Chung-Chuan Yang <email@example.com>
National Institute of Technology at Kaohsiung
National Chung-Hsing University
Although the enhancement of people's welfare is included as one of the five major objectives that Taiwan's National Infrastructure Initiative (NII) is aimed to accomplish, the visually impaired group seems to be left out by government's aggressive promotion of information and network literacy programs in recent years.
The situation did not improve until the development of the Golden Point Computer Braille System, which includes Braille input and output, as well as audio output, which enables the visually impaired to read information appearing on the computer screen. It also allows them to send e-mail or conduct information searching and retrieval.
This paper employs a combination of literature survey, case study, and indepth interview to examine issues regarding universal access and service by the visually impaired in Taiwan.
Keywords: Universal access, visually impaired, NII, Taiwan, Golden Point Computer Braille System.
Although the enhancement of people's welfare is included as one of the five major objectives that Taiwan's National Infrastructure Initiative (NII) is aimed to accomplish, the visually impaired group seems to be left out by government's aggressive promotion of information and network literacy programs in recent years. According to a statistics released by the Ministry of Interior, there are 22,425 visually impaired individuals in Taiwan (pop. 21 million). Historically, the Taiwanese government had a record of ignoring the welfare of those with disabilities and minorities. Therefore, with more and more information being distributed through the Internet and accessed solely via computer, there is an urgent need to consider how computers can be redesigned to meet the special needs of the visually impaired and how they can benefit from the NII as a result.
This paper is set to examine the following:
The term "National Information Infrastructure" (NII) was first created in the United States. It refers to "the hardware, software, standards, personnel, and training facilities that will one day form an information infrastructure that will place vast quantities of voice, video, and data at users' fingertips" (General Accounting Office, 1994, p. 12). Taiwan's NII plan was formally approved by the Executive Yuan on June 14, 1994. An interministerial ad hoc task force, headed by Dr. Hann-min Sha, minister without portfolio, will supervise the implementation of this plan. This plan will cover a period of 10 years. During the first six years, an estimated U.S. $10 billion will be invested with U.S. $5 billion from the Directorate General of Telecommunications (DGT) and U.S. $1.5 billion from the government to support RandD. Private sectors will provide the remaining U.S. $3.5 billion. The plan will increase Taiwan's business productivity by 20 to 40 percent (NII Task Force, 1994a).
The NII aims to increase Taiwan's competitiveness by helping businesses to transform to more knowledge-based operations, solve social problems by providing telemedicine and distance education to rural and remote areas, and enhance democracy by making government information freely available to the public (NII Task Force, 1994b). Services available in the Taiwan's NII will include telemedicine, virtual libraries, distance education, weather information, cable television, and video-on-demand (NII Task Force, 1994a). To expedite the diffusion of the Internet, the NII Task Force will aggressively promote Internet usage with an aim to increase Internet population to 3 million by the year 2000.
According to a population census report released by the Executive Yuan in 1990, the population of those with disabilities in Taiwan has reached 254,515 (pop. 21 million). The population of the hearing-impaired alone has reached 35,317, which accounts for 9.96 percent of the total disabled population.
Another census report published by the Taipei City Government (1992) provided data on the level of education among those with disabilities in Taipei. According to the statistics, 19.4 percent of those with disabilities in Taipei were illiterate, while 24.5 percent had received primary education and 18.2 percent secondary education. Only a small fraction of those with disabilities--13.5 percent--had obtained college- or graduate-level education, and only 1.3 percent of those with disabilities had a master's or doctoral degree. The level of education among those with disabilities is tragically low when compared with population segments without disabilities.
The Disabilities Welfare Act in Taiwan was revised in early 1990. However, it did not reach the standards as required in the Human Right Declaration for the Disabilities by the United Nations in 1993. As a result, a special committee was formed to study disabilities issues and recommend future policy to ensure their rights. Principles to Establish Disabilities Welfare Policy was first proposed in April 1995, and brings up six major policy directions to enhance the situation of disabled individuals, their family functions, self-respect, social integration, fair opportunity, and social justice (Hwang, 1995). In the area of increasing social integration, the information needs of those with disabilities were specifically brought to the attention of the policymakers. Furthermore, solutions to dissolve the bottleneck for those with disabilities to access information were covered.
The ability to receive and deliver complete information is important to those with disabilities, not only because it can contribute to a better understanding about the society and increase their participation in social events but also because it will give the general public a clearer picture of obstacles encountered day by day by those with disabilities. With the advent of the NII, the government should reexamine deficiencies in measures to ensure the welfare of those with disabilities and make every effort to change the low education and economic levels among those with disabilities in Taiwan. The best way to secure government's attention is to link the issue of access to the NII for those with disabilities to the universal service goal. However, ensuring what the universal service package will include still needs a lot of efforts.
A fundamental policy question is what types of universal service should be available in the NII. Failure to address this question will hinder any further discussions and policy-making process. Swahney (1995) argued that, from a policy-making perspective, the most serious problem in universal service will be the lack of consensus on what constitutes basic service that should be made universally available to all citizens.
