ACCESSIBILITY FOR PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES: THE CHALLENGE FOR GOVERNMENT, ENGINEERS, AND RESEARCHERS
(A Lecture delivered as the 6th edition of Engr Ifedayo Akintunde Annual Lecture of the Nigerian Society of Engineers, Oluyole Branch, on July 25, 2023).
Dr Ifeolu Omoniyi Akintunde
It is a real honour to address you all today on a topic which is dear to my heart. I have studied accessibility for so long now; sharing what I have found out should help future research, but more importantly, showcase the incredible skills, talents and opportunities that have been passed over.
I also want to recognise Engr Ifedayo Akintunde. I have had the distinction of knowing him differently from you all, as my father. This puts me under the kind of pressure that other presenters do not face. However, it is thanks to him that I am here in the first place, not only because he gave birth to me, but because he trained me and made everything accessible. One of the things I’ll talk about is the many drains on our streets, but at home, the drains were well covered so I could walk without realizing what I was crossing. In the 80s, when I was home from university, (either because of a student demonstration or holiday) my dad would call me to type some of his speeches, which he delivered as president of the NSE. These days, we use computers for these things, and I will come to the access advantages of a typewriter later. In doing so, he first empowered me. He did not feel that because I was blind, I couldn’t participate in the activities around. Secondly, he introduced me to activism. I learned that engineers were asking some things of government, things like recognition, consultation in national affairs, etc. In this regard, disabled persons are indeed quite similar. We too would like some recognition and consultation. We too are living beneath potential and if there was a change in attitudes, we could achieve much more.
Empowering me was only part of what he did. He actually provided me an accessible environment, at home and wherever I went. He read newspapers and magazine articles to me, so that I was as well informed as anyone else. He made the house accessible, ensuring that I didn’t trip on obstacles. I started my university studies in Jos and he came with me. In the three days he was there, he ensured that I could find my way to the most important areas, the cafeteria, bathroom, etc. A year after, I moved to Unilag. I remember once he came to visit and he made me walk the route from my room to the bukateria where we ate. In doing that, he taught me a lesson that we will explore here, that to whom much is given, much is expected. I had to demonstrate that I knew what he was showing me and that the knowledge was valuable in my daily life. In the same way, persons with disabilities will give much back, when they receive the accessible environment.
He also taught me in his own way that accessibility can be achieved by adapting what we have to best advantage. It does not have to be expensive. In fact, the most important consideration in accessibility is not cost or technology, but attitude. I remember that in secondary school, I never attended a physics lesson. The teachers just couldn’t teach me as a blind person. But my dad? He spent one entire journey from Ibadan to Lagos telling me about resonance and frequency. It is because of that lesson that I know that soldiers don’t march across a bridge, they walk so that the frequency does not cause the bridge to collapse. This did not require any expensive gadgetry, just the willingness to engage.
I come to you with all humility because, while I’m talking to the highest achievers in the engineering profession, I myself am not an engineer. I feel like Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, speaking to a meeting of the Nonaligned nations. She said that in a meeting where all the other heads of states were men, she was a woman. In the same way, I’m a non-engineer, speaking to engineers. I have chosen to speak to you, not just because of my own familiarity with engineering from typing my father’s speeches, but because I know that engineers are naturally changers. You do not sit and watch a problem fester, you try to solve. This was the essence of those speeches I typed; if engineers were given the chance, they could change the country. I am looking for change in all the ways persons with disabilities access society. I cannot think of a better place to go than a gathering of engineers.
So, what does accessibility mean? Accessibility is “the practice of making information, activities, and/or environments sensible, meaningful, and usable for as many people as possible (What do we mean by accessibility? – Google Search). It is only the latest in a series of words that have been used in the past few years to describe a situation where everyone can make equal use of a facility. We’ve heard of such terms as equality and integration, as in the motto of the Old Students Association of the Pacelli School for the Blind, “equality, opportunity and integration”. These days, accessibility is also linked with words such as Equality, adiversity and inclusiveness, (EDI).
