Edited by K. Anne-Rivers Forcke, IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center.
Contributors: James Thurston, Microsoft Trustworthy Computing Group; Martin Gould, Accessibility Expert; Andi Snow-Weaver, IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center; Susan Schorr, Head, Special Initiatives Division, ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT)
There is an inextricable link between ICT use and literacy skills since by its very nature information and communication technologies depend on communication abilities; much of the content delivered over ICT, especially Internet-based content, remains text-base and the format and content of web pages often demand skills similar to those of document literacy. However, several problems remain with the spread of literacy; the patterns of illiteracy have not altered much over the years, and significant disparities exist between the literacy rates of indigenous and non-indigenous populations.
There are important ways by which accessible ICT and assistive technologies can enable low literacy populations. The authors discuss how where literacy challenges remain, accessible ICT and assistive technologies can help produce benefits for ICT users.
89% As of April 1, 2009, the portion of the global population empowered by countries who have signed the UNCPRD.
The “medical model of disability” – the model most widely understood and interpreted today – considers disability “a physical, mental, or psychological condition that limits a person’s activities,” linked to various medical conditions and viewed as a problem residing within the affected individual. Considering this model of disability, along with statistics reported in both developed and developing countries, the World Bank in its 2007 report “Measuring Disability Prevalence” estimated the number persons with disabilities to be between 10-12% of the global population.
While the medical model is the construct for disabilities that we are historically most accustomed to using, over time the international community has largely come to recognize that the medical model is not a sufficiently effective or empowering conceptual framework for promoting the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in society, as pointed out in an earlier World bank report entitled “Making Inclusion Operational: Legal and Institutional Resources for World Bank Staff on the Inclusion of Disability Issues in Investment Projects”. As a result the paradigm of disabilities is expanding to include both the medical model as well as the more recently defined “social model of disability.”
Unlike the medical model of disability, the social model of disability views disability as “arising from the interaction of a person’s functional status with the physical, cultural, and policy environments,” an approach which closely follows the work done by the UN Washington Group on Disability Statistics. According to the social model, disability is the outcome of the interaction of a person with his or her environment and thus is neither person- nor environment-specific. Within the social model, then, a disability results when a person attempts to communicate, yet does not understand or speak the national or local language. Similarly, a disability results when someone who has never before operated a phone or computer attempts to use one – with no success. In both cases, a disability has occurred, because the person was not able to interact with his or her environment.
Parallel to the social model which describes a disability as occurring at a specific moment within an individual’s interaction with some aspect of their environment, the universal design principals highlighted in the Inclusive Design Toolkit call upon designers to assess the capability demands of their products and minimize the instances where the capability demand of that product exceeds the capabilities of the intended user. Clearly, the goal is to minimize the opportunity for a social disability to occur in the environment by designing barrier-minimal products.
But ICT can create a complex environment, offering the user experiences to interact not only with the ICT device, but also with the content and processes it delivers. Because the ICT environment can intake as well as calculate and respond to the actions of the user – even offering unsolicited opportunities for interaction – interfacing with this environment can become quite complex. It is precisely the complexity of interacting with ICT environments that provides a prime opportunity for us demonstrate how accessible ICT and assistive technologies can address some social disabilities as effectively as they address medical disabilities.
Patterns of literacy
In the report “Literacy and Digital Technologies: Linkages and Outcomes” published by Statistics Canada in 2005, ICT use is linked to literacy skills in a number of ways since by its very nature information and communication technologies depend on communication abilities. Citing research by the International ICT Literacy Panel (2002) and others, the report goes on to say that much of the content delivered over ICT, especially Internet-based content, remains text-base and the format and content of web pages often demand skills similar to those of document literacy. Furthermore, the cognitive skills such as those underlying reading and problem solving are also critical to using ICTs effectively. Based on studies such as these along with our own experiences, there is little doubt that illiteracy or low literacy can present a barrier to a user’s interaction with ICT. But what is the size of the illiterate population and can accessible ICT and assistive technologies enable or improve their use of ICT?
The global patterns of illiteracy and projections show that while there has been a substantial decrease in the self-reported rate of illiteracy, the overall number and patterns have not changed much over the last 50 years. UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report 2006: Literacy for Life provides the following summary of the distribution profile of global illiteracy found in Figure 2.4.1 (figure coming soon):
1. Youth literacy rates are increasing but slower than the overall 15 years and over age group average
2. The spread of formal schooling does appear to have helped diminish the male/female gap
3. The spread of formal schooling does appear to have helped diminish the gap between geographical regions.
As the GMR2006 points out, most closely associated with the decline in illiteracy is the attainment of education – the levels of completed schooling. Literacy rates increase significantly as the levels of completed schooling increase both in developing and developed countries. Other than educational attainment, additional factors influencing literacy include income, gender, age, social exclusion and geography. Two additional influencing factors are related directly to the physical relocation of people both within and between countries: 1) indigenous peoples and 2) migration. As we will demonstrate, the low-literacy populations can benefit from accessible ICT and assistive technologies.
