18 September 2009

When disability is no barrier

ICT applications should consider handicapped users from the start,
Writer: Sasiwimon Boonruang

Nong Oay and Nong Note enjoy taking photos for visitors and editing them with the Photoshop program.

The Mattayom 1 student cannot articulate, but she is able to communicate with teachers and friends with a picture notebook and the Talking Switch speech assistive equipment, which helps her to partake in activities in the classroom.

Beside Nong Kob, at the United Nation building recently, was fellow wheelchair user Nong Oay, who has weak bones due to the inherited disorder of collagen synthesis, and Nong Note, who suffers muscle weakness.

All are students at Srisangwal School who today enjoy using not only the assistive technology, developed by the National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre (Nectec), but also computer programs such as Photoshop.

Visitors and delegates at the "ITU Asia-Pacific Regional Forum on mainstreaming ICT Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities" recently witnessed the students' capabilities in decorating and editing snaps.

"I didn't think I would look so good in the photo, thank you!" said one visitor, chuckling over a picture and inserting a 100-baht banknote into the donation box.

One woman who had Nong Kob take her photo and decorate it with a yellow butterfly was surprised when she received the photo and said even able-bodied adults could not produce such a high quality of work.

"How old are you?" she asked Nong Kob, who answered "11" on the computer screen.

These are technologies that help bridge the gap between people with disabilities (PWDs) and those without.

However, exposure to ICT for PWDs has been limited in some aspects.

Sawang Srisom, officer of Disabled Peoples' International Asia Pacific, noted that technology has progressively developed but there is still a conflict between demand and supply.

It will help, at least in the short term, if the government puts measures in place to enable PWDs to buy equipment at a lower price. In the long term, the state should have a policy for PWD employment.

In the workplace, he said, employers should install technology such as speech synthesis software for the visually impaired, or special mice designed for physically disabled people.

Sawang further encourages the introduction of closed caption or sign language options on television, adding that this would be useful not only to deaf people but also anyone trying to watch TV in a noisy environment.

Furthermore, Shadi Abou-Zahra, W3C web accessibility specialist, said graphical images on the internet are not suitable for sight-impaired people. They might be able to use screen readers for the text but the graphical information can not be output automatically. Video online will become more widely available, but captioning is rare.

If the website cannot be navigated by keyboard, PWDs may use a special mouse to do so. But the majority of websites have not been designed with the principles of accessibility and are therefore difficult for PWDs to use.

In order for the web to become truly accessible to all, it had to be coded properly, said Shadi.

The specialist noted that W3C has developed a technical standard for the web to adopt internationally recognised guidelines.

"The biggest challenge is not technology, but awareness-raising," he said, adding that people who develop websites typically don't consider the requirements of PWDs.

Training the developers, policy makers and decision makers is very important because they have to work together.

The issue of ICT accessibility for PWDs has significantly raised awareness.

Thailand recently hosted the first forum to be staged in the Pacific region.

In the knowledge-driven information age and society, it is timely to design and implement an inclusive ICT policy to provide digital opportunities to PWDs, according to Dr Eun-Ju Kim, head of the ITU Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

Citing the World Health Organisation, Kim said 10 percent of the world's population - or about 650 million people - have some form of disability, with the number increasing every year due to various factors such as war, natural disasters, unhealthy living conditions, and the absence of knowledge about disabilities and how to manage them.

In Thailand, there are around 1.9 million PWDs, or 2.9% of the population, many of whom encounter barriers when using ICT products and services.

Dr Eun-Ju Kim says the industry should have more R&D to come up with the right design products and services for disabled people.
ICT accessibility has been practiced to a very limited extent. Existing ICT products and services were not designed with principles of accessibility in mind and are therefore difficult for PWDs to use. The most obvious example is web accessibility.

"It costs dramatically less to implement web accessibility at the design stage than to retrofit it later," said Kim.

"Thus, it is worth emphasising the important roles of not only policy-makers and regulators but also industries, which can contribute not only to appropriate designs but also to affordable ICT products and services for PWD, taking into account the potential markets in the aged society."

The ITU Regional head urged that it is time to present PWDs with digital opportunities through ICT inclusive policy and regulations such as code of conducts in the information society so that assistive technologies, devices and applications specifically designed for PwD can be accessible and affordable to use.

She pointed out the ITU program of "Building the Capacity of Harnessing ICT for Disempowered/Marginalised Communities in Sri Lanka" from which representatives came to Thailand to exchange experiences.

They feel Thailand enjoys far more advanced technology in ICT applications and for PWDs and when they go back to Sri Lanka they can raise awareness of the issue to encourage more and better technology and applications available for their disabled people.

"I want to continue this kind of exchange program in the future as part of this project," said Kim.

"Next year, the program may be carried out with Mongolia and another countries."

Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who Kim said is a leader in the field, and who is also the one of ITU patrons, is supporting ICT in a wide range.

However, she said this is not the end, but just a beginning which still requires a lot of work to ensure equal access for all to ICT.

Kim is encouraging the industry to focus more on research and development to come up with right design products and services for PWDs to help them enjoy as full a life as possible.

Significantly, she said, many developed countries such as Japan and around Europe are seeing a rapid increase in population age, so their ICT industries are adapting to support the socio-economic needs of a growing and ageing demographic, including the different forms of disabilities that accompany the trend, such as the loss or reduction of dexterity and senses.

A decade from now, it is envisioned that these countries will have adapted so that their entire populations should be able to benefit from ICT, regardless of disabilities.

"I want to use this momentum to raise awareness for the industry, operators, and regulators," said Kim, adding that ITU will deliver appropriate training to various stakeholders, including policy makers, regulators and others interested in mainstreaming, developing and implementing ICT accessibility issues for PWDs at national, sub-regional and regional levels, and will continue implementing projects through close collaboration with various partners such as the ICT Ministry, Nectec and the National Telecommunications Commission, and others.

According to Axel Leblois, executive director, Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs (G3ict), ICT has become a significant factor for economic and social development in all countries around the world. People's ability to use mainstream ICT applications and devices directly affects their ability to fully participate in education, employment, culture and leisure, civic or social activities.

Television, mobile phones, radios, computers, websites and multiple automated digital interfaces are used every day by billions of persons to communicate, access information in their jobs, at school, at home or to interact with government services or e-commerce.

The pervasive usage of ICTs in all aspects of society around the world thus creates a significant risk of exclusion if ICT is not accessible to PWDs.

For Thailand, the government which has ratified the UN CRPD (Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities) is working on implementation by establishing learning centres nationwide that include assistive technologies such as braille printers and digital talking books for use by the visually impaired. There are also plans to use closed captioning for television programming to promote use by hearing-impaired users.

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