and services must be flexible for users to modify them according to his or her needs, and service providers should be open to feedback.

Finally, she noted the crucial role of assistive technology in realizing the human rights of persons with disabilities, and that a more rigorous focus on inclusion and participation toward sustainable development will bring us closer to achieving our shared goals.