Internet for the Disabled Community: The Singapore Experience

Tan Tin Wee <tinwee@irdu.nus.sg>
Ron Chandran-Dudley <dpa@pacific.net.sg>
Anne Quek <annequek@rainbow.sad.org.sg>
Tan Tai Ming <tmtan@keller.ssd.ac.sg>
Lim Fung <limfung@pacific.net.sg>
Lim Kin Chew <kinchew@tp.ac.sg>
Poh Yew Tiong <pohyt@newspage.com.sg>
Maynard Kang <maynard@spice.com>
Eugene Soh <eugene@biomed.nus.sg>
Derek Kiong <dkiong@iscs.nus.sg>

Abstract

Internet technologies reduce the barrier between people labeled as "disabled" and the majority of the population. On the network, being blind or deaf or unable to walk constitutes no major impediment. Using the Internet, intra-disability and cross-disability communications can also be enhanced.

Beginning with the hearing impaired community in Singapore, we have set up Internet-connected computer networks for the disabled community since 1994. The Singapore School for the Deaf (SSD), a primary school and kindergarten, was first to have two computer clusters connected to the Internet (http://www.dpa.org.sg/SSD). Courses were held for SSD school teachers and training was given on how to build their Web pages. In addition, introductory lessons were given to the pupils. For the first time, hearing impaired children can communicate with each other directly using Internet Relay Chat, Unix talk and email. Teachers began to conduct regular enrichment sessions for these children, and supervised their surfing of the Internet. Today, learning the use of the Internet has become part of the curriculum at the school.

From 1994 to 1995, the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SAD) set up two computer clusters to access the Internet, one for the administrative staff and one for hearing impaired members, particularly the young people. We conducted Internet lessons on a regular basis, with one computer cluster opened in the evenings for users to upgrade their computer and network literacy (http://www.dpa.org.sg/SAD).

For the wheel-chair bound, we were able to conduct talks to introduce Internet technology, and recently, their association, the Handicaps Welfare Association (HWA) set up their Computer Centre on their own initiative. Soon Internet surfing for them will be a regular feature that transcends physical mobility.

In the near future, we hope to obtain funding to introduce speech synthesizer technology to the visually handicapped at the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) (http://www.dpa.org.sg/SAVH). Hopefully this will supplement the network planned for the Braille Production Unit at the SAVH, which produces Braille textbooks for blind children attending the School for the Blind in an adjacent compound. It will introduce to the children the vast electronic library of books and information online by providing Braille texts and books on demand, while introducing them to computer technology at the same time.

At a higher level, the Disabled People's Association (DPA), an umbrella organization for people with various disabilities, set up an information resource called EnableNet (http://www.dpa.org.sg) in 1994. Phase II of the project at the moment attempts to provide Internet access via a subsidized scheme to qualifying members through a generous donation by a local Internet service provider. For those who are beginning to be trained in Internet and computing technology, we hope that new job opportunities will arise. In fact, Bizlink, a government-sponsored employment placement agency for disabled people has been using the WWW (http://bizlink.org.sg/bizlink) to assist in their job placement.

Presently, we are gathering momentum in this effort to bring IT to the disabled by getting volunteers from all walks of life to form a virtual committee, the Enable2000 IT committee. With six Working Groups, it will accelerate our efforts of helping targeted volunteer institutions and organizations of the various disability groups to computerize and to "Internetize" in a concerted manner. We hope that it will also encourage other disability organizations to independently evolve their IT and Internetization plans.

With this bird's eye view of the progress of Internet access for these communities, we hope that our national vision of the Singaporean IT2000 master-plan will create an "intelligent island" that will not leave behind a group of information have-nots in the wake of a rapidly progressing and technologically sophisticated society (http://www.dpa.org.sg).

Introduction

Singapore is a tiny island city-state of about 600 sq km. With no natural resources and scarcity of land, our only resource is our people, numbering some three million. Of these, several hundred thousand people are estimated to belong to the disabled community, suffering from visual, hearing, physical, mental or some other handicap. The society as a whole is keenly aware of their special needs but more has to be done.

