Increasing Accessibility for Disabled Persons for Seamless Inclusion in Society

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Viewers of a WebChat at the American Center in Accra, Ghana who participated in the chat about persons with disabilities

Increasing Accessibility for Disabled Persons for Seamless Inclusion in Society

Are you familiar with the concept of “seamless accessibility”? I certainly was not before interning with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL). I envisioned accessibility to mean a modern building filled with ramps and elevators, but rarely considered access beyond the building. While inclusive facilities are essential for people with disabilities, accessibility and inclusion go far beyond architecture. Accessibility means that people with disabilities are able to fully participate in all areas of society, and that access is different for each person.

“Seamless accessibility” is just one element of inclusion that I learned about from attending DRL’s programs. In October, I had the privilege to attend an Interactive Webchat hosted by DRL and the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), entitled “Removing Barriers to Accessibility.” This chat featured accessibility experts and assistive technology innovators David Cappozzi, Paul Schroeder, and Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, who engaged audiences in Africa and Europe on topics of accessibility, challenges, and best practices. Speakers shared insights they experience using assistive devices like wheelchairs and white canes.

As a non-disabled individual, I had previously rarely reflected on the impact of accessibility. But hearing perspectives from individuals who face accessibility challenges was enlightening and helped me understand the importance of accessibility to ensure inclusion for everyone. As Global Disability Adviser at the World Bank Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo emphasized, people with disabilities have the capacity to “help people think through what accessibility can look like” and expand their understanding.

The concept of “seamless accessibility,” which was discussed in the webchat, particularly resonated with me. Seamless accessibility means that people with disability have access at all times and in all areas of life, versus at one moment or one place. It includes not only access to facilities, but also access to information through the Internet and to the arts; cultural accessibility, such as a supportive work environment; and beyond. Ms. McClain-Nhlapo offered an example from her life, describing seamless accessibility as not just the presence of a ramp to get to her office, but the ability to commute to work via public transportation and to feel part of the broader community of workers.

The concept of seamless accessibility challenged my prior ideas. I learned that accessibility is not simply achieved with the installation of ADA-accessible design -- rather, it is a dynamic and ongoing development that embraces cultural, social, and technological access. This ongoing process considers the needs of all people and makes use of the tools and resources required to fully and equally include persons with disabilities in all aspects of society.

Prior to this program, I was also unaware innovative assistive technologies and their tremendous contributions to the inclusion of people with disabilities. Paul Schroeder, Director of AIRA, spoke about one tool -- AIRA glasses -- as an example how technology changed opportunities for people with visual impairments by providing equal access to information along with sighted peers. Mr. Schroeder recounted how AIRA empowered him in his workplace and personal life, providing him greater autonomy to navigate his surroundings and interpret visual information presented in meetings. He noted that advancing assistive technology will continue to play a large role in seamless accessibility and the inclusion of people with disabilities.

The conversation about accessibility is especially important in the context of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, observed on December 3, which aims to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development. On this day, we reflect on the progress made to promote accessibly and the rights of people with disabilities, while recognizing there is still much more to be done.

About the Author: Kelly Cowan serves in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.

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