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    Accessibility opens a new world
Xu Xiaodan
2004-10-20 05:50

In Beijing and other major cities in China, building facilities to improve accessibility for the disabled has made a casual walk or a visit to a public toilet much more convenient.

In the world of computer technology, however, many of China's 60 million disabled population are still challenged even though IT has changed many people's lives and work styles.

China is lagging far behind more developed countries in creating access to this information for the disabled.

To raise awareness of the problem, China's first Information Accessibility Forum was held in Beijing on Friday and Saturday.

Wang Luguang, vice-general-director of the China Welfare Fund for the Handicapped (CWFH) announced at the forum that the foundation is going to launch a programme which will enable 100,000 blind people to use computers.

"We will collect 100,000 second-hand computers from donors and install audio software on them. We will then train blind people to use it," Wang said.

Some international IT giants have expressed their interest in sponsoring the programme. "We are very interested and are discussing how to get involved with the foundation," said Frances West, director of the world accessibility centre of IBM research.

Deng Pufang, chairman of China Disabled Persons' Federation, said "easy access to information is a critical change to a disabled person."

The Internet will help the disabled gain knowledge and practical skills, in turn boosting their chances of employment and helping them stand on their own feet.

Deng called on financial and policy support from the government as well as efforts from companies and organizations.

Sunshine software

Though still rare, examples of blind people landing jobs after gaining access to computers and information are not unheard of.

Zhang Zhaohua, a 35-year-old proofreader with Beijing Braille Press, is one beneficiary of this greater accessibility to information technology in China.

Zhang had very poor eyesight when she was born due to an eye disease and later lost her sight completely.

Two years ago, she started working for the publishing house, one of two developers of China's first computer software for blind people - Sunshine Software.

The development of the software is sponsored by the government with a starting capital of 5 million yuan (US$600,000).

Sold at 1,150 yuan (US$139), it provides audio instructions for all computer operations and all commands can be made only on the keyboard.

"It works very well. I can use all the functions on the computer and the Internet with the software, just like any other person," she said.

Zhang typed the website address of her publishing house. Once on screen, she pressed the "-" key and the links on the website were read out. When she heard "book list," Zhang pressed "enter" and opened the corresponding web page.

"We don't have e-commerce services on our website. But on other big websites, you can order our books directly," Zhang explained.

Zhang can now browse websites, go e-shopping, and chat with friends on the Internet in the audio conference room. She can also write e-mails by typing in Chinese characters with audio instruction to help. If she wants to type in English, an English-Chinese dictionary helps her.

Liu Zhenzhen, a member of staff at the publisher's R & D centre of Braille computer software, said, "We now have around 1,000 customers. Some of them are individuals, some of them are associations of the disabled, who train their members how to use the software."

Some buyers are from Chinese-speaking countries like Singapore. The Sunshine Software even has a traditional Chinese version for people from Taiwan, Liu said.

But the drawback is its price - 1,150 yuan (US$139) is impossibly high for most blind people in China.

Difficult start-up

Information accessibility in China is still in its fledgling stages.

Though e-learning is becoming more and more popular among Chinese people, there are only a few programmes around for disabled learners.

Most websites do not have special designs to make browsing easier.

There are some technical problems that the Sunshine Software has not yet been able to solve.

Website design is becoming more and more complicated with banners, advertisements and audio-visual flashes popping up from different websites. They are a harassment even to ordinary readers, not to mention the disabled.

One Sunshine Software user said: "The software relies on the "Tab" key to switch between different links. When the website is too complicated, the software cannot recognize those links. I hope there is some kind of software that can more easily read or skip these links."

She also hopes there will be simple computer games designed for blind people.

A few foreign IT giants such as IBM have been engaged in technology and software development for the disabled for a long time.

IBM's accessibility solutions include Easy Web browsing and Viascribe, which enable the blind and deaf to visit the Internet and use other computer functions. But most software has not yet been introduced to China.

Experiences from developed countries such as Japan and Australia prove that information accessibility for the disabled not only creates more opportunities for the disadvantaged in education and employment, it may also grow into a huge industry.

Social recognition

Zhang is happy to see the changes in China, which have offered friendlier facilities to the disabled.

"There are facilities like blind people's paths that make my life more convenient. I can use computers and learn some new stuff on the Internet with this software," Zhang said.

She is counting herself lucky to have a good job.

"Some disabled people are refused jobs even though they have certificates and degrees thanks to equal accessibility to education and information," she said.

Distrust and discrimination is an evil of society. Removal of these barriers and access to fair opportunities and treatment is the key to improving the lives of the disabled.

"In spite of everything, we need recognition and acceptance from society," Zhang said.

(China Daily 10/20/2004 page5)


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