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Help the 'differently abled' to get on the Web 

Business Times - 13 May 2002

Atul Pant




Singapore should ensure that those with poor or no vision, bad hearing, and other motor impairments have access to the Internet with equal ease

IMAGINE surfing the Internet with the computer monitor switched off. Or typing with oven mittens. Or using the computer with scotch tape over your spectacles.

These are not silly assumptions. For people who are blind, have poor vision, bad hearing, or other motor impairments, this is how using the Internet feels like. It is imperative that problems faced by the 'differently abled' in using a computer - especially in using the Internet - are given urgent attention. Denial of access to the Web implies denial of knowledge, denial to acquire capabilities, and thus a denial of choice to determine quality of life for oneself.

While Singapore has taken steps to bridge the digital divide for the 'differently abled' by promoting and making available various assistive technologies and opening special education schools, there does not seem to be much focus on increasing the accessibility of Web content.

While a visually challenged person can surf the Web by using assistive technology - like a screen reading software that reads out the text that appears on the computer monitor - it cannot read any graphics that it encounters.

Similarly, people with aural disabilities cannot understand the audio component of multimedia content unless they're given an alternative text description - like subtitles in a movie.

To make the Internet universally accessible, international standards have emerged. The W3C's (World Wide Web Consortium) Web Accessibility Initiative - www.w3c.org/wai - has laid down standards and guidelines. If vendors comply with them, it will ensure that Web content is universally accessible.

There are in all 12 Web content accessibility guidelines - www. w3.org/TR/WCAG10/ - that need to be adhered to. It does not take a lot of effort by software developers to ensure that these guidelines are followed and the Web content can be accessed by everyone.

The guidelines are easy to implement - for example, ensuring an alternative text description for all graphical elements used on a website. This would allow screen reading software to read out the textual description of the graphic for a blind or low vision user.

Last year, the US amended its ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) with Section 508 which, among other things, makes it mandatory for websites of federal agencies to be 'disabled friendly'. This legislation is proving to be quite effective in raising awareness about the issue of universal design - IT suppliers to the government, educational institutions and 'sensitised' corporates are now adopting standards to ensure Web access to the differently abled.

Such adherence also helps senior citizens interface with the Internet with more ease. Natural changes associated with ageing include diminished vision, hearing, hand-eye coordination and psychomotor impairments.

Some of these are accelerated by the onset of degenerative diseases such as arthritis and cataract. Varying degrees of hearing loss are also common. Thus, use of assistive technology - like screen magnifiers and screen readers - helps the seniors.

There is an urgent need for Singapore to also take steps to create awareness and be sensitive to create universally accessible Web content. Here are a few steps which Singapore could take:

Raise awareness about compliance to accessibility standards. If not via legislative measures, there should at least be a campaign to raise awareness. This would sensitise the Web developer community to the fact that this is not just a good cause but that it also makes business sense. It adds a whole new segment of users at very little incremental effort.

  • Design interfaces for universal Web access. An interface designed for the least skilled user makes access easier for everyone in general. Agencies like IDA (Infocomm Development Authority of Singa pore) and forums like e-Celebrations could promote the concept of universal Web access.


  • Promote universal Web design and adherence to accessibility standards. Agencies like Spring (formerly PSB) and IT associations should promote this concept just as they promote adoption of other standards.


  • Access should be available universally, especially to government websites related to taxation, pension, provident fund, citizen portals, banks, educational institutes and others. The differently abled have to frequently interact with them; their websites should be accessible.


  • Flash is not a good idea for the visually challenged. Flash technology produces great animations and is frequently used on websites. However, screen readers cannot decipher such animations unless an alternate text based description is provided.


  • Add universal Web accessibility to websites of private and public educational institutions that teach computer science courses. This should be part of their curriculum so that the students get sensitised to the problems faced by the differently abled in using the Internet.


    Such steps will go a long way in making Singapore a truly e-inclusive society.

    The writer is managing director,Enabling Dimensions Pte Ltd.

    Copyright 2002 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.




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