One of our team members at Intopia, Renata, who manages our Intopia Connect service, has been involved in the Pacific Connect events to promote digital accessibility and assistive technology in the Pacific. Renata shares some of her reflections here.

Pacific Connect Ideas Exchange 2019 attendees
Pacific Connect Ideas Exchange 2019 attendees

Reflections on Pacific Connect

My involvement with Pacific Connect began in August this year, when I was invited to join a group of thought leaders for the 2019 dialogue on Assistive Technology in the Pacific. It was entitled Technology Enabling Inclusiveness, and was held in Suva, Fiji, run by the International Centre for Democratic Partnerships.

Pacific Connect in Fiji was facilitated by Setareki Makenawai, the head of the Pacific Disability Forum, and Dr Ian Watt, the former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and former head of the Australian Public Service.

The event brought together some of my passions for promoting access to education and opportunities for all, with my background in disability-inclusive development. While it is difficult to do justice to the many discussion points, I wanted to share a few reflections – on some lessons shared on the accessibility experience in Fiji and the Pacific – and ways that connections with Australia can promote greater inclusion through technology.

1) There is progress in using technology to generate assistive devices

Like in Australia, where 3D printing technology is used to develop prosthetics at places such as Free 3D Hands and AbilityMade, a team called Field Ready in Fiji is working on printing easy fixes for crutches, prosthetic hands, or other technology to support inclusion of people with disability.

In some areas, assistive devices like wheelchairs might not be available, or may be oversized. There are some Australian-based organisations like Motivation Australia that are providing access to wheelchairs.

2) There are myths about assistive technology or disability

Seta shared a story about visiting an island, where he used his white cane to assist with navigation when getting off the plane and walking through the airport. He said that he was asked, “Are there magic eyes at the bottom of the cane?”

There are still many challenges faced by people with disability in the Pacific who meet misperceptions about employment opportunities. Although Fiji has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as has Australia, there is still work to be done to improve skills and awareness of technical accessibility and to share stories of inclusion.

3) Associations can play a major role in advancing inclusion

HFC Bank, the local bank in the Pacific, has been working to promote inclusion and has won awards for its’ work. Similar to Australia’s Banking Code of Practice (BCOP) which includes clauses related to accessibility and universal design, the HFC Bank CEO, Mr Rakesh Ram, who Chairs the Fiji Banking Association, committed at the event to making sure that accessibility is part of the banking requirements for Fiji.

There is a broader need for awareness-raising about meaningful employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Fiji does not currently have an equivalent organisation to the Australian Network on Disability (AND). However, the participants of the Fiji Employment Association (a major network of employers in the Pacific) have committed to having a speaker with disability at their next event in 2020 to progress the conversation on inclusion.

4) Innovation hubs exist in Fiji and can integrate assistive technology

There is an opportunity for the innovation hubs that are providing opportunities for entrepreneurs in the Pacific, similar to Australian accelerator programs, to have a standard set of useful assistive technology available on devices, e.g. screen-reading software like JAWS or NVDA, or magnification software like Zoomtext, available on one of the provided computers. There is a need for innovation and shared spaces to be wheelchair accessible. In addition, the innovation hubs can partner with universities, such as the University of the South Pacific, to skill-share information on assistive technology.

There are some innovation grants available in Fiji that could also be used to create more assistive technology.

5) Maps and catalogues of accessibility of places and equipment are needed

There is still a major need for accessible workspaces and accessible infrastructure. One participant shared a story of being offered an employment opportunity in Fiji, but which required him to be carried up and down stairs each day.

In the tourist sector, knowing where the accessible museums, ramps and bathrooms are can be a gamechanger. The tourist sector has been doing work in this area, which is also a project as part of the World Tourism Office. There are some beach wheelchairs available in Fiji, and there is interest in Gecko Traxx and cataloguing how to access some of the equipment that could be available, like the WheelEasy approach in Sydney.

A project that has come out of the Pacific Connect dialogue is called Mobile Me, which plans in December to use a mapathon approach (similar to AXS maps) to work with GIS students and the organisations of people with disabilities to map accessibility of spaces. In Australia, several capital cities have accessibility maps which may be detailed to include gradients, like in Sydney. Innovative technologies like Briometrix are also being used.

6) There is strong interest in innovations for complex way-finding

There have have been a number of projects that have been discussed to promote way-finding – to get from one place to another, especially for people who are blind, including at universities. This includes technology where people are called to give guidance, such as Aira (now available for free for five minutes each day) with coverage at some airports for free, but where internet connectivity is important (and a challenge in the Pacific), or Be My Eyes, which is available for free, coordinated with more than 2.8 million volunteers. Beacon-style technology, like BindiMaps, and BlindSquare, also exists and requires detailed mapping. Universities also have apps, like RMIT Campus Navigator, which have accessibility features.

Want to do something from Australia or find out more?

If you work for an Australian company that also has a presence in the Pacific, make sure that the digital accessibility standards (like WCAG 2.1, as illustrated in the WCAG 2.1 map, or EN 301 549, or physical accessibility of construction standards ISO 21542) are also being considered in the Pacific.

If you have questions, ideas or time, feel free to contact us or find out more about the Pacific Connect projects on the ICDP website.