Digital inclusion: bridging the divide with Professor DR. DP Sharma

People with disabilities are too often neglected or even forgotten in development processes, and their opinions as citizens are not, or very little, taken into account. This has been the struggle of a lifetime for Professor DR. DP Sharma, Indian computer scientist and disability rights activist. He has turned disability into ability through his fight against his own paralysis and his will to give power to those who need the “wings technology can offer”. Let’s give him the floor as he is a longstanding follower of We, The Internet project and fervent activist to develop inclusive governance in India but also in global processes.

Missions Publiques : You were a participant of Missions Publiques’ Stakeholders’ Dialogue last June and followed from a distance the Citizens’ Dialogue in October. Over 70 countries, among which India, implemented a deliberation to test and institutionalize governance with and for the citizens through informed discussions. What do you think about this deliberative process?

Professor DR. DP Sharma: Let me state that I consider an honour to have participated in its deliberations and that the UN Secretary General’s 7 core recommendations are being implemented in my country (India) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

These dialogues are an amazing initiative for involving people who have been isolated from the internet revolution and want to make their voices heard as a global voice via a unique channel i.e. Internet as a tool towards real democratic governance. The Stakeholders’ Dialogue on Internet Governance in June 2020 was a significant milestone in building inclusive and viable democratic processes for globalized internet policymaking – one that involved governments, civil society, academia, and the private sector.

It’s ironic though that the Internet has provided a historical channel to ‘democratize the people’s voices globally but is now struggling for its own democratic governance.’ Today, the people living in the far-flung disconnected rural areas of the world can have a dialogue with anybody in any corner of the globe in just a few clicks. For me, giving a voice to ordinary people on Internet Governance is a priority.

The Internet has been recognized as a master enabler tool of multisector development. This development expedites positive outcomes in sectors like governance, trade & commerce, education, healthcare, agriculture, employment, and numerous other fields as well. Notwithstanding the consistent development realized since the emergence of the Internet, but more efforts are essential in order to connect the billions and their voices and to alleviate the digital divide in the developing world.

People with disabilities are traditionally excluded from societal participation. If the same exclusion takes place in deliberative democracy, the implications for its legitimacy are significant. But I am very positive since I am a participant with major disabilities. However, the existing state of art practices needs to be explored towards better participation of people with other types of disabilities such as the visually impaired, hearing impaired, and others. Today technology, especially the Internet, has been enormously assisting persons with disabilities at anytime, anywhere over any hand-held electronic gadgets. This diffusion of digital switching has been seen in the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as well. I have participated in some of the events like the webinar on ‘The Impact of COVID 19 and the switch to virtual meetings on the deaf and hard of hearing community”. It’s strong proof that the Internet Society is trying to ensure the participation of persons with disabilities through technology training and support facilities.

"It’s ironic though that the Internet has provided a historical channel to ‘democratize the people’s voices globally but is now struggling for its own democratic governance.’

Professor DR. DP Sharma

Do you think citizens assemblies should become fully and permanently integrated in Internet policy?

Such assemblies can develop and support the core spirit of democratization, globalization, or glocalization of key citizens’ issues. The internet has proved to be an abundant platform where the vote or e-vote of individuals has similar values without any class, creed, color or level. From its origin and philosophy, a citizens’ assembly or citizens’ jury is a body formed from citizens or people to deliberate on issues of local, national, or international importance. But it should not be limited to symbolism. The prime goal of such assemblies should be on fulfilling public needs through study and analysis of alternative options available and to propose solutions to these issues, through balanced and rational dialogue, and use of techno-social mechanisms. Such assemblies can help in formulating acceptable democratic policies through a referendum before becoming law.

In academia and research assembly practices, generally, we use discussion and deliberation tools like discussion forums, the ideas tool, storytelling, places, surveys, and quick opinion polls. With these, we can create a perfect environment for technology enabled online participation and efficient deliberative engagement in assembly dialogues. In fact,  our academic research and project practices include- carrying on the conversations, creating a safe place for public participation in the dialogues, Tools for deliberation, opportunity to query, reaching conclusions, Information exchange, mobile and online gazettes, understanding and engaging the assemblies members, Analysis and reporting ideal practices for citizens’ assemblies.

Today, most dialogues and assemblies are virtualized i.e. via Internet Media because Covid has forced us to enter into the virtualization i.e. a paradigm shift of technology enabled work culture. But we should perceive it as an opportunity that has appeared before its predicted time frame.

In light of all such views, we have to focus on the re-engineering of Internet Governance so that citizens’ rather than Netizens’ rights could be protected.

The internet has proved to be an abundant platform where the vote or e-vote of individuals has similar values without any class, creed, color or level.

Do you think citizens assemblies should become fully and permanently integrated in Internet policy?

Such assemblies can develop and support the core spirit of democratization, globalization, or glocalization of key citizens’ issues. The internet has proved to be an abundant platform where the vote or e-vote of individuals has similar values without any class, creed, color or level. From its origin and philosophy, a citizens’ assembly or citizens’ jury is a body formed from citizens or people to deliberate on issues of local, national, or international importance. But it should not be limited to symbolism. The prime goal of such assemblies should be on fulfilling public needs through study and analysis of alternative options available and to propose solutions to these issues, through balanced and rational dialogue, and use of techno-social mechanisms. Such assemblies can help in formulating acceptable democratic policies through a referendum before becoming law.

