By Ariam Mogos – Learning Lead, Ventures Team, UNICEF Office of Innovation.
Last week, the Global Disability Innovation Hub held the first ever Disability Innovation Summit in London, UK. The sold-out event brought together academics, practitioners, international organizations, corporations, people with disabilities and other actors to explore the potential of design and innovation to shape the future of accessibility. Sessions were versatile and covered a wide range of topics which included wearable tech, sports, arts and more. It was a terrific platform to share the UNICEF Innovation Fund’s current call for proposals around AAC technologies and our most recent investment around an open source accessible textbook.
I sat on a panel on Inclusive International Development, with colleagues from Leonard Cheshire Disability, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, Oxford University and a startup in Kenya called RIZIKI Source, run by Fred Ouko. It was an engaging conversation and opportunity to learn more from an entrepreneur and leader of a startup addressing one of the greatest challenges in the space, the extraordinarily high unemployment rate of persons with disabilities.
Ariam: Fred, what are some of the greatest needs and aspirations of people with disabilities in Kenya and the East African region in general?
Fred: Some aspiration of persons with disabilities in Kenya are to lead an independent life, get an education, a good education, finish university, and get a job and be productive toward the economy of the country.
Ariam: What do you think are the core roadblocks for meeting these needs and aspirations?
Fred: One of the main challenges for persons with disabilities is the lack of appropriate support structures for them to get an education. The education system does not respond to various types of disabilities, which means that the education system often blocks many persons with disabilities from advancing, and then it’s generally assumed that persons with disabilities do not have academic aspirations. Another challenge is that there’s a negative perception among employers in the country that employees with disabilities come at a high-cost, so they avoid employing them which is leading to a lot of them being unemployed and contributes to poverty.
Ariam: What are some of the opportunities for building solutions around the challenges you just identified?
Fred: We have a law now that guarantees inclusion of persons with disabilities, it outlaws discrimination on the grounds of disability, but much more needs to be done, effort needs to be put into creating awareness around these laws to ensure that both public and private institutions adhere to them. There’s also the emergence of technological innovation that can help persons with disabilities challenge the inaccessibility of the built environment, so that they’re able to do what they want. It’s really about these kinds of solutions and who is helping persons with disabilities to realize these particular opportunities.
Ariam: What opportunities do startups have to make an impact on the disabilities landscape? What can they do?
Fred: Startups can really pivot in terms of how we use technology to make life better for persons with disabilities. So that means innovating around assistive devices, tools that can be used in education, employment, transportation, or understanding the environment in which persons with disabilities are living their lives. Startups can invest in creating solutions around these challenges. For example, if I’m looking for accessible transport, I should be able to know exactly which one I can take so that I spend little time looking for it. In Nairobi, there’s traffic so you need to know when you’re leaving your place of stay, you need to know exactly where you’re going so that you don’t get stuck in traffic, so really I see that as an opportunity for technology. Even in education, children with disabilities should be able to just get the same level of education so they can read at their own pace, and technology can assist with this.
Ariam: Considering that there’s a thriving tech scene in Kenya, how do you think that we can better engage the startup community to work with UNICEF and civil society organizations to co-design these solutions?
Fred: Ah brilliant question. I think that we need to avoid working in silos and focus on how we can collaborate with other startups who are either mainly in tech, and encourage competition for those who develop solutions that are meaningful for the lives of persons with disabilities. I’ve actually been considering how I can I simulate something like the Disability Innovation Summit in Nairobi. There are so many innovators who are not working on solutions for accessibility but would be encouraged if we created simulations around themes for disabilities. This is something that I’m working on as a project, a type of Nairobi disability innovation hub.
Ariam: Great, well thank you so much Fred, this has been terrific. Glad to be here with you.
Fred: You’re welcome.
The UNICEF Innovation Fund is looking for startups that are building the next generation of open source augmentative and alternative communication technologies. Be part of our community of problem-solvers and changemakers by submitting your application to the UNICEF Innovation Fund through our open call and on www.unicefinnovationfund.org.