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People with disabilities and the promise of ICTs

“I MAY be 100% blind but the internet has taken away 50% of my disability,” Silatul Rahim Dahman told Cindy Tham of the Nut Graph, an independent Malaysian news site.

During my recent visit to his office in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, he chats with ease on Skype with another blind friend attending a conference in Los Angeles. When he opens an e-mail, the JAWS screen-reading software installed on his Lenovo laptop reads out the content in a robotic voice, which he seems quite accustomed to. When told that The Nut Graph is in the midst of incorporating disabled-friendly features into its website, he goes to the website to find out how accessible it is to his screen reader and keyboard navigation, and provides some helpful feedback.
Rahim relies on the internet for e-mail, to chat with friends and contacts on Yahoo! Messenger and Skype — which is much cheaper than on telephone — and to find out what's happening in the rest of the nation and world. He is also planning to develop a website to promote his family's body massage and foot reflexology centre, run by the blind, in Penang.

The World Health Organization estimates 600 million people live with disabilities — accounting for one in ten people on the planet. The World Bank claims three-out-of-four disabled people live in the developing world. In any corner of the globe, poverty and disability are often interrelated. For instance, more than 18 percent of disabled adults in the United States live below the poverty line. In Canada, the unemployment rate among persons living with disabilities recently jumped to nearly 15 percent.

Because technologies and communication devices help reduce physical barriers, ICTs provide a model to allow disabled people to better integrate socially and economically into their communities, argues Deepak Bhatia of the World Bank. Another promise of ICTs is they provide access to knowledge, the ability to organize and network. Perhaps most importantly, the education sector is being slowly transformed by technology, providing greater access to a variety of learning materials.

Human development and ICT use were discussed in general terms at a recent Harvard University conference. At the upcoming ITU Telecom World 2009 in Geneva, Switzerland, UNESCO will showcase flourishing ICT applications for people with disabilities.

Yam TW is an automotive engineer from Malaysia who lost his vision last year. At his blog, My Blind Sight, he writes about the importance of technical advances to help people living with disabilities.

Malaysia O Malaysia.. The rapid technological advances today have changed and impacted the lives of so many people, particularly the disabled. For the blind and the visually impaired, medical scientists and researchers, particularly from the west, are excited about the vast opportunities that can be explored and tapped in helping the blind to restore some level of sight. While it is important to create awareness in preventing sight loss among the rakyat(citizens), it is equally important too that more research work to be done in helping those already inflicted, blind due to various medical illness and causes. It is good to have modern assistive, both physical and ICT tools, which undoubtedly will enhance the independence of those concerned in their daily lives.

A few more examples of appropriate technology come from the blog Public dreams of a blind ICT user:

Sometimes dreams become reality, but first they must be dreamed. Hopefully I can find other active eInclusion dreamers in Europe.

I am dreaming of a fully accessible and usable Wikipedia for all. I am working for an accessibility project at the German Wikipedia and for example, on a Wikipedia help page for blind users. Wikipedia is an important part of the information society and should be supported:
http://www.epractice.eu/blog/154
I am dreaming of an independent and multi-lingual Blind Wiki with optimized user interface for blind readers and contributors:
http://blind.wikia.com/wiki/Blind_Wiki:About
I am dreaming of an accessible and affordable mobile ICT device for the needs of blind persons. In the last 8 months, I have written hundreds of direct mails and posted lots of blog comments to inform disseminators and decision makers about the topic but it's a hard and sometimes demotivating work:
http://blind.wikia.com/wiki/Open_Letter_Initiative

The list goes on.

From the United States, Wheel Chair Kamikaze explains the importance of voice recognition tools to help him type and blog.

Multiple Sclerosis is a thief. It is indiscriminate in its larceny, robbing its victims of both the profound and the trivial. The disease has stolen from me elements that were once the very foundations of my life (my career, a large part of my social life, the expectation that I would one day learn to juggle), and things that by comparison might seem somewhat slight, like the ability to type.

Since my right hand now has about as much strength and dexterity as a latke, typing has become a strictly one-handed affair. I was never that great a typist to begin with…

When MS robbed me of the use of my right hand, it made typing, which had always been an arduous two fingered affair anyway, into a one fingered nightmare. My ability to communicate via the QWERTY keyboard was virtually eliminated, a major handicap in this day of Internet bulletin boards, e-mail, and instant messaging. How then, the astute reader may ask, am I able to compose the drivel that I post to this blog?