In academia and research assembly practices, generally, we use discussion and deliberation tools like discussion forums, the ideas tool, storytelling, places, surveys, and quick opinion polls. With these, we can create a perfect environment for technology enabled online participation and efficient deliberative engagement in assembly dialogues. In fact,  our academic research and project practices include- carrying on the conversations, creating a safe place for public participation in the dialogues, Tools for deliberation, opportunity to query, reaching conclusions, Information exchange, mobile and online gazettes, understanding and engaging the assemblies members, Analysis and reporting ideal practices for citizens’ assemblies.

Today, most dialogues and assemblies are virtualized i.e. via Internet Media because Covid has forced us to enter into the virtualization i.e. a paradigm shift of technology enabled work culture. But we should perceive it as an opportunity that has appeared before its predicted time frame.

In light of all such views, we have to focus on the re-engineering of Internet Governance so that citizens’ rather than Netizens’ rights could be protected.

During my studies, I was told that heavy engineering will be difficult for me if I were to live a life with dignity. In reality, the technology offered me wings to fly and transformed my life.

Professor, where does your interest in democracy come from? How do you perceive persons with disabilities in the world of internet governance? How have you enhanced the inclusiveness of deliberative democracy in your field of study?

My interest in democracy originated from wondering how to implement the trust and transparency in good governance processes at the door of the deprived people. At the age of five, I suffered from fever and got paralyzed in his left arm and right leg forever. I could not get proper treatment as the family could not afford it. In my native village, there was only one primary school, therefore, after completion of my primary education, I used to travel a long distance of 18 km on rough tracks every day from my village to small town Rajakhera and back to get only middle and secondary level school education. During my studies, I was told that heavy engineering will be difficult for me if I were to live a life with dignity. In reality, the technology offered me wings to fly and transformed my life. I believed that technology has the potential to transform the lives of all types of persons with disabilities. This was the turning point of my life where I started to think, visualize and design the plans, and solutions for transforming the lives of salient types of disabled people. I strongly believed that the technology can support and transform their lives from normal citizens to technology-enabled Netizens. I initiated numerous collaborative projects; and research initiatives to design or customized software solutions to change the lives of people with disabilities. We recently have designed a solution ‘Pervasive Communication through Digital Braille System’ for the visually impaired people. I participated in the United Nations Disability Convention 2006 from India and till date providing online voluntary support and services to the NGOs working for the education and rehabilitation of the persons with disabilities in India and another part of the world via the Internet under United Nations Voluntary Service programs and others. In 1994, I became part of a national advocacy campaign that was struggling for a new draft of the disability ordinance in India. After a long struggle, we got it passed as a new law “The Persons with disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Right and Full Participation) Act 1995”.

My dream project is to establish a Virtual Technical University completely equipped with technology-enabled educational and research tools and techniques to provide education for persons with disabilities at their doors. This project has already been accepted in India and is in progress. This all was made possible because of the power of the Internet.

In conclusion, the Internet and technology are the amazing tools to provide support to persons with disabilities and they can make their lives comfortable and live in a society with dignity. If explored at its full potential, competency of the people with disability will be made at par the “ordinary” people with service driven technology & technology driven services.

Throughout my work, I realized the real bias starts when users are disqualified based on their physical fitness. Even today, access to quality education, vocational training, and employment are denied to millions of young persons with disabilities, worldwide including India. But a Greek philosopher once said that” Nothing is Permanent except Change ” (Heraclitus Ephesus (535 B.C- 475 B.C.). And I consider myself an optimist.

In 2005, we developed an online ‘job search engine (JSE)’ in which a person could search for suitable jobs by inserting his/her physical disability, limitations, challenges, and special abilities. It was designed and developed to help the searching process of suitable jobs for persons with disabilities. In the test process of the job search engine, the internet-based search results were very much promising. It was a small attempt to enable the disabled through job-related information services at their doors in just a few clicks. After rigorous analysis of the physical limitations and challenges, working conditions, professional requirements, skills, and suitability assessments, a list of around 4,500 jobs were prepared in the first round by the Government of India’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. By giving a chance to persons with disabilities to use the Internet, and to participle in its development, we can create an environment for uncensored voices & freedom which can help to change the mindsets of the people towards persons with disabilities.

The main question here is- why does the system not specify the suitability measures for persons with disabilities? Why would an online system assist them at their door via an internet-based job search and suitability system?

I believe that the participation and voices of people with disabilities in developing countries need to be improved. Access to the facilities and friendly mobility are the major challenges for this community. We believe that we live in civilized societies but even today millions of people with disabilities are called by their “disability symbolic names” rather than their ‘legal’ or ‘social’ names in family and societies. They are still called by their disability symbolic names in their home, schools, and even colleges. I know since I am one of the victims in my childhood and have experienced this multifold discrimination and humiliation. The Internet ‘I-way’ is the only way to eradicate the mobility barriers, raise their voices globally, expose discrimination, and therefore they need to gain sufficient participation in the Internet Governance processes.  

When we talk about Global Governance or Country Governance; we need to clearly define and decide the boundaries like boundaries of the states and countries say, for instance, the two largest democracies of the world, India and the USA. There are ample chances of ‘conflict of interests’ and the ‘conflict of rights’ but we have to make the balance and crystal-clear demarcation amongst the four tiers of Privacy, Security, Health, and Crimes. All the sectors are rapidly opening the digital platforms but who will collect the tax and how? Who will catch the global crime and enforce the lawful penalties? Today ‘bombs and bullets’ are considered as the costlier tools for crimes than the ‘Internet based blasts’. Because the ten-dollar SIM-card with recharge has become a more powerful weapon to commit a crime in any corner of the world and provoke the people’s sentiments.

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