With the growth of the Internet in Singapore, beginning with usage in the academic and research community since 1991 and the start of commercial Internet services in 1994, various sectors of society have begun to absorb and exploit the technology particularly in the past two years. Universities, polytechnics, colleges, schools, libraries, government departments as well as businesses have gotten connected to the Internet. Our National IT2000 master-plan has rapidly leveraged on the Internet as the conduit for reaching out to the ordinary person on the street. It is therefore imperative that such rapid progress does not leave behind a group of information "have-nots" among the older generation, the poorly educated and in particular, the disabled.

We believe that the Internet is very important for the disability communities, more so than for the ordinary person because the impact on a disabled person can be dramatic. A quadriplegic suffering from degenerative motor neuron disease who has lost his voice as well, communicates regularly to his friends by Internet email. Hearing impaired children overcome their social inadequacies through chatting with each other and with others on the network, oblivious of their disability. Without help from the sighted, a totally blind person can read Singapore newspapers via the Internet daily. Instead of carrying hand-phones which they cannot use, our hearing impaired young people carry palmtop computers with wireless modems for exchanging emails instantaneously. More recently, a polio victim pushes his wheelchair a thousand kilometers from Singapore to northern Malaysia to raise funds. He is able to keep in touch throughout his seven-day odyssey using the Internet. He is covered not by the print or broadcast media, but by a two-person mobile Internet media crew including a wheelchair Internaut. Text, pictures, audio-video material were digitized in situ and transferred to Singapore; they even attempted to set up a mobile Website en route (http://mobile.irdu.nus.sg).

However, dramatic as these true life examples may be, they need to be translated into sustainable development for the rest of their communities, incorporated into rehabilitation programs and integrated into the curriculum.

Strategies

Our evolving strategies to utilize Internet for the benefit of those with various disabilities have been as follows.

Target the disabled young as early as possible for training

This is because the young are more amenable to learning computers. Moreover, the earlier they overcome their disability, the less the potential damage done. Hence our very first initiative to introduce Internet was to the primary school pupils of the Singapore School for the Deaf (SSD) in 1994. Today, we hope to transfer the technology laterally to other schools for the hearing impaired, as well as to introduce it to the School for the Blind. Already, through the publicity generated, other schools for the deaf in Singapore are picking up the technology independently of our efforts.

Inform the caregivers and members of the voluntary welfare organizations (VWO)

Another key strategy has been to train those who are associated with the disability organizations in administrative, teaching and care-giving capacities. The effort has been most encouraging with the SSD and SAD, where the administration and staff were first given introductory courses and later progressed as far as Web authorship. As a result, the SAD was able to set up SADnet II in 1995, a year after the administration got wired up. At the SSD, the students were able to get Internet lessons as part of their curriculum. Communications between volunteers and the administration further facilitated the process.

Educate the willing and those able to absorb the new technology

So far, the best success have been with the few who voluntarily come forward to be trained. With the SAD, SSD and DPA administration convinced of the value of the technology, we still had to overcome the diffidence of those with disabilities who needed encouragement. About a dozen training courses and talks have been given for the disabled in the past two years. Nearly a dozen known to us have become Internauts and are making use of the Internet regularly for information retrieval and for communications.

Publicize the wide scope and potential of Internet in benefiting these communities

Having achieved a reasonable degree of media coverage for the hearing impaired and more recently, with the wheelchair-bound through a 1000 km wheelathon covered by a mobile Internet team (http://mobile.irdu.nus.sg), we felt it necessary to broaden our scope. We have demonstrated in talks and through the print and broadcast media, and in conferences that other disability sectors can benefit too, particularly for those who are physically challenged, and even the visually handicapped. It is hoped that through such publicity, other groups will pick up on these ideas and evolve their own programs to help enable the disabled with Internet technologies.

Aim for sustainable programs and self-help through cooperation

A serious problem has been the long-term sustainability of our work. While it may be useful in the short term to inject manpower, money and technology into a program to aid the disabled, the work must be sustained particularly by the organization being assisted. Therefore, we have come to realize that technologists and disability workers have to work closely and cooperatively to effect a lasting change. Trust and mutual support must be present. But the effort will be sustainable if those numbered among the disabled are enabled to provide self-help for their fellow members. By their examples, other disabled will be motivated to emulate their success.

The following reports on the progress of our collective effort in bringing Internet technologies to the disability communities in Singapore. We have classified our efforts into several broad headings for description.