Swahney (1994) pointed out that there is a consensus among policy scholars and practitioners that the definition of universal service should be expanded beyond plain old telephone service (POTS). The redefinition of universal service should be approached from both policymakers' and users' perspectives. If redefining universal service will be the first step, an important policy question is whether the universal service package should be extended gradually and incrementally, or whether futuristic services should be included (Hadden, 1994).
For consumers, what services should be universal or basic and included are their major concerns. As Hadden (1994) pointed out, "[h]ow can we ensure that the information and services available on the NII are important and useful enough that people will want access to be 'basic or universal'?" For example, in the past, universal service may just have meant access to a party line. However, the access to private lines is expected by most people nowadays. Moreover, advanced services such as caller identification, call forwarding, voice mail, call blocking, video services, and high-speed digital transmission can, one day, become necessities of life. In a recent Harris study, consumers prefer information to entertainment--quite different from what most proponents have been saying. Well less than fifty percent of the people surveyed wanted movie-on-demand or online shopping, while almost 75 percent wanted health information and more than 50 percent wanted to access government information (Hadden, 1994). In addition to the debates about the contents of universal service, some scholars noted that universal service should address where users can access these service.
Hudson Institute's research argues for a delay in expanding the universal service concept until policymakers understand the demand and cost of the new digital interactive services available on the NII (Pitsch and Teolis, 1994). As Pitsch and Teolis (1994) put it, "[b]uilding the infrastructure and providing services for use on it are inherently risky actions, and prematurely expanding universal service could increase these risks and thereby delay or kill innovative efforts" (p. 10).
The Golden Point Computer Braille System, an access-enabling system for the visually impaired, was developed by a group of researchers headed by Professor Yu Fang at the Tamkang University in Taipei. This system includes such functions as Braille input and output, as well as audio output, which enables the visually impaired to read information appearing on the computer screen. It is capable of converting what appears on the computer screen to Braille touch board that the visually impaired students use to read information. It also allows them to send e-mail or conduct information searching and retrieval. This system is easy to use. With a little training, the visually impaired users can type about 50 to 60 words per minute (Lee, 1997).
The system costs about U.S. $1,685. As of January 1997, a total of 180 sets (equipped with software, DOS, or Window) has been sent out. This technology has be bundled with a scanner and a voice mail system developed by the Chinese Telecommunications Research Institute (Yang and Tsang, 1997).
For one year, the dedicated BBS station for the Golden Point Computer Braille System has drawn attention from the Internet users and the public. News on professional baseball, disabilities welfare, and mail forwarding service are provided through this system. Electronic Braille books, online library catalogs, and online newspapers are available. With the help of the China Times, up-to-the-minute information can now be accessed by visually impaired readers. Copyright issue still needs to be solved (Yang and Tsang, 1997).
The obstacles in promoting this system involve the lack of funding and economy of scale. The Ministry of Education is the sole supporter for the project. The Chinese Telecommunications Research Institute (a research branch of the DGT) and the Tamkang University provide technical assistance. Because of the limited amount of sets produced, the cost for each system is very high, which also reduces the adoption of the system by the visually impaired. In addition, many visually impaired students have to wait for one year before their order can be fulfilled because the factory cannot begin to produce unless over 100 sets are ordered each time (Yang and Tsang, 1997).
Although most visually impaired users have stated a very positive experience with this system. Some technical problems still need to be solved. Braille based on WWW interface is still to be developed. In the future, the current touch board will show more than 40 characters. More character display can be used to show icons related to the Window system (Yang and Tsang, 1997).
The Golden Point Computer Braille System project has spurred more access-enabling technologies for the visually impaired in Taiwan. The Chinese Telecommunication Research Institute has introduced communications equipment for those with disabilities, information-assistance equipment, an intelligence-network information voice broadcasting system, and voice recognition and retrieval technology (Li, 1997). These technologies are likely to contribute to the long-term improvement of the benefits among the visually impaired.
This paper employs a combination of literature survey, case study, and indepth interview. Major government publications, legal sources, periodicals, and reports released by policy research organizations are analyzed to understand the status of Taiwanese information policies regarding the visually impaired. The case study method provides detailed description of the Golden Point Computer Braille System. It also examines the process of adoption by the Tamkang University and predicts future use by other organizations of the visually impaired. Findings from this research will be analyzed to offer policy recommendations that can ensure universal service and access of those with disabilities in Taiwan.
The issue of access to information among the visually impaired can only be alleviated to a limited degree by the distribution of new access-enabled technology such as the Golden Point Computer Braille System. In order to sensitize the public as well as government officials about the needs of this advantaged group, several directions should be taken into consideration.
Government monopoly on telephone service in the past decades has made cross-subsidization and universal service provision an issue that did not interest most policy researchers in Taiwan. Universal service is often treated as an internal cost allocation problem inside the DGT. However, future privatization of the DGT and the introduction of new communication-information technologies (such as NII or the Internet) can endanger the status quo of universal service provision in Taiwan.