The answer comes in the form of an amazing piece of technology, a voice recognition software program called Dragon NaturallySpeaking. This wonder allows me to simply speak my thoughts, and see them magically transcribed onto my computer screen. It's like something out of Harry Potter, but without all of the crazy protesters claiming that it promotes Satan.

Without Dragon, I would have been rendered mute to the world of the Internet, and instead would have been left only to rant at Melvin, the giant Kleenex who is my invisible friend. The program has relieved me entirely of the need to type, and if I were to wake up 100% healthy tomorrow, I'd continue using it.

Deaf communities in most developing countries face similar problems, writes Lourdes Pietrosemoli. “One of them is the lack of programmes specifically designed for the local Sign Languages of their communities.”

In Venezuela for example, although the Constitution states the right of linguistic minorities (and the deaf community is globally regarded as such) to receive education in their own language, in practice this is rarely accomplished because, on the one hand, there are no professionals who appropriately handle the two languages involved: Spanish and Venezuelan Sign Language (LSV) and, on the other hand, there are no curricula tailored to the needs of the deaf.

However, Pietrosemoli describes how six deaf participants took part in a IT Essentials training by the Cisco Networking Academy in Merida, Venezuela. It went so well, Pietrosemoli says the idea could be exported abroad.

This course was a milestone for the deaf in our city, who not only acquired basic tools for their individual development, but also the mechanisms to transmit the acquired knowledge to other deaf people in the community.

At the time of this report, the certified deaf students are highly committed to the project of transmitting knowledge to others in the deaf community and a training course to acquire the necessary tools to teach IT Essentials in the community has already been scheduled. With this last step, the potential future problems with (hearing) interpreters are circumvented. Moreover, researchers from the Impairment and Communication project have planned a training workshop on the use of the voice synthesis software which will take place next week. In short, this experience has represented what real human networking is about. More than a happy ending, it is an excellent start.

Maureen de la Cruz, who blogs at Law and ICT reports how common it is now for people living with disabilities to become acquainted with technology, making it easier to bridge the digital divide.

My friends Jay and Rene are quintessential geeks, with one interesting difference: they surf the Internet, use computers and access all their features through a special text-to-speech software. With their virtuoso touch-typing skills and sometimes with the monitor turned off (they don't need it anyway!), they have become expert programmers and have even experimented with web design and adapting compatible open-source software for use with text-to-speech programs. Jay is the first totally blind Computer Science graduate in the Philippines and works from home as a web content writer, and Rene now instructs other low-vision students as a member of ATRIEV's [Adaptive Technology for the Rehabilitation, Integration, and Empowerment of the Visually Impaired] staff. Both of them have attended and given training sessions and specialized courses on adaptive technology locally and abroad.

…Schools and companies often think they have to buy expensive equipment or make extensive technical and logistical adjustments to accommodate PWDs [Persons with disabilities]. As pointed out by blind architect Jaime Silva, buildings and public transportation facilities do not even comply with basic legal requirements such as providing wheelchair ramps or granting discounted fares to people with disabilities. Technology, however, is constantly opening up new doors for people like my cool, talented visually impaired friends. I certainly hope that the digital divide may yet be bridged not just for the economically disadvantaged, but that ICT may help to break down the barriers caused by physical limitations as well.

From the ICTDev Dot Org blog comes a story about Dipendra Manocha, a software developer who created open-source screen reading software in Hindi and other South East Asian languages.

Based on the premise that computer technology was not meant only for the wealthy, Dipendra has changed the way people with print disability read and write. Accessible multimedia is ideal for people with disabilities as well as for the general public to share information and knowledge world wide. The technology is now being introduced in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal as well as India, which provides the exciting challenge of working in 22 languages as well as amongst vast geographical and cultural diversities. Dipendra is deeply dedicated to continue using technology as a catalyst to support the global sharing of human knowledge in the information society, and because of his focus on low-cost and open source technology, his work is highly replicable.

For all the anecdotes and blog posts on the role ICTs play in providing disabled people more access to technologies, I failed to find any statistics detailing the penetration of ICTs into this global community. Participants of the Harvard conference debated the merits of private enterprise pushing and governments and international organizations pulling the development of ICTs forward. Yet we still don’t know what’s driving ICTs into this field or their efficacy in increasing the scale of human and economic development for people living with disabilities. If you do, we’d like to hear from you.

2 comments

  • “it is equally important too that more research work to be done in helping those already inflicted, blind due to various medical illness and causes. It is good to have modern assistive, both physical and ICT tools, which undoubtedly will enhance the independence of those concerned in their daily lives.” Couldn’t have said it better myself!

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