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You can’t help but notice how much we are using computer technology to meet almost every need.

Since the Covid-19 struck, we have been asked to avoid human contact as much as possible to halt the spread of the virus. For many communities around the world, that has meant directing majority of services, functions, products and communications online.

For many Africans with disabilities, these digital services and products are simply not accessible, as they were not designed to be used by all people. A person’s needs and abilities can vary greatly according to disability, age, geographical location or even a temporary illness or situation. This variance exists online as it does in daily life.

Unfortunately, too many people are unable to use the ‘standard’ model of a digital product. Therefore, the dramatic move to an online life has had the unintended consequence of excluding millions of people now facing a different type of isolation: digital isolation.

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In Kenya, we are being asked to use our mobile phones to pay for goods, instead of cash. Yet, if you have a visual impairment or a motor condition, the standard software may not be accessible and you will be left out. This is actually a double loss, as the person isn’t able to buy what they need and the businesses do not make sales. It’s a multiplying and costly “lose-lose” situation that is becoming all the more apparent in the Covid-19 context.   

Another example is how we are communicating. Even government information is published via digital channels. It’s essential that these messages reach 100 per cent of their audience. This isn’t happening, as something as simple as forgetting to enter ‘alt text’ to images in a webpage or social media post can make it hard for a visually impaired person using a screen reader, or someone accessing it in a different way.

Thinking about how people access your website and ensuring its availability to all groups should be a fundamental priority for every business and public service organisation. This digital accessibility mindset can open up virtual doors to all people, rather than a select few.

For those working from home or continuing their education online: what software is being used, and is everyone trained and confident in how to use it? I know of people who have been asked to continue their work or studies at home but are unable to use a software. Some instruction videos supplied by big companies do not represent the people of our region. Overseas companies need to realise that their digital accessibility should be relevant in Africa. We need to see pioneers and spokespeople among our own communities – creating African solutions for African problems, or at the very least being invested in to share inclusion with our peers.

Some employers aren’t aware of their employees with disabilities. We know that 70 per cent of disabilities are hidden. It may have never been disclosed - so it is in your best interest to ensure you are accessible. That way no-one is left behind.

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While the tech boom in Africa is already well underway, dismayingly people with disabilities have not been included from the start. However, there is still time to change how we do things, how we see the users of our products and begin to put real people at the centre of our design. Now is the time to educate each other. Over the next few months, in the run up to the Inclusive Africa Conference in November, we’ll be running a series of webinars co-hosted by inABLE and expert tech partners: Inclusive Design Africa. The webinars will focus on a different topic each month, all around digital inclusion and accessibility right here in Africa.

It is really simple: design with people with disabilities in mind and you design for everyone. To make digital accessibility a reality in Africa, we need all sectors to commit to serving the whole of our society. Now is the right time to include accessibility as an intrinsic part of the design process of digital products and services. To think and care about how people with different needs will be able to use it. To be curious, and use the innovation, skill, creativity and determination I know we hold here in Africa.

- The writer is the founder and executive director inABLE. [email protected]

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