In the context of disability, accessibility means making the environment usable, meaningful and sensible. But I’m struck by the first sentence of the definition, “the practice of …” It means that accessibility is not just a one time effort, it’s all the time practice. It does not just pertain to one area, such as technology, it’s everything, everywhere. It includes access to our roads, banks, universities, books, websites and everything else we take for granted.
For me, an accessible environment has several benefits. First, it may interest you to know that it is estimated that 15% of the population of any country is made up of persons with disabilities. If we say Nigeria has about 200 million people, that makes 30 million people with disabilities. This is not a small number, by any stretch of imagination. With insurgency in the North and levels of poverty which can lead to preventable disability, the levels are likely to be higher than this. Some people are born with a disability, others become disabled later. In fact, age is one of the biggest causes of disability; as you age, you are likely to loose vision, hearing or dexterity.
Some disabilities are obvious, when you see a blind person walking with a guide cane, you know straightaway; or if you see someone in a wheelchair, you may not know exactly what the disability is, but you know the person has a disability. Other disabilities are not so obvious; you may not easily know that someone is autistic, or dyslexic. The other thing to note is that disability itself is a diverse and even individual notion, meaning that two people with the same medical disability may have different accessibility requirements. However, persons with disabilities are in effect invisible. We walk past them every day without noticing them. We see them begging on the streets and either ignore them or feel sorry for them.
In doing this, we miss out on talent and resources. As citizens, we are mutual recipients and beneficiaries of whatever Nigeria has to offer. We do not only benefit from the facilities in the country, we give our talent towards its development. Yet, 30 million people do not have the same opportunities. In other countries, we have many persons with disabilities who are contributing to society, as musicians, (Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles), politicians, (Franklin Roosevelt, David Blunkett) athletes, (Terrence Parkin)
A study published by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in the UK concluded that “Disabled people are constantly solving problems simply to get around in the day-to-day world, innovating their way through challenges. The sweeping generalisation that disabled people on the whole are less productive than non-disabled people has been shown to be inaccurate and misleading by a range of studies. Taken together, research shows that disabled people are, on average, just as productive as non-disabled people, have significantly less time off sick, have fewer workplace accidents and stay longer in their jobs (FEATURE: Changing attitudes to disability in engineering (imeche.org).
That is what we are missing out on if we do not provide access to persons with disabilities. Let us look at how they have done it in other countries, to see how we can do it in Nigeria. As I argued in a paper presented in Abuja in 2002, “No technology can be sustained in a vacuum; successful acquisition and utilization of any technology will depend on several factors, including resources, expertise and culture” (developing a culture of access for visually impaired people in Nigeria, 2002).
Most of the resources are seen in terms of technology. I have some of them here with me. At the same time, you will see that a lot of planning goes into making their societies accessible. For example, here’s me crossing a road. I hold onto a post with the traffic light. My finger is touching a little jutting thing that begins to revolve once it is safe to cross. But under my feet is a grooved surface. That is how I know I have reached a crossing point.
These resources are easy to purchase. Nigerian institutions can be just as accessible. There are several barriers to accessibility in Nigeria, from toilet facilities that are too tall for dwarfs to inaccessible facilities for wheelchair users. . Just imagine what inaccessibility does to your disabled customer, or even friend.
We also have the expertise. Nigerians are the best in the world. You don’t become famous without having something to give. Nigerians definitely have something to give, as evidenced by the many holding top positions in the world; members of the US administration, an aspiring UK prime minister, top business people, a Nobel prizewinner, etc. Sadly, disabled people do not represent 15% of the high achieving Nigerians.
Which brings me to the third factor, the culture of accessibility. This difference in culture is what explains the gap between accessibility provisions in Nigeria and in other countries. The stark difference in accessibility was brought home to me last year when I visited a friend who uses a wheelchair. When in Nigeria, she had purchased a top of the range wheelchair from abroad, but the wheels kept getting punctured. Now, she is studying in the UK and has access to an electric wheelchair. When I got to her house, I held the back of her wheelchair while she took me across a grassy lawn, (which was the first time I’d seen a wheelchair go over grass) through a ramped entry, into her block of flats. She pressed a button low enough to reach, and the door swung open. Then we made our way to a lift which was big enough for her in her wheelchair and me. When we got to her floor, we went through broad corridors to her flat, where she proceeded to make me a sumptuous meal of spaghetti, using a cooker which was accessible from her wheelchair.
