Enabling the disabled with tech

Enabling the disabled with tech

Summary: Helen Keller was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1904. The story of how her teacher, Anne Sullivan, did what was thought impossible and taught Keller to communicate without the advantage of speech or sound inspires many even today.

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TOPICS: New Zealand
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Helen Keller was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1904. The story of how her teacher, Anne Sullivan, did what was thought impossible and taught Keller to communicate without the advantage of speech or sound inspires many even today.

Given the tools available, I wonder if both teacher and student would have had an easier time breaking the communication barrier and whether Keller would have achieved even more than she had in her lifetime.

ZDNet Asia's senior journalist, Kevin, is back with another post this week where he discusses how we can tap the advancements technology has made over the past decades, to help the disabled forget their disabilities and be able to participate in society alongside their abled peers.

Have you ever stopped and wondered how people who are deaf and blind go online to browse the Web or login to social networks to stay in touch with family and friends? Even sending out text messages or making a phone call would be a problem for many of them.

This particular issue, which is something I think about regularly, recently came into the foreground when I had to look into how communication technology was developing--offerings such as mobile videoconferencing or enterprise collaboration.

After all, the act of communication is, fundamentally, how people interact with one another. This then got me wondering how people with disabilities participate as more conversations shift to the mobile and digital arenas. Are they even given the tools to do so?

Thankfully, countries such as New Zealand and Singapore have put bridging the gap with their physically impaired citizens as a priority.

Steven Joyce, New Zealand's minister of information and communication technology, announced in July that an expanded range of communication services would be rolled out progressively from Oct. 1, 2011, to benefit the deaf, deaf-blind, speech and hearing-impaired community.

Services such as captioned telephony, which allows people to read live captions of spoken phone conversations, and establishing relay contact centers to make local and international calls, are examples of what the New Zealand government has initiated. It also aims to lead the world in the area of video-assisted speech-to-speech relay services.

Joyce explained the decision: "The deaf, deaf-blind, speech and hearing impaired community will have a full suite of telecommunication services that suits individual circumstances and needs. We are committed to providing all New Zealanders with the benefits that new telecommunication technology and innovation can offer."

Tariana Turia, the country's minister for disability issues, added that accessibility was a "huge priority" for her, and for the disabled and their extended family. This was why the announcement marked a step forward for the entire community. "The great thing about captioned telephony is that it will enable far better access for disabled people to keep in touch with family, to assist with learning and open possibilities for employment," she stated.

In Singapore, the Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD) runs the Infocomm Accessibility Centre (IAC), which acts as a one-stop venue for people with disabilities to equip themselves with IT knowledge and skills as well as learn how to utilize online services. The center is supported by both public-sector agencies such as the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) and private-sector stakeholders, according to a joint statement made by SPD and IDA.

Interestingly, the IAC also houses the "first ever" assistive technology loan library in Asia. The library is stocked with over 700 types of assistive technology equipment which users can loan to learn how to overcome barriers in accessing a computer as well as assess the suitability before buying similar equipment, a spokesperson for both organizations pointed out.

Both New Zealand and Singapore might have different ideas and perspectives on how best to equip their people with physical impairment but, to me, the importance is in recognizing that technology isn't just for business enablement or personal entertainment and convenience. It has to be more than that.

As many of us turn to various mobile gadgets and online services to keep in touch with one another, let's also think up ways to help bring those with physical disabilities across, and into, the current digital age.

Topic: New Zealand

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