Covid-19 And The Digital Exclusion Of The Differently Abled



Covid-19 And The Digital Exclusion Of The Differently Abled

Technology has changed how the world works. We are now a global village, with everyone being a phone call away as we live-tweet revolutions, earn degrees on zoom and live  our best lives on TikTok. Life has become easier, at least in retrospect. And with the COVID-19 pandemic, all the fuss globally is going digital, or at least more digital.


But have you for a minute thought how technology and digital transformation, if not COVID-19, impacts persons living with disabilities? Probably not.


I love reading. It is an escape from reality. If I were stuck in the middle of nowhere, all I would ask for are books. But  when I first encountered audiobooks, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to torture themselves listening to such, considering in my pursuit for convenience there are better and easier ways of interacting with books. 


To me, audiobooks were annoying. I often fell asleep quarter way through. However, my lack of regard for audiobooks changed the moment I encountered a tweet on a lady who would do the noble act of reading blog posts out loud to their visually impaired roommate. I was guilt-ridden. 


Why, you would wonder?


Unless text is translated to braille, blind or visually impaired people do not get to experience some of the things sighted people consider trivial, such as reading. To the visually impaired, audiobooks are not annoying or sleep-inducing, but the closest anything can come to giving them a visual experience into the world that the rest of us consider normal. 


It is hard to think of things that are not in our constant everyday life. It is understandable, familiarity builds memory. Many of us, unless living, working, or randomly coming across PLWDs in the streets, hardly ever think of PLWDs. Why would you anyway?. Our encounters with PLWDS, if any, are often very brief;we have separate schools and, most often, activities too. Out of sight, out of mind, they say. Moreover, our media also is complacent, we rarely see persons living with disabilities featured in TV commercials or shows.


People are working remotely, shops and schools too are online, but how many e-commerce or education platforms have provisions for PLWDs? How do PLWDs work, shop, or school online? 


Ironically, the web was designed to give everyone access, but very many platforms fall short when it comes to disability inclusion and accessibility and this is not a local problem only; worldwide, persons with disabilities continue to suffer too. 


According to the 2019 census, persons living with disabilities make up 2.2% (0.9 million) of the Kenyan population. As it is, persons living with disabilities are already marginalized, COVID-19 has further compounded this situation. Many people living with disabilities are facing exclusion from remote work, and with a lack of accessible learning platforms, exclusion from education too. Without a doubt, the disproportionate impact on PLWDs is likely to have far-reaching effects, well into the post-pandemic period. To a community already grappling with a multitude of barriers to everyday ‘normal’ life, this is akin to a death sentence.


As we continue to make sense of what is a human crisis, it is only fair that all digital efforts should have a strong focus on building equal, inclusive, assistive technology, and devices. We  need to design around disability and make it easy for persons living with disabilities (PWDS) to navigate and interact with the new digital way of life.


We force persons living with disabilities to adapt to our world, but hardly do we try to fit in theirs. Disability is not inability. But our inability as abled people to not think, design, or even include persons living with disability in our daily lives could easily be our disability. 


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