We need to include minorities in our thinking, if we want to reap the benefits they can bring. I’ll give you another example. My bank had an app which was actually quite accessible. Then there was an upgrade. I suddenly found that I could no longer use my bank app. So I complained. This was in May. Nothing has been done and I still can’t use my app without sighted assistance. What impact does that have on the security of my transactions? One day, I went to the bank to get a new bank card. That was when I learned that I wasn’t supposed to have a card in the first place because it was presumed that I couldn’t operate the ATM. Interestingly, I could, because ATMs have raised number pads. The staff did not think of that, they just presumed, blind person, can’t use it and a card would be insecure. Their action would have deprived me of banking services, but I spent a few days fighting the decision, until I was eventually given a card.
What does that say? Wouldn’t a better approach have been to make the card accessible rather than simply depriving me of the use of the card? One of the questions I asked was why I could use a UK card with an ATM but not in Nigeria? The technology itself is not so expensive; some ATMs are equipped with audio feedback and all I need is a pair of headphones to do anything with my card. I don’t think this is beyond the capacity of Nigerian developers.
I believe that to solve the problem of accessibility, we need to think of inclusivity, making sure that everyone has access to what is provided, just like a bank account. I think of three Ps: the problem, potential and possible solution.
First, the problem. As I already mentioned, the problem of disability is individual. As for me, I cannot see. So if there was a book, I have a problem with reading it. That is the starting point. What is required is to look at every individual and ask the question, ‘what problem do they face in accessing the things we take for granted?’
Then we come to the potential. As I also mentioned, persons with disabilities have tremendous untapped potential. When we resolve the problem, we open up these potentials. If for example, we can solve the problem of my inability to read a book, then the information in the book becomes readable. I can then absorb that information and turn it into something valuable for society.
There are multiple possible solutions, depending on the problem, individual and available resources. Let’s take the example of my inability to read. The simplest solution is to just get someone to read to me, but that would depend on that person’s availability. Sometimes, the person could even record the material so I can play back in my own time. These days, there are also apps that can help, from optical character recognition (OCR) software. You take a book, scan it and convert the imagery into text. OCR software was originally developed to work with scanners, but these days, they are available on computers and phones for converting imagery on PDF and IMG files. When the image has been converted, it will then be put through an output device, either braille or audio which the blind person can access.
Some of the solutions may be slightly expensive, especially when designed for a small market like that of blind people. However, inclusive designs now mean that smart phones have accessibility features built in. Your own smartphone can speak, display in large fonts, use vibration to replace audio cues, etc. You can check these out by looking for ‘accessibility’ in your settings. I do not believe this has added substantially to the cost of the phone. Of course, there are machines that have been specifically developed for a small population of persons with disabilities. I printed my notes using a braille printer which has very limited use outside of the world of blind people. It is therefore quite expensive.
The relationship between problem, potential and possible solution will determine the success of accessibility. There’s probably a mathematical formula for this. There are many practical examples of how probolems, potentials and possible solutions have created huge success. The swimmer Terrence Parkin competed for South Africa in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Because he is deaf, he was unable to hear the starting gun. So, when the other competitors heard the gun, he saw a flashing light. He won silver, not in the paralympics, but in the main event. But how do we determine the best solution for a problem? I would recommend the following:
First, it is important to understand the difference between curiosity and engagement. Curiosity makes us ask questions, engagement makes us involved in the solution. Someone may for example ask “how do you read that book”? That’s curiosity. Usually it ends there, because the person does not know more than the answer to the question. If I was looking for a job, the employer only knows that I can read a book, but not the implications of my ability to read. The result is that I will probably not be employed because there are still too many unanswered questions. Engagement is different. It means being involved in the issue you are investigating. The employer will move forward from “how do you read” to “show me”, then “does that mean you can read anything?” How does that affect employment? and finally perhaps, “is there any way to make this better”?
