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We Need an Assistive Technology Strategy not Devices

Fernando Botelho

The biggest challenge in bringing access to the digital realm to kids with disabilities in developing countries, and with it access to education and eventually employment, is the adoption of public policy and NGO strategies that are truly scalable. Traditional strategies have no chance of fundamentally changing the horrible statistics that prevail among persons with disabilities given the relatively minuscule resources available to help this community.

Right now, some initiatives run by departments of education and most initiatives run by NGOs spend some of their very limited resources on software-based assistive technologies such as screen readers or virtual keyboards that are extremely expensive. As a result, a very small minority of kids with disabilities get access to technology and then they do, they become dependent on software that they, their families, and future prospective employers cannot afford. Such an approach is just as ineffective whether one is talking about software that runs on PCs, netbooks, or cell phones since the best-known cell phone assistive technologies are extremely expensive.

Obsessed with the difficulty of bringing affordable solutions to developing countries I made a comparison in 2006 between brand-name entry-level PC prices in 2006 and in 1997, and the cost of the most widely used screen reader for the blind also between 2006 and 1997. Correcting for inflation the change was a drop of more than 80% in the price of the computer and an increase of over 20% in the cost of the screen reader (and this was before netbooks became fashionable). It became clear to me that if I was going to have any chance of increasing access to technology and education to the blind in developing countries in any meaningful way, it would have to be by focusing on software since industry was already doing an excellent job in reducing the cost of hardware.

Donations or heavily discounted proprietary software is not a solution since, as mentioned above, it simply postpones tragedy. it creates dependency that will block access to educational and employment opportunities as soon as the student needs to upgrade his or her assistive technology or install it in new machines. The solution I found is to identify free and open source software (FOSS), that until recently few people knew about, and make it easy to access, use, and share.

This gave origin to the F123org project, an initiative recently recognized with an award from the Inter-American Development Bank to install everything a blind individual needs–including operating system and office applications–on a USB drive. While I am proud of this concept, I bring it up to illustrate a point, once the building blocks such as word processor, screen reader, and speech synthesizer, are available freely for anyone to copy, modify, and improve, foundations, companies, NGOs, and individuals will find ways to use these technologies effectively. the real obstacle is not hardware costs, it is the lack of awareness of the benefits of supporting and using FOSS assistive technology solutions.

The idea of using a USB drive as a hard disk, to install and use any software one needs, is not mine alone. I have heard of others doing the same in various contexts in China, England, and Germany just to mention a few places. Good ideas are easy to come by, the real challenge is either developing or building on software such as Orca, eSpeak, Dasher, and for that matter, Open Office. Once a government, foundation, or any entity interested in helping persons with disabilities is wise enough to require that any public procurement or research funds have FOSS licenses as a requirement, the impact of any investment they make is multiplied many times over. Let us use examples such as eSpeak and Dasher to illustrate.

eSpeak is an open source speech synthesizer that was quickly adopted for use with screen readers such as Orca and other applications such as Asterisk, in platforms ranging from PCs to netbooks and cell phones, in languages ranging from Spanish to Turkish and Swahili. Dasher, a software used to make data entry more efficient for those who cannot use a conventional keyboard, was also widely adopted with an equally vast impact despite the relatively limited resources invested in its development. Today, the impact of the limited resources available to the F123org Project is also dramatically increased given our ability to use those FOSS solutions without any restriction to help people in more than seven countries.

Companies, governments, NGOs, foundations, or individuals interested in using or contributing to assistive technology that is truly decentralized, scalable, affordable, and resilient should not for the most part worry about hardware, and should focus resources on free and open source software, open communication protocols, and open file and other standards so that bringing education to hundreds of millions of kids with disabilities will be within our reach.


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