ICT barrier for the disabled in Zim worsens during COVID-19

By Tafadzwa Muranganwa

The ravaging Coronavirus pandemic has put people living with disabilities in Zimbabwe who constitute approximately 10 % of the population in a quandary as the ‘new normal’ now requires excessive use of ICTs in many facets of life.

Lame COVID-19 awareness 

Ever since the outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Zimbabwe just like any other country has been churning our messages on the preventative measures citizens may take to protect themselves from the novel virus and also providing daily Covid-19 information updates.

But there has been a concern from a local umbrella organisation for people living with disability, National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped(NASCOH) acting executive director Lovemore Rambiyawo who said while the country had made effort in ensuring a disability-inclusive COVID-19 response through the provision of information updates in accessible formats for the benefit of deaf and visually impaired persons in Zimbabwe it has yet to implement extra and comprehensive measures to ensure an effective disability inclusive COVID-19 response.

“The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognizes that PWDs may be impacted more significantly by Covid-19, while the International Disability Alliance has come up with recommendations for a disability-inclusive COVID-19 response.

“While Zimbabwe has made a stab at ensuring a disability-inclusive COVID-19 response through the provision of information updates in accessible formats for the benefit of deaf and visually impaired persons in Zimbabwe, it has yet to implement extra and comprehensive measures to ensure a disability-inclusive COVID-19 response,” explained the NASCOH boss.

He also raised concern on how digital media platforms are not pliable to PWDs(People With Disabilities)

“Communication is not always in plain language; digital media platforms are not always accessible to people with visual impairments, there are no alternative phone lines for blind persons and email address for deaf and hard of hearing persons as a temporary option where communications are not yet accessible,” said Rambiyawo

Students with disabilities miss on online and radio lessons

When the schools were closed in early March, the government encouraged lessons to be conducted online while it also rolled out radio lessons through its public radio channels. However, a disability activist, Masimba Kuchera is livid about this as students living with disabilities were left out.

“The students with disabilities were ‘left on their own’. The government did not provide them with assistive technologies for example those with hearing impairments and the visually impaired could not access the radio and online lessons respectively,” revealed Kuchera.

CSOs come to the rescue, But…

A local disability organisation, Signs of Hope has an assistive technology pillar where students with disabilities were able to be taught how they can use assertive technologies, according to Signs of Hope director Samantha Sibanda.

“At Signs of Hope we have an assistive technology pillar where we teach PWDs on how to use assistive technologies and we had a lot of students with disabilities expressing interest during the lockdown.

“So many PWDs are not aware of the open-source applications which are free of charge ,” said Samantha.

She however said those that are of high efficiency are out of reach for many PWDs in Zimbabwe who survive on measly incomes.

“There is an application called Jaws which is a screen reader it translates words into audio , it costs 50 US which has a higher efficiency,” added the disability activist.

Another civic society organisation, DAPP has been assisting PWDs in Rushinga,Mashonaland Central and when COVID-19 stuck it donated 6 ipads to ensure that the vulnerable group was up-to-date with the pandemic information.

However, it’s still a mammoth task for the disabled in Zimbabwe to acquire assistive technologies and this was affirmed by Wilson Jongwe,social development officer in the ministry of public service and social welfare.

“As a ministry we do receive applications for assistive technologies from DPOs (Disability Persons Organisations) which we then facilitate but to be honest the process takes long, ”highlighted Jongwe.

Hope in coming National Disability Policy

There is the need to revisit some perceptions and policies that have been a stumbling block to ensure PWDs’ access to ICTs is widened,says Samantha Sibanda.

“Here, people living with disability are viewed as a charity cases while in developed countries like USA and Europe app developers actually look at PWDs as a business boon because their apps will be specifically designed to ensure the efficiency of this folk,”she retorts.

She also added that Zimbabwe has to domesticate the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities(CRPD) to enable PWDs to access ICTs.

“Remember that Zimbabwe ratified the CRPD and there is article 20 on mobility which speaks on assistive technologies as rights to people with disabilities.

“Unfortunately we have only ratified it but we haven’t domesticated it,’’.

A few years ago , the ministry of finance waivered the importation of assistive technologies but only when they are donations and the intended recipient is a Private Voluntary Organisation(PVO) but DPOs here are not satisfied.

The only hope to access ICTs without hurdles now lies in the impending national disability policy , says Tawanda Mupanedengu,a visually-impaired youth.

“It will be worthwhile for us as PWDs to ensure that there are enough inputs so government can change policies that affect us in accessing ICTs which go a long way in improving our lives,”says Mupanedengu.

Digital exclusion and COVID-19 were top on the agenda at this year’s Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) co-hosted by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Paradigm Initiative (PIN) last month.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that PWDs constitute  15 per cent of world population are  . However, according to UNESCO, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have the potential for making significant improvements in the lives of these persons, allowing them to enhance their social and economic integration in communities by enlarging the scope of activities available to them.