Migration, language and literacy
Worldwide, migration has grown dramatically in recent decades. According to the International Organization for Migration as cited in UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report 2006: Literacy for Life, the number of international migrants has increased from 76 million in 1960 to over 185 million today, with a wider range of both sending and receiving countries. Motives for migration include economic betterment, greater economic interdependence, and cheaper and more accessible transportation. Likewise, wars and political conflicts have also been significant factors increasing the numbers of people relocating as refugees and displaced persons. A literate migrant from one community might become ‘illiterate’ in a new community that uses different written languages. These populations are often referred to as “second-language learners” as their geographical relocation places them in an environment where their native or primary language is not recognized as an official language for the conduct of government or business.
Indigenous peoples and literacy
Another population highlighted by UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report 2006: Literacy for Life are the approximately 300 to 350 million indigenous people, who speak between 4,000 and 5,000 languages, live in more than 70 countries and account for 5% of the world’s population. Today the evidence suggests that significant disparities exist between the literacy rates of indigenous and non-indigenous populations. Citing multiple other studies, the GMR2006 points out that the national literacy rate in Ecuador was 91% (based on 2001 census figures), but was only 72% for indigenous groups. Similarly, in Bangladesh, only 18% of indigenous peoples were literate (1991 census figures), as compared to the national figure of 40% while in Namibia the adult literacy rate among the San population is approximately 20%, as compared to the 95% rate among the Afrikaans population. In Vietnam the national literacy rate is 87%, yet as low as 4% for some indigenous groups such as the Lolos. And in the 1996 Adult Literacy Survey in New Zealand, a significantly higher percentages of Maoris than non-Maoris scored below the minimum level required to meet the ‘complex demands of everyday life and work’ in prose, document and quantitative literacy. Many of these populations represent groups that – for complex social, cultural or political reasons – have been excluded from mainstream society and whose skills and practices in written languages remain severely restricted.
The benefits to low literacy populations of accessible ICT and assistive technologies
How can accessible ICT and assistive technologies enable low literacy populations? The answer lies in the function provided by specific assistive technology (AT). There are AT available today that convert text-based content into audible content. These AT are available in the form of screen-readers as well as “self-voicing” technologies which can be integrated with an application. In both cases the AT is based on “text-to-speech” (TTS) technology and has historically been focused on assisting blind ICT users.
However, as the paradigm of disabilities expands to include the broader social model of disabilities, we can likewise expand the community of beneficiaries by focusing our attention not on the medical disability of the intended user, but rather on the functional objectives of the AT. In this case, the function of the AT is to verbalize non-verbal content; to read aloud the information. The beneficiaries are, then, those populations whose ability to read is impaired and the cause of the impairment is irrelevant. At the moment that the dysfunction occurs between the information and its intended consumer the benefit is produced by the enabling function of the AT. Thus, the TTS technology, whether in the form of a screen-reader AT or self-voicing content, provides benefit to the ICT user with poor or no reading skills equivalent to the benefit produced for the blind user.
But basic prose literacy is composed of more than just reading – it also includes writing, a form of non-verbal communication. So, what are the assistive technologies whose functional objective is to convert verbal content into non-verbal content? One answer is speech-to-text (STT) technologies whose functional objective is to convert spoken communications into text-based communication. These are often used by people with motor impairments as an alternative method for inputting information into ICT, such as composing an email. This function benefits the breadth of those populations whose ability to write is impaired. Again, the cause of the impairment is irrelevant and, again, the benefit is produced by the enabling function of the AT at the moment that the dysfunction occurs between the information to be communicated and its medium. Thus, the STT technology produces benefits for ICT user with poor or no writing skills equivalent to the benefit it produces for ICT users with motor impairments.
The global outlook for literacy
In the wake of economic globalization, UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report 2006: Literacy for Life points out that increasing internal and international migration, rapid technological change (including for information and communication technology) and the shift towards knowledge-based societies, the demand for improved literacy skills is growing. Fortunately, the report also shows that adult literacy rates, as conventionally measured, have been steadily increasing over the past decades. While the global population is steadily increasing, the global number of illiterates is decreasing. However, where literacy challenges remain, accessible ICT and assistive technologies can help produce benefits for ICT users.