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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.

4 Responses to “We Need an Assistive Technology Strategy not Devices”

  1. Great post Fernando! I think you make an excellent point about the need for a focus on software that is freely available. I would just add that the software ideally needs to work on multiple platforms AND on low end and affordable devices. IMHO there is also a tremendous need for training and support of good software, not just making the software available. This is particularly true in the case of FOSS. Would you agree?

    • Thank you Paul.

      I agree that a lot of training and support is needed but I do not think
      this is specific to FOSS. This happens to anyone who is not
      first-to-market and number one in sales in wealthy economies.

      There are many commercial proprietary assistive technologies that are
      completely unknown in developing countries, just like some FOSS solutions,
      simply because marketing to an extremely diverse and geographically
      disperse community, such as persons with disabilities, is too expensive.

      I also agree with you regarding the need for technologies that work on a
      variety of devices, in particular, low-cost ones. eSpeak and Dasher are
      two good examples of such FOSS assistive technologies.

      Fernando Botelho

  2. Fernando, thank you for your timely post regarding accessibility. This is an important area which has not been a focus for organizations who are introducing ICT in developing countries. Your point considering the sustainability of continuing to use a proprietary solution when moving to the workplace is such a valid concern, which is often overlooked when accepting donated or price reduced software.

    Even the gov't departments responsible for training handicapped users are very limited in their strategy to help with future employability. It was very frustrating for me when presenting FOSS alternatives, along with a training program that would increase accessibility beyond the budget devouring proprietary solutions, to see the lack of planning. The largest project this particular government had underway was to have civil employees travel throughout the country to register/document the handicapped. Yet the limited computer labs were terribly under utilized.

    On a positive note, I have engaged with the Kenya Society for the Blind to help present Open source alternatives such as espeak, Orca, and Vinux, a customized Ubuntu for visually impaired users http://vinux.org.uk/. It is exciting to work on this project as it can be a great model for other countries as we will have an effective M&E process in place.

    During my testing I have been lucky to connect with developers in other countries who work with organizations such as Braille without Borders. You may find this writer to have some great insights about accessibility http://playingwithsid.blogspot.com/

    On a final note, accessibility in ICT continues to be a challenge even in developed countries. The move to automated kiosks for services such as airline check-ins etc is based on touchscreen technology & there has not been a similar pace to ensure that visually impaired users have access to these services.

  3. Jim Tobias

    Great article, and right on the money. Another option to consider is putting accessibility capabilities in the network. A school district, government, enterprise, or NGO could install these features so that users have immediate access to them wherever they are. They may also allow broader opportunities for new AT, because developers will be freed from the need to develop their own platforms from the ground up, and from most of the software distribution costs.

    This idea has been most comprehensively proposed in the "National Public Inclusive Infrastructure" project. Information about NPII can be found at http://npii.org/.


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