The rampant, world-wide growth of the digital economy within an increasingly digital society can only be described as breathtaking. It is positive, strong and moving at hurricane speed, and yet it tends to overlook the needs and predicaments of those who are more vulnerable in society, particularly persons with disabilities who must often feel they are caught in a technological cul-de-sac to the detriment of social justice and fair play.

It is our duty to turn this alley into a highway of opportunities for persons with disabilities, giving them the chance not only to catch up but also to play their part in the vast road network of this dynamic digital society.

For this very reason, at the Pheonicia Hotel this Friday with the support of the Malta Communications Authority (MCA) and the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities(CRPD), I will have the pleasure to host the event entitled “Accessibility without Discrimination – A conference about equal opportunities” that will also mark the International Day of Persons with Disability on 3 December.

We do not want to imply the activity is meant to help re-invent the wheel, but the conference is genuinely intended to set in motion the much-needed process of raising awareness on the subject whilst safeguarding the interests of people with disabilities. We need to point out the fact that while a digitised economy and a digitised society have, through the development of eGovernment, a digital Single Market and smart cities, led to the creation of millions of opportunities for citizens, consumers and businesses, there are still people with disabilities in Europe excluded or prevented from using basic digital products and services due to the lack of accessibility or knowledge requirements.

In the general exhilaration of these exciting times, however, we are failing to notice the reality that while persons with disabilities have the same civil, political, social and economic rights like the rest of us, due to the increased use of digital technologies in both public and private administration, they cannot access those very rights. The conference will no doubt emphasise this reality. Digital technologies and the knowledge to be able to use them, particularly by providing an easier access to public and private services, are crucial in helping persons with disabilities to participate equally in society and in the economy that sustains it.

Open also to the general public, the “Accessibility without Discrimination” conference will mainly target employers and employees alike, as well as persons with disabilities who will have the opportunity to describe the daily challenges they have to face and, as a result of their experiences, to propose the best and quickest way to overcome them. It will also bring together a variety of stakeholders, government policy makers and civil society representatives in tackling this important issue.

The conference will in fact include the participation of the Parliamentary Secretary for Persons with Disability and Active Ageing, Hon. Anthony Agius Decelis, and the Parliamentary Secretary for Financial Services, Digital Economy and innovation, Hon Silvio Schembri, with the keynote speech being delivered by Oliver Scicluna, Commissioner for the rights of Persons with disabilities.

There will also be presentations from “Enable Ireland”, a non-profit state-funded organisation that provides free services to children and adults with disabilities and their families, and Vickie Gauci, an Occupational Therapist by profession who is currently reading Social Policy on a PhD programme at the University of Leeds, focusing mainly on disability activism, assistive technology and universal design.

The garnering of essential information from this and other initiatives that will hopefully follow, is of the utmost importance, ideally serving as an invaluable source for putting words into deeds by local, regional and European legislators. Creating and amplifying this awareness is both a duty and a target for all those of us who are entrusted with the well-being of ALL European citizens.

Setting things in motion by raising awareness is only a beginning. Shifting into top-gear and turning it all into effective, pan-European action is, at this moment in time of a European society in rapid transformation, mandatory. Let’s open up the cul-de-sac.

The Malta Independent 23-11-17
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