Nigerian engineers can engage with a problem in order to resolve. Answers would result in our own indigenous solutions that take account of the specific circumstances around Nigeria. For example, if there is resource limitation, we can think of cheaper materials. Equipment could also be more robust to take cognisance of the Nigerian environment. Audio material can also be developed to use local languages and dialects. For example, I can get my phone to speak in UK, US, Australian, Irish, but not Nigerian English.
Engagement also means interacting with potential users. If the bank app I mentioned earlier had been comprehensively tested, including with visually impaired customers, I’m sure it would have been quickly discovered that there was a design flaw which made the upgrade less accessible to them.
What I’m proposing is a radical rethink of how we approach accessibility. We need to think of persons with disabilities as significant stakeholders in all aspects of developments. When a road is being constructed, we may ask the question, how would a wheelchair user manage if the drainage is poor, or there are open gutters, or surfaces unpaved? How feasible would a reasonable adjustment, such as improving the road surface or drainage system be? If we are designing a website, we ask whether a blind person can easily navigate a busy website, or a deaf person can understand all the audio cues, or an autistic person can cope with the myriad of moving images? Would a reasonable adjustment be to make the website more accessible by following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)? As already noted, an inaccessible app may have security implications for visually impaired users. Would a reasonable adjustment be to design the app with accessibility in mind? Or to consult all potential users, including those with disabilities?
One way to better engage persons with disabilities in development is to teach blind and visually impaired people mathematics. As I said at the very beginning, I never attended a physics lesson. I am the only member of my family not to be interested in science. Despite the equipment available for teaching mathematics, the teachers were not trained to teach me. This makes blind people ill-equipped to contribute to any discussions on scientific or engineering innovations. It is noteworthy that passing mathematics is now a prerequisite for admission into universities. However, if teaching blind people is not prioritized, there will simply be a whole load of blind people who cannot complete their education and fulfil their potential. In fact, blind people around the world are high achieving scientists and engineers. Ted Heenter-Joyce is a famous blind mechanical an computer engineer who invented the Jobs Application With Speech (JAWS) screenreader, which helps blind people all over the world read what is on the computer screen. With the right training, nothing is impossible, contribution to discussions on innovation and engineering is easier when the disabled person actually understands the science and engineering principles. The usual expression is “nothing about us without us”, but that is impossible when we don’t know the technical details.
Although the road is long, there are incentives which could encourage us in the right direction. First, the discrimination against disabled persons (prohibition) act (2018) criminalises actions, facilities, etc which could discriminate against persons with disabilities. Several states have followed the federal approach. The legislations themselves followed counterparts in the UK, US and other countries. It was suggested that the Americans with disabilities act of 1990 encouraged manufacturers of equipment for disabled people. With its emphasis on equality for disabled people, and its prohibition of discrimination on grounds of disability, this legislation encouraged employers and service providers to seek appropriate technological solutions. Manufacturers of products designed for disabled people have witnessed a substantial growth in demand, (Peter Sinton “High-Tech Devices Have Revolutionised Disabled Peoples’ Lives”, San Francisco Chronicle, July 17, 2000). In a country of 200 million people, with such a large percentage of them being disabled, it is easy to see a similar pattern of growth of companies specialising in accessible equipment.
Secondly, there is a mutual, even symbiotic relationship between accessibility and innovation. Some of the developments we now take for granted, such as scanners, have become very useful for disabled people. If you add optical character recognition software to a scanner, it can become a useful tool to bring books to blind people, making it dual use technology. Sometimes, technology specifically developed for disabled people has found wider use in society. The typewriter was developed by Giovanni Da Fivizonno, an Italian who wanted his blind friend to communicate with him. I learned to use the typewriter in primary school, so that I could type my answers for my secondary school teachers. The typewriter is another example of dual use technology; at that time, the typewriter was also used by clerks, secretaries, typists and other administrators. Although the typewriter is now obsolete, the qwerty keyboard is now standard in all computers, smartphones and tablets.