Enabling information on the network

One aspect of enabling the disabled is to provide for their informational needs. So far, provisions have been made for accessibility to the disabled in terms of building codes and physical infrastructure - for example, car parking lots for disabled, Braille lift buttons, wheelchair ramps at public places, toilet facilities for disabled, etc. But in today's information age, breaking down barriers to information about disability assistance programs, aid schemes and facilities is just as important. The evolving infostructure that is being put in place must cater to the needs of the disabled as well. At the same time, every opportunity should be taken to educating the public to be more responsive and helpful to the less privileged.

By leveraging on World Wide Web technology, we have built a number of websites. Beginning with Project HIIT (IT for the Hearing Impaired), a website containing information useful to the hearing impaired was established in 1994 (http://www.dpa.org.sg/DF). We have had the benefit of overseas consultants including Nathan Prugh and J Kuster to assist in contributing to the content. The corporate Web pages of the Singapore School for the Deaf and the Singapore Association for the Deaf followed quickly with information about the school and the association's facilities and activities (http://www.dpa.org.sg/SSD and http://www.dpa.org.sg/SAD).

Initially, these informational projects were started on a temporary experimental machine before they were consolidated on a new server based on a collaboration between the Department of Information Systems and Computer Science (DISCS), National University of Singapore and the Disabled People's Association (DPA) (www.dpa.org.sg). The former providing technical assistance, network, hardware and software resources and the latter providing funding and content. The information about DPA was assembled to form EnableNet I. Information provided include corporate data about SAD, SSD, DPA and SAVH, their services, data on accessibility of buildings and public places, the disability access codes, rights of disabled persons, assistive devices, appliances and facilities, etc. Information on how to help the disabled is also available. Besides this, there is a wide range of links to overseas sites containing information useful to the hearing impaired and visually handicapped (http://www.dpa.org.sg/DF and http://www.dpa.org.sg/VH). More recently, Bizlink, a government-funded job placement agency for the disabled, came online providing job vacancy information (http://www.bizlink.org.sg).

Other types of information not specific to the disabled but extremely useful to them have also become available on the Web. These include local online newspapers, broadcast media news and audio-video information. So, as content on the Internet becomes more comprehensive, the potential positive impact on the disabled community increases. The benefit of having connectivity to the Internet now far exceeds the cost of getting connected. Yet despite the drop in hardware, software and connectivity charges in the past year, people with disabilities still find it difficult to own a complete setup with assistive devices and software. It is therefore important to find ways of providing subsidized or low-cost access.

Providing network access

Our approach for providing disability communities with Internet access has been

  1. to build network infrastructure for disability organizations at their premises
  2. to provide dialup access to members of these organizations
  3. to encourage service providers to sponsor free or lower cost, subsidized rates for organizational or individual Internet access

To date, we have built networks at the Singapore School for the Deaf and the Singapore Association for the Deaf and connected them to the Internet with the sponsorship of an Internet service provider (Pacific Internet , formerly Technet). The SSDnet is a simple Ethernet network consisting of a Sun Sparc10 donated by Sun Microsystems, a Netblazer PPP dialup modem-router, Mac Quadra, 12 286s and 10 486s soon to be upgraded to pentium PCs to for a new computer lab. With a $15,000 donation from Singapore Automotive Engineering, the network was built to connect two preexisting PC clusters.

At the SADnet, a dozen 486 PCs in the Administration were first networked with Internet connectivity provided by a similar network dialup PPP modem-router (Netblazer) and a 486 Unix server running Linux. A year later, a computer laboratory was set up at a cost of about $20,000 to provide access facilities for members of the SAD.

As part of a collaboration between the Department of Information Systems and Computer Science (DISCS) and the Disabled People's Association (DPA), a 4-line dialup terminal server running slurp was set up for PPP/SLIP dialup. Selected DPA members can use this testbed (Enablenet II) before its subsequent transfer to DPA's new premises. Temporary access to the Internet is being provided through the DISCS network until the new premises are ready at the end of this year.

For other members of the DPA, an Internet Service Provider (SingNet) has kindly donated $100,000 over two years for members of DPA and its affiliate organizations to claim a rebate on their Internet subscriptions, thereby lowering the entry barrier for new users to get connected. We are planning to set up a cluster of loanable computers and modems to help the needy disabled to get connected.

