Diversity and Inclusion

Moving Beyond Tokenism: Why Disability Inclusion in IGF Leadership is Critical for a Digital Future

Dr. Muhammad Shabbir Awan

The Internet is a vast, interconnected web of information and communication that has transformed the world in ways that were once unimaginable. The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is a vital platform that brings together stakeholders from various sectors to discuss issues related to Internet governance, policies, and regulations. However, despite its importance, the IGF, like many other organizations, faces challenges related to diversity and inclusion in its leadership. Over the years, the IGF has tried to bridge the gap of geographic and gender diversity in the leadership and to some extent has succeeded in that. However, it has failed to include people with disabilities as a part of its decision-making processes. The divide for persons with disabilities in the IG discussions is increasing by the day. This is mainly because people with disabilities are not given a seat at the decision-making table nor are there concrete steps for their inclusion. For example, you could count the number of persons with disabilities on the IGF’s Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) in the 17 years of its history on one hand and still have fingers left.

Diversity is a key point of discussion at the IGF to ensure a broad cross-section of participants. Gender and geographic diversity together with youth are usually highlighted. It should not just be a matter of checking boxes when it comes to diversity, but also how the internet or lack of accessibility of it impacts people.

Disability transcends geography, gender or age. Disability can happen to anyone anywhere and at any time of life. Persons with disabilities including those with age-related disabilities are often excluded regardless of their gender, country of residence or age group. One only has to look at the UN DESA 2015 Global Status Report on Disability and Development to really understand how this 15 percent of the world’s population is excluded! Also consider that just 3% of the Internet is accessible to people with disabilities, despite the 1.3 billion people globally who live with a disability.

“Access Now” means more than just having electronic connectivity between a device and the Internet. Ironically, a person with disability may have high-speed Internet with a state-of-the-art device yet remain unable to benefit from certain online resources due to inaccessibility. The Internet cannot be for everyone without ensuring the right of accessibility for persons with disabilities and those with specific needs in this virtual domain. Thus, meaningful access includes ensuring that people can actually access and utilize connectivity to function productively in society.

There is a famous saying,”Diversity is being invited to the party, while inclusion is getting asked to the dance floor”. This quote, attributed to Verna Myers, an American disability rights activist, highlights the difference between diversity and inclusion. While diversity is about representation, inclusion is about actively involving individuals with disabilities and valuing their perspectives in accessibility for persons with disabilities and specific needs. This quote is often cited in discussions on diversity and inclusion. The quote underscores the importance of not only having a diverse leadership but also endeavors to ensure that everyone feels included and valued in the decision-making process.

Having a diverse and inclusive leadership can help to build trust and legitimacy in the IGF. When stakeholders see themselves represented in the leadership, they are more likely to trust the organization and its decisions. This trust can lead to greater participation and engagement from stakeholders, which can ultimately lead to more effective policies and outcomes. To achieve a diverse and inclusive leadership, the IGF must take intentional steps to ensure that it is representative of all stakeholders including people with disabilities and those with specific needs. This can be achieved through measures such as setting diversity targets, creating mentorship programs for this underrepresented group, and actively seeking out diverse candidates for leadership positions. To sum up, diversity and inclusion are essential in Internet governance. The IGF must prioritize these values in choosing its leadership. By ensuring that its leadership is diverse and inclusive and includes experts in the realm of all disability inclusion, the IGF can foster more comprehensive, equitable policies that benefit everyone. If we want to build a digital future where people come first, accessibility needs must be at the heart of Internet policy, planning and technical design. This discussion can be started by giving persons with a disability a seat at the decision-making table. It would, on the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’, ensure that leaders in the IGF domain are talking and deciding together with people with disabilities, instead of talking over them, about them or for them.

The author is Coordinator of the Dynamic Coalition on Accessibility and Disability (DCAD) and tweets as @MShabirAwan