Making the Internet and Web sites accessible for use by people with disabilities is vital, particularly in Singapore where there is high broadband penetration and computer literacy, according to a Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD) executive.
Royson Poh, assistant director of SPD's vocational training program, said that as the Internet becomes "more integrated into the efficiency and enjoyment of our daily lives", it is crucial to bring the Internet to this group of people.
"The Web can be a powerful enabler for people with disabilities when Web sites and tools are designed properly. However, when they are poorly designed, these things can create barriers that exclude people from using the Web, thus creating a digital divide," he noted in an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia.
An accessible Web site, according to Poh, is one that allows people with disabilities to perceive, understand, navigate and interact with the Web. This includes people with "visual, print, physical, auditory, cognitive and learning disabilities".
While many would presume that developing a Web site which is accessible for this group of people would be a resource-consuming affair, Poh disagreed. He said that designing a Web site for people with disabilities "typically adds [just] 3 percent to the total cost" and will not change the user experience for anyone else.
However, the availability of Web sites friendly for use by such people is still too few. According to a recent survey conducted by Infocomm Accessibility Centre (IAC), the Singapore-based IT learning facility for people across all disability types, only 34 percent of Web sites in Singapore have one page that is free from accessibility errors as defined by the guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative; 7 percent were found to have four pages free of accessibility errors.
"Overall, public-sector Web sites performed better than those in the private sector, but less than 10 percent of these public-sector Web sites had four pages free from accessibility errors," said Poh. "While Singapore has made great progress in reducing the many physical barriers for people with disabilities, there are still many virtual barriers in ICT (infocommunications technology)."
The need for better accessibility is reiterated by Gerald Bartholomew, a research assistant at SPD. Noting that many Web landing sites are in default normal font, he said that this poses a problem for people who suffer from severe visual disability.
"[The Web landing site] has to start with a text-to-speech feature, together with the option to enlarge fonts. Otherwise, if the font is too small, there will be visually handicapped people who will not be able to access the site," he suggested in an interview with ZDNet Asia. Bartholomew himself suffers from a congenital eye condition that makes his retina thinner than usual and more prone to damage when his eyesight is strained.
For users like himself, software such as ZoomText Magnification and Screen Reader, which he uses for work, are essential in allowing the research assistant to work longer without overstraining his eyes. In his previous jobs, which included heavy administrative duties that required staring at the computer screen for long hours, the lack of such a reader made it tough to cope, Bartholomew said.
"It's not the hours…but the accumulative effect of having to stare at the [computer] screen every day that hurts my eyes the most," he said. However, the software is costly and not everyone will be able to afford it, he added.
The IAC--supported by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, the National Council of Social Service, the Tote Board and Microsoft Singapore--launched its "SOW - It's Time to Grow" campaign in September 2009 to create awareness and increase enrolment to the Center's structured, industry-related courses.
This, according to Poh, is intended to help people with disabilities acquire the necessary skills to increase their chances for employment.