U.N. Program in Atlanta Promotes Digital Access for Disabled

David Beasley
Atlanta – 02.10.09

Axel Leblois, founder and director of a United Nations program pushing for expanded digital access for the disabled.

It is a statistic that simply does not make sense to Axel Leblois. In many countries, including the United States, the unemployment rate for blind persons
of working age tops 70 percent.

“And yet we know – because you can see it every day – blind persons can have fully productive lives using technology,” said Mr. Leblois. “Why that gap?”

Mr. Leblois is the founder and director of an Atlanta-based, United Nations-sanctioned organization, the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and
Technologies. It is pushing worldwide to make technology more accessible to the disabled.

The United Nations flatly declared in 2006 that access to technology is as important as access to a public building: it is a basic human right. The Convention
on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities has since been ratified by 47 nations. So far, the United States is not among those, although President Obama
has said he supports it.

“Typically where legislation is already in place like the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States, you have a definition of accessibility that
is mostly focused on the physical environment – streets, public spaces, and public transportation,” Mr. Leblois explained. “ The convention for the first
time establishes access to information and communication technology – any kind of digital media- on par with the right to access the physical environment
and transportation. That has huge implications.”

Converting the United Nations’ intent into reality is Mr. Leblois’ mission. His organization receives no funding from the U.N. Instead, he raises money
through sponsors such as IBM Corp. He travels the globe, encouraging governments and business to fully open technology – computers, cell phones, Web sites
even office copy machines – to the disabled.

For Mr. Leblois, who spent much of his career as an executive at technology companies, it is both a moral issue and an economic one. According to U.S.
Census Bureau estimates, 15.1 percent of Americans over the age of 5 have a disability. The statistics are similar in other countries.

Mr. Leblois cites another set of statistics.

“You have today about 850 million personal computers around the world,” he said. “You have about 1.4 billion telephone land lines. You have about 1.4 billion
television sets, 2.5 billion radios, 3 billion cell phones.”

Technology, he said, has become pervasive worldwide and yet is often not accessible to the disabled.

“You can see we have a huge issue,” he said.

It is an issue that is beyond theory and is hitting the pocketbooks of huge corporations.

In 2006, a blind Californian, Bruce Sexton and the National Federation of the Blind, sued retailer Target Corp. in federal court. They claimed Target’s
Web site was not fully accessible to users of screen access technology, which converts text on the screen into synthesized speech or Braille.

Mr. Sexton, in a telephone interview with GlobalAtlanta, said he has screen reader software on his computer but could not get it to work on the Target shopping
site. He could not get past the “purchase now” button. There was another step in the checkout process, a “check out” button that could not be picked up
by his screen reader software, said Mr. Sexton.

“The problem was on their end,” said Mr. Sexton, a 27-year-old student at the University of California, Berkeley. “They needed to change their software
to pick it up.”

Six months of private negotiations with Target failed to resolve the problem, leading to the lawsuit, said Mr. Sexton. It was eventually certified as a
class-action lawsuit.

Last year, Target settled the case, agreeing to pay $6 million in damages to blind Californians who had tried to use the site since February 2003.

“For the first time, you have a very well-documented case where the lack of accessibility for a Web site is determined to be a real liability for a big
organization,” said Mr. Leblois. But Target is hardly alone.

“Web sites around the world – maybe 90 percent of them – including government Web sites in the United States – aren’t accessible either,” Mr. Leblois said.

But it makes no economic sense for it to be that way, he argues. The disabled have money to spend with Target and other companies, if only they had access
to the Web sites.

“If you take the disposable income of disabled persons in the United States, it’s about twice the disposable income of teenagers,” said Mr. Leblois. “And
yet look at how much marketing money is spent on teenagers and how much is spent on disabled persons and you will see that there is a gap here that is
actually irrational.”

The broader a mandate for technology that is accessible to the disabled, the lower its costs will be, said Mr. Leblois,

During a video interview with GlobalAtlanta, he holds up a cell phone for emphasis.

“The reason this cell phone is such an inexpensive proposition today is that this cell phone is used by someone in China and Uganda, Brazil and the United
States,” he said. “The same could be true for assistive technologies. Worldwide, the more we offer mass produced technologies, the more we offer mass competition
of vendors all using the same standards, the more we would lower the costs.”

Take for example, an office copy machine.

“You may have employees who use that machine who are in a wheelchair,” Mr. Leblois said. “If the keyboard and the command and control screen are at the
top of the machine, guess what? You have a problem. That machine may be operated by a blind person, so it needs to have voice control command.”

If there were required standards for those accessible features – if all manufacturers had to build their machines that way- the costs would plummet, said
Mr. Leblois.

The same is true for technology to make Web sites accessible, he said.

“Microsoft, IBM have made tremendous efforts to bring technology to more accessible stages,” he said. “I can tell you whenever I go to countries for meetings,
the (technology) companies are generally very keen to bring solutions forward because they know, being in touch with the marketplace, that this is something
that is very valuable to do for them.”

Equal access to technology helps the disabled become better educated, improves their job prospects – and the amount they eventually pay in taxes – and leads
overall to a better quality of life, said Mr. Leblois.

A French citizen who has lived in Atlanta since 1998, Mr. Leblois worked for a long list of software and computer companies before becoming executive director
of CIFAL Atlanta, a U.N. program that provides training to public officials and leaders in areas such as economic development.

With an 82-year-old mother who is nearly blind and uses a computer and a nephew who is wheelchair bound, Mr. Leblois was intrigued when he learned that
the U.N. was looking for someone to launch an advocacy group on technology and disabilities. He applied and was accepted, nominating his adopted hometown
of Atlanta as the logical choice for the organization’s headquarters.

Atlanta is a natural location for his new organization because of the many universities and technology companies here and the city’s historical ties to
the civil rights movement, he said. Digital access is a modern-day civil rights issue, he added.

Much of Mr. Leblois’ focus now is on helping countries that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. Implementation
can be complex. The convention endorses broad principles but it is up to the countries to develop specific technical standards and to find the best software

Mr.Leblois is creating a series of databases and other online tools for countries to use during implementation. While hopeful that the U.S. will ratify
the convention, he continues to hold conferences throughout the world to raise awareness about the issue.

“The more we can help the process of providing persons with disabilities the right tools to improve their lives, to improve their access to everything from
the workplace to education to all services” said Mr. Leblois. “the better off they are financially, politically, socially, from an ethical and human rights

“It’s what we call a win-win-win situation.”

For more information, e-mail Mr. Leblois at
or Francesca Cesa Bianchi at

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Reproduced from http://www.globalatlanta.com/article/17146/