Apparently, lack of discussions on the universal service in telephone service has shown a society-wide ignorance of potential side effects of informationalization of society. The public and policymakers are likely to transfer the same ignorance toward the information needs of the visually impaired. After examination of government publications (NII Task Force, 1994a, b, and c) and many newspaper and magazine articles on the NII topic, only a few public interest statements can be found (Tseng, 1995; Wu, 1995). Most discourses on the NII center on the economic benefits (Chen, 1994; Wu, 1994). The lack of awareness of NII's social impacts can lead to an initiative that widens the gap between social classes, bringing more social unrest rather than the bright new future as depicted by most NII proponents in Taiwan. Fortunately, this situation has changed in recent years. The NII Task Force and the Ministry of Education will promote a plan to invest U.S. $200 million on an information literacy program in Taiwan (Li, 1996a).
It seems that the Taiwanese government centers its promotion of the NII on facilities-based mechanisms. For example, a major NII component is heavy investment by the private and public sector on the NII network. As precursors to the futuristic NII, several computer networks have been introduced to connect to the Internet. The most popular networks are TANet, Seednet, and Hinet. However, will the completion of the NII network guarantee that everyone is able to access the network and enjoy the cornucopia information resources available on the network? The answer is apparently negative. Regardless of state-of-the-art information appliances, computer ownership in Taiwan is only 1.60 million (Huang, 1995). Surveys have constantly identified that Internet users are likely to be in the high-income and high-education segments of the society. The visually impaired are less likely to use the Internet because of their limited financial resources, not to mention that the Internet's heavy reliance on visual abilities seems to exclude them. Therefore, it is evident that the Information Highway will only be driven by a few selected groups who have the luxury to own a "car." Despite its limited diffusion, the introduction of the Golden Point Computer Braille System has made some differences.
This article provides some discussions on the development of the Golden Point Computer Braille System that has been developed to ensure universal service for the visually impaired in Taiwan. In Taiwan, the government plans most national developments (e.g., the defunct Six-Year National Construction Plan or the current Asia-Pacific Operating Centers). Although Taiwan's government will allow private sectors to participate in the building of the NII, it will also greatly influence the NII's direction, given the amount of investment planned and the current monopoly on telecommunications.
However, success of the NII plan may depend on more than investment in hardware and networks. The nontechnological aspects of the infrastructure are also critical. McClure (1993) identified these nontechnological factors as human resources, political and social processes, organizational support, and end-users' attitude. He concluded that "[d]iscussions about how the network should evolve, how people should be able to use the network, and how individuals will be empowered by using the network ... are essential" (p. 172). Without a debate on how social goals can be reached in an electronic age, there will be an increasing gap between the "network literate" and "network illiterate" (McClure, 1993, p. 172). Even worse, this gap can be widened because the of the introduction of the NII (Doctor, 1993).
The introduction of the Golden Point Computer Braille System, as well as other technologies to ensure access to the NII by those with disabilities, is bound to positively affect the provision of universal service in Taiwan. However, more measures should be taken to better care for this disadvantaged group. The following section will divide these mechanisms into the following categories: regulation-, facilities-, and knowledge-based mechanisms.
Solutions based on regulations should be set up by the government to ensure universal service for those with disabilities. Many models are now available than can be adopted or adjusted--for example, Eli Noam's Financial Support System, which is based on symmetry, neutrality, and user-friendliness to ensure universal service in a competitive marketplace. Taxation is also a viable mechanism. Stahlman (1994) proposed public broadcasting taxes (as used in Britain where $120 will be paid for owning a television) or taxes from cable fees. Eli Noam (1994) noted other sources to pay for universal service may include network taxes, telecommunications sales taxes, value-added service surcharges, a net transmission account system, and a property tax on carriers.
Facilities-based mechanisms include the building of the NII, availability of public electronic access points, vouchers, and customer premise equipment to access information resources available on the NII. For the visually impaired, the Golden Point Computer Braille System is still limited to college-educated students. As one of its developers, Mr. Yang, (Su, 1996) pointed out, for 20 thousand visually impaired individuals in Taiwan, only 100 specifically designed computers are available. The government may need to include the computer as well as some advanced enabling technology in the assistance programs, which allowed the visually impaired to purchase fax machines in the past.
In addition, the ever increasing cost of getting online will also prohibit the visually impaired from accessing the immense pool of information on the Internet. The visually impaired will need to spend more time on viewing a Web page because the conversion and reading from Braille take time. Therefore, a subsidy for online subscription should also be considered for inclusion in these programs. If not, networks built specifically for this group and other disabilities should be an alternative.
Williams and Pavlik (1994) noted that the problem in information access "is not always just one of availability, but the capability to take advantage of availability, and even the knowledge and attitudes of what information is important to a given situation" (p. 217). McClure (1993) pointed out "an education disconnect between the rapidly developing communications technologies and information resources available to the public, and the public's ability to use these resources" (p. 137). Therefore, to ensure universal service, knowledge-based measures will need to be included.
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