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On December 3, we celebrate International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a day which provides us all with the opportunity to acknowledge the barriers those living with disabilities face and find innovative new ways to facilitate their full participation in all aspects of life. This is essential to upholding human rights and aligned to both Vodacom’s purpose and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to leave no one behind.

According to the United Nations, the COVID-19 crisis has deepened inequalities for the more than one billion people living with disabilities worldwide, who are more likely to experience adverse socio-economic outcomes. But the pandemic has also highlighted the role of connectivity in providing greater access to critical information, services, and opportunities, where digital technology has the potential to drive inclusion and bridge existing divides.

Developing meaningful technology solutions 

Building an inclusive digital society requires technology providers to offer products and services that meet the needs of people living with disabilities. This must happen across the value chain, from the design of mobile devices to relooking at how existing products and services can speak to the disability community. 

To help accelerate Vodacom’s digital inclusion strategy for our customers with disabilities, we have established an Accessibility office. This is led by people with disabilities who work in partnership with disability organisations and other people living with disabilities to design or enhance products and services that address the concerns of this market. Initiatives for deaf and hearing-impaired customers include the development of a special voicemail option and text-based emergency services We have also set up a dedicated contact centre for customers with disabilities and placed information about accessible solutions on the easy-to-use TOBi chatbot platform.

In an effort to ensure that mobile operators implement ways of promoting the inclusion of disabled consumers, the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) established the Assistive Tech (AT) Programme. As a signatory to the principles of the programme, Vodacom is able to investigate how to collect data for insights on how our disabled consumers use technology, and therefore develop more relevant products and services. Our aim is to connect 4 million people through our disability programmes by 2025.

Increasing access and affordability 

Using technology to empower people with disabilities is not a new concept. ATs, such as hearing aids, screen reading software and telecommunication relay devices, have long been promoting inclusivity and supporting those with specific needs. What remains an obstacle to the widespread use of this specialised equipment, especially in developing countries, is the cost and availability of this technology.

Mobile technology is helping to break down this barrier. Web-enabled services and innovative apps allow multiple assistive features to be accessed within a single device. This can increase affordability and availability of ATs and enable greater inclusion. One such device launched in our local market is the Nokia 2720. The 4G-enabled smartphone was designed with large buttons, screen and font size, and comes preloaded with Facebook and WhatsApp.

 Other cost-saving solutions that can help advance accessibility to digital technology include innovative pricing models, instalment payment plans, discounted tariff deals and ‘data-light’ versions of mobile services exclusively for people with various disabilities. With the reduction in the expense of owning a digital device and an increase in access to connectivity, those with specific needs can overcome communication barriers and live a better life.

If people with disabilities are to reap the benefits of digital technology, they need the digital skills and literacy to use mobile-enabled products and services effectively. Vodacom has partnered with various organisations to ensure that people with disabilities receive training in the use of smart devices and AT features, and as a result be able to partake equally in the digital economy.

Creating a barrier-free workplace

In South Africa, only 1% of the workforce is made up of employees with disabilities. This staggeringly low statistic indicates the barriers and limitations to economic empowerment for people with disabilities. 

At an organisational level, there’s an urgent need to drive digital inclusion through policies and programmes that accommodate staff with specific needs and enable them to reach their full potential. Digital innovation can support inclusion in the workplace through ATs and other tools, but this requires knowledge of what support employees living with disabilities need.

We have established the Disability Employee Forum, consisting of both staff living with disabilities and their family members, to raise awareness and co-create disability policies and processes. The company has also recently implemented human resource policies to encourage employees to bring attention to their disability, receive the assistance they need and ensure they are fairly represented.

Above all, employers need to view people with disabilities as an asset to the organisation, bringing diverse perspectives to a workforce and stimulating innovation. Embracing inclusion can result in commercial success, employee satisfaction and overall positive performance outcomes.

Digital technology can be a game changer in overcoming the challenges faced by those living with disabilities and providing access to equal participation in society. We believe it is our role as a digital technology provider to ensure we actively promote inclusion both for our customers and our employees. By making access available today, we can go further together in building a better, more inclusive tomorrow for all. DM

Author: Jorge Mendes, Chief Officer of Consumer Business at Vodacom South Africa

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