It is also worth noting the many business advantages of considering disabled persons in design and implementation. A road with fewer gutters is generally better, as is one that is properly paved. The worldwide Web consortium also estimates that a website that is designed with accessibility in mind looks better. Finally, businesses can present themselves as more caring if they have considered all aspects of society.
In addition, there is the significant contribution that is being currently missed by not including persons wwith disability in planning. 15% of a country that has already produced such talented and innovative people is not to be ignored lightly. I believe that one reason Nigeris is not fully reaching its potential is that some people are left out of its development planning. These people end up becoming the poorest of the poor, because they have no access to society, but it also means they do not have the means to showcase their talents and innovation.
Although they are indeed the poorest in society, this should not create the impression that only poor people are disabled. I grew up in a middle class home, attended the best schools and universities, yet was blind from birth. It is up to the brightest people in Nigeria to consider disabled persons, because it could hit anyone. Moreover, as we get older, we are more likely to have one or other disability. It is good insurance to prepare for old age by making facilities accessible.
I would like to conclude by imagining what life would be like in an accessible environment. The most important thing is not that things would be perfect, but that disabled people will be valued stakeholders in any projects. They will be consulted in every stage of the project, from conception to design to implementation. When a bank wishes to develop services such as ATMs, websites, apps, etc, they will be well situated and designed and. It will not be like a friend in Abuja who was telling me that the bank staff had to come out to her in a taxi to conduct a transaction because she is a wheelchair user and there was no way she could get into the bank in her wheelchair.
The infrastructure will be designed in consultation with persons with disabilities and will take the Nigerian environment into account. The result will be dual use technology that benefits both disabled and non-disabled people. Imagine what AI would look like for example? Artificial intelligence is meant to achieve things we cannot, or do those things more efficiently. Alexa for example is just a small round object, but I can control everything in my house just by asking it. This is very useful for devices that are still touchscreen and have no other output, or that have complicated remote controls, such as televisions. However, I have asked Alexa several times if it can speak Yoruba; the answer is always ‘I don’t know how to speak Yoruba yet.’ If Alexa could speak Yoruba, then, anyone, including persons with disabilities who cannot speak English will still be able to use it. AI would be developed to solve specifically Nigerian access problems, such as noise cancelling devices for deaf people. Nigeria is, pardon me for saying so, full of noises which can affect how hearing aids work. It is sometimes difficult for standard hearing aids to distinguish between a voice and other noises. I’ve already seen noise cancelling headphones and microphones.
Engineers have a huge role to play in this. It is such a broad profession, encompassing electronics and compuuters, mechanics, construction, chemicals, and much more. In each of these areas, developments can be made that takes accessibility into account. The rules are the same, no matter the project; accessibility from the beginning to conclusion, and consultation at all levels. I leave the rest of the imagination to you in your respective areas. A lot of these things are possible, by harnessing currently available technology. However, even where the technology is not yet present, I can trust in our ingenuity to make it happen.
Finally, I would like to especially thank my family for all the support throughout my life. It has been empowering to know I can always count on you. I’d also like to thank my classmates and friends from my primary school, the Pacelli School for the blind, my secondary school, King’s College Lagos, and the 1985-88 set of the University of Lagos faculty of law. Your encouragement and support always told me you had a positive attitude towards disability and accessibility. I have become a part of many organisations; the Overseas Fellowship of Nigerian Christians in the UK entrusted me with working on their constitution, not once, but twice, and gave me other roles, including an unprecedented 8 years as national publicity secretary and now the director of missions, evangelism and discipleship. The Star Children Development Development Initiative appointed me deputy chair. As Nigerian run organisations, you have set the standard for others to follow. Thanks for being here as well.
Thank you very much, God bless you.
Ifeolu Omoniyi Akintunde