When the COVID-19 outbreak was first announced in Kenya in March 2020, panic began as people saw the effects of curfews and the closing of offices, businesses, and schools. Three days after the initial information regarding the first COVID-19 case, the Kenyan president announced measures to curb the spreading of the virus. Among them was the adoption of cashless transaction and remote work. The adoption of these measures emphasised the problem of digital accessibility in Kenya.
Digital accessibility is commonly defined as the ability of a website, mobile application, or electronic document to be easily navigated and understood by a wide range of users, including people who have visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive disabilities.
In the above-mentioned presidential briefing, sign-language interpreting was not available. Following an outcry from the affected community, TV stations were ordered to provide sign-language interpreting in their COVID-19-related broadcasts. However, when one watched these types of broadcasts via YouTube, it was necessary to turn on the captions.
This example only highlights a broader problem. Despite Kenya being recognised as a global tech-savvy country, persons with disabilities still struggle with accessing basic information online or via local apps, since these platforms were not developed with accessibility in mind.
There are exceptions to this trend. The Kenyan mobile company Safaricom, for example, has been putting efforts into improving accessibility. In 2018, it developed a braille wearable computing device known as the Dot Braille Watch, which displays SMS notifications in braille, enabling visually impaired persons to read their M-PESA (mobile banking service) messages and conduct financial transactions via their mobile phones. Innovations such as these, however, while an important tool in improving digital accessibility, are insufficient in a country where over two million people have one or more types of disability, according to the 2019 national census.
With COVID-19, it has become apparent that more persons with disabilities will have to, not only learn, but be able to engage digitally. Hence, there is an increasing and pressing need for lasting solutions instead of quick fixes.
In its ‘Accessibility’ section, the 2019 Kenyan National ICT Policy clearly states:
The Government will provide an ICT environment fully accessible to persons with disabilities. The Government of Kenya is fully committed to providing equal treatment to people with disabilities with respect to the use and benefit of ICT services, programs, goods and facilities in a manner that respects their dignity and that is equitable in relation to the broader public.
In the past two years, there have been more discussions around digital accessibility and inclusion by different stakeholders. However, the time has come for a wider national multistakeholder debate process, which would include knowledgeable and experienced persons with disabilities in order to tackle accessibility as it affects every sector of the Kenyan digital ecosystem.
This wide debate process should consider questions such as:
- Are persons with disabilities in Kenya digitally literate?
- Is digital accessibility part of (or should be part of) the curriculum. At which level and in which subject?
- Does Kenya have enough digital accessibility experts and, if not, what measures can be put into place to increase this number?
- What are the policies and standards focusing on accessibility, and how can different stakeholders promote their implementation within their stakeholder groups?
- How can Kenya prioritise and institutionalise digital accessibility?
- Can a multistakeholder, monitoring, and evaluation group be set up to oversee this process?
Despite ongoing efforts, there is still much work to be done to ensure digital accessibility, and the above-mentioned questions are just a starting point. Digital accessibility is not just the right thing to do, it is what must be done to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all spheres.
If Kenya as a nation can realise the importance of digital accessibility and give it the priority it deserves, then not only will it set a benchmark for other nations, but inclusion will become a practise both online and offline.
Judith Ann Okite is the founder of the Association for Accessibility and Equality (AAFE). She is a faculty and administration member at the Kenya School of Internet Governance, and an active member of the Dynamic Coalition on Accessibility and Disability (DCAD).
What are the main challenges of digital accessibility in your own country and how can these better be tackled?
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