Disability, technology and public services: the role of monitoring mechanisms

I have been in the field of disability (and later technology) and inclusive education for more than 15 years working in Cyprus. Just when I started my work as a primary education teacher supporting children with disabilities in the mainstream school, my country put in force the law for the education of children with disabilities.

The educational system in Cyprus is highly centralized, and the 1999 Law for the Education of Children with Special needs legitimized  formal procedures of identification, assessment and provision of special education and support. Policy regarding the use of technology in the education of children with disabilities was introduced much later and it was placed under of the existing legislative provisions, though these were not clearly written to support such services.

During the same time the disability movement in Cyprus was quite active in promoting and protecting disabled learners’ rights in all setting of formal education and transition to employment. Hence, ICT and (assistive) technology in general started to emerge in consultations and public dialogues. In the meantime changes have taken place in the social services as well, with the introduction of the “New System of Assessing Disability and Functioning”. This is based on ICF and, among other, provides for the assessment of people with disabilities for assistive technology.

Following these changes, national research evidence begun to raise serious issues on the effectiveness of the disability service delivery system and the time consuming bureaucratic procedures in both educational and social services.  One of the main issues seems to be the overall monitoring and evaluation of these services and policies, which either does not take place or it does with vague criteria and ambiguous stakeholders involved. For example the national experts of the Academic Network of European Disability experts (ANED) highlight that until recently the monitoring authority on disability issues in Cyprus was the Department for Social Inclusion of People with Disability, which is the same department that designed, developed and implements the new system of assessment mentioned above. Similarly, in education the stakeholders involved in independent mechanisms such as the European Agency of Special Needs and Inclusive Education where strictly representatives of the Ministry of Education per se.  As a consequence, responsible authorities in Cyprus where also for a long period the responsible monitoring mechanisms that were supposed to monitor and evaluate themselves!  Challenging..! No change… no gain… no improvement for many years!

Luckily though, just after Cyprus ratified the UN Convention for the Rights of People with Disabilities (2011 Ratification Law), in May 2012 with the Council of Ministers decision, the Ombudsman and Commissioner for the Protection of Human Rights has been nominated as the independent mechanism for the promotion, protection and monitoring of the UN Convention according to Article 33.2 of the Convention, namely Independent Authority for the Promotion of the Rights of People with Disabilities. The new role of the Authority was not really known to the public and to the less active people with disabilities and families, till very recently.

Thus, during the last couple of years, and after some time of awareness events, the Authority started receiving numbers of complaints from citizens on infringement of their rights, mainly in all levels of education and employment. The majority of those complaints refer to issues of use, access to and accessibility of technology!

The officers of the Authority dynamically got down to work and started serious investigation of each case and not only. Taking the new role seriously the competent officers sought for responses not only in current practice, but also in research evidence and academics expertise. Hence, they conducted consultation meetings initially with disability representatives and families, and then with researchers in the area of education, disability and technology; while at the same time they were present in seminars, conferences and other events for gaining awareness and knowledge. I had the opportunity to participate in those meetings, as an invited researcher with other colleagues in the field, and this was probably the first time that an authority took such an initiative and put if further into practice!

As an independent mechanism, in a short amount of time the Authority has produced a number of position and decision papers raising (among others) issues of digital divide, training and digital competencies of people with disabilities, educator’s professional development, and of course considerations on the old-fashioned non-technology informed legislative provisions! So, by taking further action, the Authority as a truly independent mechanism has brought into surface the real difficulties and barriers in learning and technology of people with disabilities and revealed the weakness of the system to provide quality of learning and life in the digital era.

It is worth to note that in this relatively short amount of time involved stakeholders and public services have been mobilised to respond to complainers’ requests and the same time to put forward more general changes for improvement! So let’s be optimistic that independent mechanisms, when really independent an unbiased can make a difference!

By Katerina Mavrou, ENTELIS Partner European University Cyprus.