Spurred by the success of SSDnet, SADnet and Enablenet, we have plans also to build a network for the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped's Braille Production Unit (BPU), a possible computer lab for SAVH users, and a small network for the adjacent School for the Blind. The cost of this network will be much greater as additional assistive devices such as expensive speech reader software and hardware will have to be purchased. To spearhead this project, we have three visually handicapped people who routinely use the Internet by means of DOS-based asynchronous dialup software, speech-synthesizer screen readers (Vocal Eyes), text-based email and newsgroup readers, text-based web browsers such as Lynx (Univ of Kansas).

Through these efforts and with the appropriate level of publicity, we hope that other disability schools and organizations will also recognize the importance of providing affordable access to their members and that they will start their own efforts to build their own computer networks and connect them to the Internet with the help of official funding agents, commercial sponsors and individual donors. It is heartening to note that recently, the Handicaps Welfare Association (HWA), where we previously gave talks on Internet, have set up a computer laboratory with Internet access for a standalone PC. They have plans to network their computers and have faster Internet links in the near future.

Training in computer and network literacy

In providing training for computer and network literacy to the disabled community, we have targeted several groups.

For young children and youths with disabilities, we focused mainly on the hearing impaired but hope to extend this to other disability groups. We believe that access to communications and information tools such as the Internet should begin at an early age, to maximize their learning ability and for providing the means for social integration and for building confidence. In 1994, we launched a project called Knowledge and Fun on Computer Network (KFCN) at the SSD, a primary school for the hearing impaired. Initially the teachers were given introductory courses in Internet to give them both an overview of how Internet technology can help them in their teaching, as well as individual hands-on experience. This was conducted at the Computer Centre, National University of Singapore. A course was also given to teach them how to create a Web site. Staff from the Singapore Association of the Deaf were also trained. By mid-1995, a new computer laboratory for youths and adults was constructed at the SAD premises for training in and for providing access to the Internet. Courses were periodically carried out by volunteers to train the hearing impaired in Internet applications and in creating information resources on the Internet. Due to the demand, training was also given in basic wordprocessing, spreadsheet and other computing skills. Youths and adults who are hearing impaired form the majority of participants, regularly using the Internet for both communications and information purposes.

For the visually handicapped, one-to-one training was carried out on an individual ad-hoc basis. Soon, we will be building a network for them so that more formal courses can be implemented for adult members of the SAVH and children at the School for the Blind. We anticipate that the Internet will be a very useful information retrieval tool for the visually handicapped.

As for the management and policy making staff, we realize that much of the potential for change lie in their hands. To reach that level, besides personal contacts, we feel that more needs to be done in a formal way. As such, we have formed a virtual committee, the Enable2000 IT committee, comprising members recruited through Cyberspace. The mission of this committee is to map out an IT plan to present to the authorities for implementation, backed by our proof-of-concept efforts with specific projects in specific organizations.

Formulating an IT plan for the disabled

Social conscience dictates that with Singapore's rapid progress in IT, we should be seriously concerned that we do not create a society of information haves and have-nots. As we move into the IT Age, economic survival is increasing tied to the ability to access information and the skills associated with it. For the disabled community, the National IT2000 plan of Singapore has a general framework for their special needs, but this has not been articulated in detail and plans for providing information access to this community are generally under-developed.

Efforts by the Disabled People's Association in the RICH project is a good positive example where a serious attempt has been made to use IT to empower the disabled. But because of the pre-eminence of Internet technology and its tremendous potential in recent years, a number of Internauts have gathered to form a committee to formulate an IT plan in the spirit of our National IT2000 master-plan which caters specifically for the needs of the disability communities.

Six working groups (WGs) have been formed looking into the following areas.

  1. Publicity and Fund Raising
  2. Training and Education
  3. Access and Infrastructure
  4. Morale and Support
  5. Employment Opportunities
  6. Research and Development

These WGs will be focusing particularly on technical and policy issues of providing access, on creating a reservoir of information, on educating the disabled community, on developing, innovating and implementing information access tools for specific disability groups, and on creating employment and business opportunities for the disabled to make such projects self-sustaining. It aims to produce a White Paper outlining the IT needs of the disabled, suggesting solutions, demonstrating proof-of-concept projects for wider implementation, developing and innovating on assistive hardware and software and mapping out a possible strategic master-plan in the disability component of the National IT2000 framework for adoption by the government.

