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Information highway must have a slow lane

By Alice Tay - posted Monday, 15 November 1999

For the advocate of human rights the brash pronouncement "all publicity is good publicity" translates into the disturbing truism "all tragedy is good publicity".

Why is it only an East Timor, a Kosovo, or a stolen generation that brings human rights to national attention? Important as these dramatic crimes against humanity are, so are the comparatively mundane events that make up the human rights agenda. One such issue, increasingly pervasive yet rarely acknowledged, has to do with the social fallout from the explosion in information technology and e-commerce.

The promises held out to us by the information revolution have not been held out equally to the elderly and to those with disabilities.


The drive for efficiency, convenience and reduced costs has spawned the ubiquitous automatic teller machine; yet on-the-street banking rarely favours those who require wheelchair access, and those who are visually impaired. Telephone banking and information services are far from convenient for someone with hearing difficulties or cognitive disabilities and can deprive the isolated of important social contact. Computers discriminate in favour of visual interaction and demand a new set of skills, which can be daunting if you haven't grown up with them.

If you don't have access, you've missed the technology bus. This cliché speaks volumes about contemporary attitudes, for when we say someone missed the bus, we don’t blame the bus. The truth is, many older people and people with disabilities are deprived of opportunities through no choice or fault of their own because the new technology doesn't cater to their needs. These people haven't missed the bus; they've been left standing on the roadside in the dust of a passing juggernaut.

To prevent the elderly and disabled from losing their rights and becoming an information underclass, Federal Attorney-General Daryl Williams has asked the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to conduct an inquiry into the issue of accessibility. The inquiry seeks to identify the barriers that prevent equal access to new technology and information services, and to recommend strategies that instead use technology to remove barriers.

The split between information rich and information poor is exacerbated by a rate of change that is nothing short of exponential. As of May, almost every second household in Australia had a home computer, and nearly 5.5 million adults - 40% of our adult population - accessed the Internet in the preceding 12 months, up from 3.6 million the year before. (Only 10% of the over 55s used the Net compared to 74% of 18-24 year-olds.)

Predictions by International Data Corp indicate that the number of e-commerce users in the Asia-Pacific region, not including Japan, will grow from more than 1.1 million in 1998 to 12.8 million in 2002.

Elderly people with no interest in IT and the World Wide Web might find themselves entangled regardless or penalised for their lack of technical savvy. Bank charges are perhaps the most blatant incentive: an over-the-counter transaction costs on average $2.50 to $3.50, only $1.00 to $1.50 at an ATM, and a mere 12 cents via Internet.


As society goes digital, not to have access to information technology and services is to be forced into economic and social exile. What is under threat are some fundamental human rights.

We have two kinds of rights: negative and positive. Negative rights secure us against interference and control by other individuals and the state; they include freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression and belief. Positive rights enable us to participate in society and realise personal goals; it is the state’s duty to create the conditions for these rights.

Information technology affects both kinds of rights. We’ve seen how it can disadvantage people. But it can also benefit and enfranchise. Multimedia communications can transform the way someone with a disability interacts with society at large; and Internet groups can expand an elderly person's social horizons. Either way, our right to the advantages of new technology is stated explicitly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 27): "Everyone has the right share in scientific advancement and its benefits."

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Professor Alice Tay was President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

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