Friday, July 11, 2008

Enabling technologies for the differently-abled

With the help of computers enabled with speech synthesizers, students with vision impairment doing higher studies, are becoming independent in all their reading and writing needs. Computer literacy is giving the visually impaired and low vision persons new professional opportunities, thus enhancing their job status, and giving them additional proficiency (edge) and confidence at work.

Definition of disability
According to the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 (India), disability means: blindness, low-vision, leprosy-cured, hearing impairment, locomotor-disability, mental retardation, and mental-illness. The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 (India) is considered as an important landmark and is a significant step in the direction of ensuring equal opportunities for people with disabilities and their full participation in the nation-building. The Act provides for both preventive and promotional aspects of rehabilitation like education, employment and vocational training, job reservation, research and manpower development, creation of barrier-free environment, rehabilitation of persons with disability, unemployment allowance for the disabled, special insurance scheme for the disabled employees and establishment of homes for persons with severe disability etc. Disabled (differently-abled) people are often discriminated in the African and Asian societies. If one is born disabled (differently-abled), then it is seen as a curse by his/ her family and society. For example, in Senegal, as elsewhere in Africa, the disabled face enormous difficulties of social and labour market insertion because of discrimination and especially, physical obstacles to workplaces and transportation, lack of audio or visual-signaling etc. Hence, the ICTs and the Employment of People with Disabilities Project (Acacia II) of the International Development Research Centre, was designed to combat the workforce exclusion generally experienced by the disabled and to promote their insertion into social life and the labour market through the exploration and implementation of tele-work opportunities adapted to their functional disabilities.

ICTs for the empowerment of the disabled
For too long, it has been observed that the benefits of ICTs was not reaching the visually and physically-challenged persons. However, things are changing slowly and steadily. Multi-national IT giants have started producing interactive-softwares for the visually-challenged. IBM was going to launch a multimedia browser code-named the Accessibility Browser or A-Browser, in order to make audio and video content accessible to people with vision impairments. The software was created by a blind employee of IBM in Japan named Dr. Chieko Asakawa. Nowadays, innovative softwares are also being produced by common man, which is much cheaper than the branded/ proprietary software products. According to one recent news, a visually-impaired student from India developed 'Brailleface' software, which converts Braille commands into 'Devnagari' script on the computer screen. The point is to reveal that a licensed copy of Microsoft's JAWS—the most popular screen-reader for the visually impaired, costs INR 70,000, and it cannot read most Indian languages. Webel Mediatronics Limited, a West Bengal Govt Company has a Research and Development Unit, which is recognized by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), Govt of India. This unit has developed a complete portfolio of tools to help people with visual impairment get access to better educational facilities. Webel Mediatronics Limited developed tools such as TextBraille–Text to Braille Transcription Software in Indian Languages; DirectBraille–Braille to Text Software for the visually impaired; EasyBraille, Automatic Braille Embosser, Braille Keyboard and E -classroom System and Electronic Tactile Device and E Reading System. With the advent of Text to Speech Technology, computers have become accessible to visually challenged persons. In the National Association of Blind (RK Puram, New Delhi, India), there are computer centres, where visually challenged students undergo training in Windows, Word Processing, Internet, e-mail, spread-sheets etc. With the help of computers-enabled with speech synthesizers, students with vision impairment doing higher studies, are becoming independent in all their reading and writing needs. Computer literacy is giving the blind and low vision persons new professional opportunities, thus enhancing their job status, and giving them additional proficiency (edge) and confidence at work. It has been widely recognized now that disability/ challenged is “a social construct created by ability-oriented and ability-dominated environments”. According to this model “even though impairment has an objective reality that is attached to the body or mind, disability has more to do with society's failure to account for the needs of persons with disabilities”. It is now increasingly felt that challenged (/differently-abled) people should get the facilities a normal human being enjoys. Thus, there should be regulatory frameworks and standards regarding the designing of ICT-devices so that challenged persons can access and utilize them without facing problems. This is expected to ensure equality of opportunities. Moreover, as a part of corporate social responsibility, challenged persons can be given good jobs, which is non-discriminatory in nature. It is increasingly perceived that there are two main means for ensuring that persons with disabilities benefit from ICT. Under the principles of Universal Design (American) or Design for All (European), there are generic guidelines for designing mainstream products and services, which will accommodate a ‘broader average’ of users including many of those with disabilities or older people. However, for persons with severe disabilities, there is need for designing special products and services. In many cases, there is need for adapting, or interfacing, existing products or technologies to meet the user's specific requirements. Usually, the technology, which is based on universal design and on special products and services for older people and people with disabilities, is termed as 'assistive technology'. The principles of Universal Design should include the principles (and perspectives) of equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance of error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use.

Examples of Adaptations and Assistive Devices

Visual Impairments

Glare protection screens, large monitors with high resolution, Magnified displays of computer screens, Magnified displays of hard-copy materials, large print production, Color and contrast selection, Keyboard orientation aids.


Speech synthesizers, Screen reader software, Braille printers, Braille translation software, Braille displays, Braille notetakers, Braille input devices, Optical character recognition (OCR), and Speech recognition.

Hearing Impairments

Visual redundancy on computers, Interpreters, Hearing aid compatible phones, Speech amplification telephone, Speech amplification meeting or conversation, Text telephony, Text telephone relay services, Signaling systems, Electronic mail and fax, Videoconferencing.

Mobility Impairments
Sequential keystroke input, Key repeat rate control, Keyboard macros, Alternative keyboards, Non-keyboard dependent input devices, Word prediction software, Speech recognition, Robotic devices, Mouse alternatives, Key guard, Speaker phone, Gooseneck receiver holder, Phone headset, Speed dialing. Some of the softwares in order to support the disabled are: (i) Dragon Naturally Speaking—Voice Dictation Software; (ii) Jaws—Screen Reading Software; (iii) Magic—Screen Magnification Software, and (iv) Openbook—Scanning Software.

ICTs can play a crucial role in the empowerment of the differently-abled provided the policies, legal standards and regulatory frameworks are 'justly' guided, structured and created at the local, national, regional and international levels. There is thus the need for wider level of social networking among the donor agencies, the government, the local-level institutions and the civil society organisations including NGOs for capacity-building of the society and the social actors so that benefits of ICTs reaches the differently-abled. However, one should not forget the fact that ICTs in itself alone can provide all the solutions. There is need for a more humane approach to empowerment especially when we talk of reaching out to the differently-abled.

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