Disability inclusive innovation benefits everyone

Students undergoing a class through storytelling and puppetry at the Somesha Stories Set. [The Action Foundation

It cannot be gainsaid that COVID-19 is perhaps the most disruptive experience of our time. The effects of the pandemic at global and national levels have illustrated the many ways in which we are all connected.

It has also revealed the many ways in which we are unequal.

For however indiscriminate the COVID-19 virus has been, it has also affected people disproportionately with the most vulnerable communities bearing the most brunt. It is not just the virus that has had a devastating impact but the attendant measures to ‘control and stop’ transmission of the virus as well.

Persons with disability have been impacted due to attitudinal, environmental and institutional barriers that are accentuated in the COVID-19 response. Measures such as social distancing, remote working, online engagements and business, mask-wearing, and many others have had implications on persons with disability where these measures have not been designed with their needs or circumstances in mind.

Many persons with disabilities require support for daily living, whether formally through service providers such as guides or sign language interpreters, or informally through relatives and friends. Some of the measures including curfew, movement restrictions and closure of schools and welfare institutions particularly early in the pandemic left them with limited support and care.

It also impacted their access to food, essential goods and medicine, and prevented them from carrying out basic daily activities. Further, accessing information on COVID-19 including vaccination centres, preventative and management care of the COVID-19 disease has been difficult where considerations have not been made for different disabilities. Children with disability for example were devastatingly affected by the widespread school closure early on in the pandemic.

School for many of these children is a haven where they have access to food, assistive technology or care, support, sanitation, extracurricular activities just to name but a few.

The pandemic led to a sudden shift in the role of the parent/caregiver to act simultaneously as their teachers and many parents/caregivers lacked the capacity or resources to do so.

Some children were also exposed to violence, neglect and abuse. For many of these children, their education and lives were disrupted severely.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. Over the past few months, we have witnessed Kenyans’ ingenuity in creating solutions to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Cutting across different sectors such as agriculture, health care, transport, education, commerce, the creativity revealed by the innovations validate the fact that Kenya is a melting pot of brilliance and invention. However, for the most part, access to innovation whether as consumers or innovators is not equal and homogenous.

Challenges and barriers still exist on the development and availability of innovative products and services by and for vulnerable populations such as persons with disability.

According to the 2019 census, 2.2 per cent (0.9 million people) of Kenyans live with some form of disability. Persons with disabilities have, under pre- pandemic circumstances, challenges in accessing health care, education, employment, and many other services and opportunities.

Innovation has the potential to address many of these challenges and others, however, all too often innovation, including but not limited to technological solutions, has failed to consider the needs of persons with disability and resulted in increased inequalities.

In November 2020, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Kenya launched an innovation challenge inviting solutions and approaches responding to the socio-economic challenges experienced by persons with disability as a result of COVID-19.

This was done through the Transcending Foundations of Peace and Security Programme under the Governance portfolio and the Accelerator Lab with support from the Government of Sweden. The aim of the innovation challenge was to seek out, map and amplify homegrown accessible and inclusive innovations addressing the needs of persons with disability, which had been exacerbated because of the pandemic.

Through the innovation challenge, we had the opportunity to connect with five groups, Kytabu, Riziki Source, Signs Media, The Action Foundation, and Action for Children with Disabilities, who are all doing amazing work to provide solutions to challenges faced by persons with disability.

Their innovations range from the use of virtual reality and puppetry as teaching tools for children with learning disabilities; mobile-based applications to provide sign language interpretation services on demand; web and mobile applications to connect persons with disabilities with job opportunities, and integrated data platforms to support availability education content to special needs schools.

These solutions address some of the pertinent needs faced by persons with disability in relation to access to education, access to opportunities and jobs, access to information and access to assistive care. They also point to emerging opportunities to meet the gaps in innovation development through inclusive innovation.

Inclusive innovation means designing and producing goods and services for and by those who have been excluded from the mainstream. To what extent have innovations been developed to meet the needs of communities and to what extent are communities supported to develop solutions and innovations that are meet their needs?

There are clear benefits of advancing inclusive innovations evident by the fantastic work being done by the five winners and the implications and impact of their work.

Within the education sector, solutions to address the delivery of education content in creative and inclusive ways will ensure that every learner has an experience that they can relate to, understand and that meets their learning needs and challenges.

Tools and approaches such as virtual reality, storytelling and creative puppetry in learning not only enhance student learning and engagement but have also been shown to support cognitive and emotional development. By designing solutions with inclusiveness in mind, the benefits extend far and wide.

One of the barriers to inclusive innovation is a lack of funding and capital. Inclusive innovation that meets the needs of persons with disability is sometimes viewed as a niche field and therefore for many innovators is difficult to get funding to develop the solutions or achieve scalability.

Further, these innovations can be costly, and the cost can be passed down to a community facing multiple socio-economic challenges. This is why more efforts need to be made to support inclusive development and innovation. How can we do this? By creating an enabling environment where inclusive innovation can thrive.

This is through providing learning opportunities and content, creating and expanding markets for inclusive products and services, raising awareness and implementing policies and laws that support innovators and businesses that are meeting the needs and challenges of persons with disabilities.

Research and innovation have always been key drivers in achieving the sustainable development goals.

Out of the one billion population of persons with disability globally, 80 per cent live in developing countries. This means that we have a real opportunity here to shape more equitable and inclusive societies by harnessing the power of innovation to bridge the gaps and empower persons with disability within our communities.

As UNDP in Kenya, we look forward to connecting with other partners working within this space and exploring how we can collaborate to drive this agenda forward.

Written by Caroline Kiarie, Head of Exploration, Accelerator Lab, UNDP Kenya.