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    Tapping the Potential of Professionals with Disabilities


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 2/2005

    Photo: Flavia De Paula The author uses specialized equipment to "read out" documents in common word processing or data management programmes, which clients send by e-mail.

    Professionals with disabilities are often overlooked in trade, telecommunications and economic development policies. Service providers from this community, however, are using technology to unlock their diverse talents and reach out to new markets.

    Accessible and reliable telecommunications are a lifeline for service exporters with disabilities. Technologies based on open standards such as the World Wide Web, electronic mail and voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) enable professionals with disabilities to overcome many obstacles related to their physical or sensory impairment.

    Overcoming communication problems

    Open telecommunication standards, i.e. agreements on how equipment and software from different vendors can work together, have been as revolutionary for those with disabilities as they have been for the general public. The Internet, perhaps the best-known example of open standards at work, allows blind professionals such as myself to use whatever adaptive software or hardware we might need on our computers, without requiring anything special from those we communicate with.

    For example, I might be using a Braille display or a speech synthesizer, but co-workers or clients can receive my reports and send me information in the same way as they do with any other colleague.

    This relatively seamless integration between those with disabilities and everyone else is a rare luxury outside cyberspace; in most countries, for instance, elevators do not have buttons with Braille for the blind, stairs lack ramps for wheelchair users and television programmes rarely include captioning for the deaf.

    Connecting with foreign markets

    The capability to reach foreign markets, overcoming obstacles of geography and disability, is especially powerful for a community facing so many other challenges. Among the estimated global population of 400 million individuals with disabilities, unemployment rates are consistently high. In the Americas, depending on the country, between seven and nine of every ten people with disabilities are unemployed.

    As a group, individuals with disabilities have less income and greater difficulty in accessing education, health and transportation services. In this context, the success of service exporters with disabilities in countries ranging from Argentina to Costa Rica is still rare. The following examples offer clear evidence of the positive social and economic impact that telecommunications can have.

    In San José, Costa Rica, the inaccessible public transportation system makes mobility difficult and expensive for Oscar Rivera, a translator and wheelchair user with over a decade of experience. As a result, instead of local businesses, most of Mr Rivera's clients are foreign organizations with which he has developed professional relationships through Internet and telephone communications.

    Another wheelchair user, journalist Luis Fernando Astorga, has successfully marketed his human rights expertise to Internet publications such as Disability World and numerous international organizations.

    Among people with disabilities, women can face additional challenges merely because of their gender. However, Venezuelan Arelis Pieve and Salvadorean Maritza Melara have shown that given enough persistence and professionalism, outdated cultural attitudes regarding women can also be overcome.

    Ms Pieve is blind and works as a consultant for international organizations on employment issues concerning individuals with disabilities. Ms Melara, a professional with motor impairments due to polio, consults internationally on public policy and assists national organizations in their advocacy for accessible public spaces and transportation.

    Electronic library a success story

    Service exporting among those with disabilities is not limited to independent experts and consultants. In Argentina, blind computer pioneers Pablo Lecuona, Gustavo Ramírez and André Duré are the founders of Tiflolibros (http://www.Tiflolibros.com.ar/), a service that uses the Internet to make an electronic library available to blind readers. The project, which started informally in 1999, has become an efficient service which allows the legal sharing of copyrighted material among those who cannot read standard text.

    Tiflolibros users contribute and borrow books from Latin America and Europe. The team's success has enabled their virtual library to add services such as specialized software development, Braille embossing and technical support via phone and instant messenger. Internet-based telecommunications facilitate the specialization of companies and organizations such as Tiflolibros by making their services accessible to an international market large enough to make their business model sustainable.

    Argentina also offers the examples of Gabriela Garcia and Mariano La Grotta, two of the many blind stenographers of Stenotype Argentina and Caption Group. These transcription and closed captioning firms started training and hiring only blind stenographers once they observed that they were faster learners and better performers than their sighted counterparts.

    As these service exporters learned, the high transcription speeds required of stenographers are best achieved when they are not distracted by reading when transcribing. Stenographers illustrate the fact that the use of tele-communications technologies by service exporters with disabilities is not limited to conventional technologies such as electronic mail.

    Being connected makes a difference

    Anecdotal evidence suggests that because of the significant impact technology has in this community, professionals with disabilities are usually ahead of the general public in adopting new technologies. This has certainly been my experience with VOIP, which allows the transmission of telephone calls via the Internet, enabling users to talk through traditional phones or their computers.

    Recently, VOIP allowed me to remain accessible to clients and family at a single phone number during a consulting assignment that took me to six countries. Rather than worry about the various phones and dialling procedures of each hotel, which never include instructions in Braille, all I needed was a fast Internet connection.

    Opening access to talents and abilities

    In a few months new technologies are likely to bring even more telecommunication options for all service exporters. If experience is any guide, those of us with disabilities will be among the first to try and adopt these new services. Our greatest need will remain that of facilitating client access to our talents and abilities regardless of geography or disability.

    More important than the impact telecommunications can have on the careers of this select group is the difference it can make for thousands of other people with disabilities who can benefit from being connected. The disabled community, because of its special technical needs, must be specifically targeted in trade promotion and international development programmes.

    We know that both the talent and the technology exist; let us bring them together. 

    For more information

    Technical standards

    Disability issues

    Disability and technology

    Fernando Botelho  is an international consultant who manages projects related to trade development, technology and disability issues.