BBC news reported a story last month on the banning of texting/sms messaging in the Democratic Republic of Congo see here. The decision to ban texting was made by the government on the basis of preserving public order following unrest after the recent elections. The deaf community has raised their concerns about the ban, claiming that it is putting the lives of members of the deaf community at risk and increasing isolation of the deaf community. There are over 1.4 million people living in the DRC who have some form of hearing impairment. Text messaging is widely used by the deaf community for communication. It has been described as an easy way for deaf people to communicate with the rest of the world, see here. The simple act of texting enables deaf people to interact independently with fellow members of the deaf and hearing community with ease.
Not alone, has text messaging opened up easy communication methods for deaf people, it is also being used as a way to communicate in case of an emergency. Text messages are now considering an essential tool for communities to maintain security, as they could spread alerts cheaply, quickly and discreetly to a large number of people who may be in danger. For example in the UK some police services are offering text services for people who are deaf or have difficulty with speaking, see here.
From a development perspective, the use of mobile phone technology and sms messaging is a vital way to communicate with marginalized groups that do not have access to mainstream methods of communication or information services.
For example, radio announcements to stay indoor during times of conflict are usually not accessible to people who are deaf. Mananga Biala, the head of Kinshasa’s main educational centre for deaf people commented that a as a result of this texting ban, members of the deaf community had no alternative means of staying in touch as many did not have access to email or the internet. Additionally he commented that members of the deaf community lives were at risk due to not being able to hear gunfire or protesting. There are many good example of how to make emergency responses inclusive for persons with disabilities in times of conflict and also during natural disasters etc. CBM have produced some useful publications on this matter see links here.
Also it is worth remembering that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) provides for the right to safety for persons with disabilities, particularly in times of conflict and emergencies. The Democratic Republic of Congo became a signatory to the CRPD in 2007. By signing the Convention, the DRC is considered to be making a commitment to upholding the rights of persons with disabilities. It is also committed not to take any retro regressive steps, which might undermine the sentiments of the CRPD. Article 11 of the CRPD asks States to ensure that all “necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters”.
Article 11 can be broadly interpreted as asking States to take a range of measures to ensure the safety of persons with disabilities during times of conflict and natural disasters. These measures can be very broad, but at the very least, should ensure that methods of communication used during times of conflict are accessible to and inclusive of persons with disabilities, and in this particular instance, people from the deaf community in the Congo.