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Access to assistive technology: A human rights approach to disability

Copyrights: Waikato Parafed (Waikato Wheelchair Rugby club)

Access to assistive technology: A human rights approach to disability

Access to assistive technology (AT) has become one of the fundamental human rights of persons with disabilities to participate, play and enjoy sports. Yet, this is often problematic.

Sport is undeniably one of the ways of breaking through life challenges, societal oppression and injustice, and reaching full potential for persons with disabilities (PwD). As such, disability sport has become one of the vital platforms for promoting human rights. In the same vein, access to assistive technology (AT) has become one of the fundamental human rights of persons with disabilities to participate, play and enjoy sports. Yet, this is often problematic.

Recent research put forth by the World Health Organisation (WHO) projects that over a billion of the global population need some form of assistive technology to participate fully in society. The majority of the world population that require, use and depend on assistive technology like wheelchairs, hearing aids, blind frames and prosthetics are people living with impairments.

People living with impairment use AT to live a productive social life including access to health, education, employment, and participation in sport. AT, whether used as a form of extension of the body, to compensate for an impairment or just an adaptive assistive material, not only enhances and improves the disability experience, but promotes inclusion and accelerates community integration for people living with impairment.

Whilst this is restorative, many people living with impairment still face barriers in accessing adequate, affordable, and productive AT to enable them to enjoy recreational, amateur and high-performance sports. In disability sport, the rapid technological advancements have further complicated the challenges for people living with impairments to partake in sporting activities.

This notwithstanding, the discussion on exclusion, non-participation and low numbers of people living with impairments’ involvement in sports have often stopped at the social and medical model of disability, with less attention to the human rights model of disability. The human rights model was engineered by the United Nations specifically to ease disability-related challenges. It appears to be a move away from the traditional social and medical model of disability, where the social model views disability as stemming from social barriers whilst the medical model argues disability is result of medical condition.

Moving away from these traditional models, as advocates of disability rights, the United Nations pushed for the human rights model out of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). In principle, the human rights model views disability as a state that demands social protection, ensuring equal treatment, freedom, rights, respect of all PwD with absolute dignity.

According to the human rights model, disabled people have the fundamental right to a life, social activities, cultural life, recreation, leisure, and sport that is unrestricted. It is believed that disabled people, like able-bodied people, should enjoy social experiences, social inclusion, and other services inclusive sports.

For the disabled community, social inclusions and positive social outcomes through unrestrained environment is made fully possible with the right to access and use of assistive technology. To put in perspective, the modern Paralympic Games have created a platform that encourages the need for the existence of assistive technology for disabled people to compete in sports at the elite level.

Most importantly, the influx of complex assistive technology and its design in disability sports appear to be the result of not only disabled people’s open, optimistic attitude towards new and emerging technologies, but to meet the new sport needs for the wide range of impairment. For example, in Tokyo 2020, para-badminton is expected to make its debut which will involve different types of disability and this will require different forms of assistive technology - complex wheelchairs and more.

Despite these initiatives and growth in technology in disability sport, certain impairments feel marginalized, oppressed, stigmatized, and discouraged in taking sports. Disabled athletes with less severe impairment are applauded more than their counterparts with a high degree of impairment.

What is more, AT in low- and middle-income countries is either unavailable or very expensive, subsequently hindering the inclusion of persons living with impairment in mainstream sporting activities at all levels. This also further leads to widening the gender gap in disability sports where opportunities for female disabled athletes become bleaker.

It is therefore unsurprising that in 2018 Andrew Parsons, the President of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), at the opening of the United Nations Human Rights Council Social Forum, recently employed all social institutions around the globe to put in place structures and mechanism to empower and respect the right of persons with disabilities.

This call demands broader social and community structures that must provide accessible information for PwD about new assistive devices, AT manufacturers and providers offer services that will cater to all mobility needs of PwD, including affordable devices as well as nations implementing policies that will enhance the availability of assistive technology to PwD. It is hoped that all these appeals by the IPC will connect to encourage positive practices, avenues and will promote the equal, active and inclusive participation of persons with disabilities in sport.

Francis Asare is a PhD scholar at the University of Waikato researching on the lived body experiences of disabled athlete interactions of advance assistive technology in disability sport.

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Francis Asare

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Friday, November 27, 2020 - 14:52