An international agenda

In keeping with the international agenda of the Internet, we have made contacts with similar efforts overseas. In January 1996, a new protem Working Group for Disabilities was formed at the Asia Pacific Network Group's (APNG) conference held in Singapore. Contact was established with interested members in the Asia-Pacific region. Eventually, we hope that our efforts will synchronize with those in other countries and that the knowledge and experience gained will be freely shared. Because Internet accessibility for the disabled has not been well publicized on an international platform, we have submitted this paper for the INET'96 annual conference at Montreal in the hope that people of like mind will come together and initiate a global virtual movement for the disabled.

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, our efforts in Singapore are only beginning, our attempts limited. Yet as we identify more projects, carry them out, and articulate them as potentially adoptable schemes in a larger IT plan, we hope that the benefits brought to the disability communities in Singapore will lead to a sustainable improvement in their quality of life. We hope that existing organizations and government agencies will incorporate into their plans the relevant parts of our forthcoming Enable2000 IT plan, and improve on them and implement them on a broader scale than we have.

We note that with better health care, the average life span of the Singaporean is increasing, leading to a distinct demographic shift commonly termed as the "aging population". Within several decades, the number of unproductive aged may become a major burden to a small proportion of the productive young. Disabilities associated with old age will further deteriorate the situation. The only way we can improve on that equation is to extend the productive life of senior citizens and to help them overcome their disabilities and lack of mobility. In this regard, the Internet concept of anywhere our workplace fits in very well.

With the development of assistive tools and devices currently used for people with disabilities, our investment today in the disabled may bear rich reward for the aged of the future. We hope that the publicity generated will help break man-made disability barriers, demonstrate that "being disabled does not mean unable", help level the playing field for anybody with disabilities, promote rehabilitation and integration, and enhance the ability to continue contributing to society. Through the Internet, we hope that this movement in Singapore will merge with those in other countries, so that together, we will spell out a new hope for people with disabilities throughout the world

Authors

Dr Tan Tin Wee is the Head of the Internet Research and Development Unit, NUS, and has been an active proponent of Internet for the disability communities since 1994.

Ron Chandran-Dudley is visually handicapped. He is the founding President of the Disabled People's Association, Singapore. He has been active in working among the disabled communities for many decades and is a publicly well-known personage.

Ms Anne Quek is the Executive Director, Singapore Association for the Deaf and has been proactive in the introduction of Internet technology to the association.

Mrs Tan Tai Ming is the Principal, Singapore School for the Deaf, the first primary school in Singapore to have an Internet network of more than 20 computers since 1994.

Mr Lim Fung is a NUS student volunteer, teaches Internet to the disability community and has been responsible for setting up and maintenance of websites, computers and networks at the SAD, SSD and DPA since 1994.

Mr Lim Kin Chew is the Manager, Centre for Information Technology in Education and Learning, Temasek Polytechnic, and has been an enthusiastic supporter and volunteer organizer and teacher of Internet courses for many years.

Mr Poh Yew Tiong is the Honorary Assistant Secretary of the Singapore Association of the Deaf, and is the leading hearing impaired Internaut, responsible for overseeing the setting up of an Internet network at the SAD and for running courses there.

Maynard Kang is a student volunteer since 1994 and is presently studying in college.

Mr Eugene Soh is webmaster of the Disabled People's Association and Bizlink, and the most prominent wheelchair Internaut. He was involved in covering a 1000-km wheelchair ultramarathon for the Internet World Expo 1996 by filming, cyberinterviewing and maintaining a mobile website en route.

Dr Derek Kiong is a seasoned Internaut and Unix guru who is a volunteer technical expert currently a senior lecturer at the Dept of Information Systems and Computer Science, NUS.

Contact

Dr Tan Tin Wee
Head, Internet Research and Development Unit
National University of Singapore
Tel: +65-772-6490
Fax: +65-778-0198
E-mail: tinwee@irdu.nus.sg