What makes a digital champion?

What role do digital tools and technologies play in your daily life? Do you use them to plan your day? Catch up with friends? Get the latest news?

Perhaps you are using them to make a difference in your life or the lives of others, to empower young people to speak out, to promote a kinder and more inclusive society, and to make the world a better place. If so, you’re probably someone we like to call a ‘Digital Champion’.

Digital Champions are powerful thinkers, creators, and innovators who are transforming their environment and communities for the better. As individuals or teams, they are addressing difficult questions such as gender, rights, participation and civic engagement, discrimination and poverty.  We first introduced twelve inspiring profiles of Digital Champions as part of the Child Rights in the Digital Age report in 2014.

2016 is the 10th year anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD, along with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), provides a framework for ensuring children and young people with disabilities all their rights and freedoms. Young people with disabilities are first and foremost young people and they have the same rights: the rights to grow, play, learn and thrive.

Young people with disabilities are often excluded from society in many ways. The Internet and other digital technologies can be important to making sure that children and young people with disabilities can participate in society and that their voices are heard. To commemorate the anniversary, we are seeking to spotlight young people with disabilities who are using Internet and digital technologies to bring about change, both in their own lives and in the communities around them.

An illustration of YouTube star Rikki Poynter.
Elsa BrownYouTuber Rikki Poynter.

Consider Rikki Poynter; this 25-year-old YouTuber from the US is working to ensure that deafness is not a barrier to enjoying video content on her favorite video sharing site. Pointing out the limitations of automatic captioning, she has called on content creators themselves to try and produce transcripts for the audio of their videos in order to make their videos more inclusive for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

Several thousand kilometres away, the Lumos Foundation is using digital technology to connect decision-makers and young people with disabilities who want to see an end to the institutionalization of children. By using online platforms, youth groups formed by Lumos are able to connect with a much broader audience and share their insights and perspectives.

Empowering young people with disabilities by providing the skills and access they need to innovate and create can also result in even bigger changes and improvements to the assistive technology that many people with disabilities use.

Meet Michael and James, two talented programmers from Australia – who are both blind. Seeing how expensive and inaccessible screen reading technology was, Michael created a free alternative that he named “NonVisual Desktop Access” (NVDA). He then enlisted the help of his friend James to make improvements to NVDA, which has now been downloaded over 70,000 times and works in 50 different languages.

These stories indicate that technology can play an important role in the lives of young people with disabilities – to advocate for their rights, to speak out against discrimination, to promote inclusion, to access education, and to connect with likeminded individuals.

A drawing of two young men
Elsa BrownMichael Curran and James Teh
To create an even more diverse pool of stories, we would love to hear from you – whether you are a young person yourself or whether you are familiar with young people whose work aligns with this year’s Digital Champions project focus. In particular, we are seeking to highlight exceptional cases of young people with disabilities around the world who have empowered themselves and others through the use of digital technology.  If you have any further ideas for this project, please do not hesitate to email Sandra Cortesi at digitallyconnected@cyber.harvard.edu. If you would like to suggest further Digital Champions, please visit here.

As the Internet and digital technologies permeate more and more of our lives it is crucial that we listen to the experiences of children and young people with disabilities and consult with them, to understand the challenges and opportunities that exist. By doing this we can help ensure that young people with disabilities are not further marginalized or excluded, and that they are given the skills and tools they need to fulfil their rights, learn, socialize, achieve their dreams and transform the world.

Katarzyna Pawelczyk is a Communication Specialist working on Digital Youth Engagement at UNICEF NYHQ. Sandra Cortesi is a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and the Director of the Youth and Media project.

The authors of this blog would also like to thank Chalene Risser and Briggs DeLoach for their research and writing contributions, and Elsa Brown for the illustrations.

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