Internet Facilities for the Disabled Community in Singapore
LIM Kin Chew <email@example.com>
LIM Fung <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This paper discusses how volunteers in Singapore have garnered the resources to provide Internet facilities for the disabled community. It describes wiring computer laboratories to set up Internet facilities for hearing- or visually-impaired people.
It also discusses the issues affecting the specific needs of disabled people who want to improve their lives in the educational, social, and employment arenas. Implementation issues in setting up such computer laboratories are also discussed. All these are actually part of our master plan to provide the disabled community with Internet facilities so that their lives can be improved.
Enable2000 consists of volunteers from various educational institutions and private companies in Singapore. The group started in 1994 when Dr. Tan Tin Wee, then the Head of the Technet Unit in the National University of Singapore, invested in the disabled community in Singapore by way of providing Internet connectivity and facilitating information technology. His fundamental and yet simple rationale was that these technologies enabled the disabled to compete on an equal footing with the able-bodied. Being deaf or confined to a wheelchair is not a handicap where jobs depend on Internet and computer technologies.
He started by setting up a computer laboratory with Internet facilities for the Singapore School for the Deaf. This is a school which offers primary school education for children ages 6 to about 12 years old. Since then, the group has started to help organizations like the Handicapped Welfare Association, the Disabled Peoples' Association, the Singapore School for the Visually Handicapped, and the Canossian School for the Hearing Impaired.
The mission of our Enable2000 volunteer group is to make use of information technology to help improve the quality of life of the disabled community in Singapore. Although resources were scarce and the work unfunded, bits of unused equipment were given new life in new surroundings. Various contributions went a long way when the group relied on "technowiz" solutions and free software such as Linux.
As the work progressed with encouraging results, the pool of volunteers began to grow. At this stage, it was viable to consider the wider and more effective use of information technology. At this level, we felt that we could map out the vision, strategies, and action plans to enable disabled persons in Singapore to make better use of information technology to improve their social lives and employment opportunities. We were also aware of other (non-IT) volunteer groups and government agencies and thus resolved to reduce any overlap and instead maintain a strong IT and Internet focus.
Our group intends to enhance the computer skills and awareness of Internet technology among the disabled communities in Singapore. In this way, the disabled community can catch up with the rapid advances in information technology.
The following are the objectives of our Enable2000 plan:
The following are our activities:
The following table summarizes the projects that our volunteer group has done:
Some of the significant projects of Enable2000 include helping the Disabled Peoples' Association (DPA) of Singapore create their Web site (http://www.dpa.org.sg) with information on access code to buildings. At the same time, our group built the administration network for the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SAD). The project helped at least three people who were blind to gain access to the Internet. Soon, they were communicating by e-mail and could read online newspapers using a speech synthesizer costing about $3,000 attached to an ordinary PC.
Our group has also helped Bizlink, a job placement agency for people with disabilities, to put up their Web pages and online placement service at http://www.bizlink.org.sg.
In 1996, some of the volunteers formed a team to videotape the marathon led by Dr. William Tan and transmit the contents on the Internet. Dr. William Tan, a disabled person, was pushing his wheelchair from Singapore to Penang. The hearing impaired students were able to have an Internet chat with Dr William Tan through the computer while he was pushing his wheelchair.
The Singapore School for the Deaf was the first school that the Enable2000 volunteers helped to set up a computer laboratory with Internet facilities. With the donation of a Sun SparcStation10 computer system, we were able to set up an Internet server. There are now two computer laboratories -- one with 10 Pentium PCs and another one with 23 units of 486 PCs.
The actual network infrastructure is as follows:
As for the actual use of the computing and Internet resources, the students and teachers have found that the Internet is really useful to them. It extends the scope of their limited hearing impaired world. E-mail and IRC services are two of the popular Internet services used by the students to communicate with the world. The computer laboratories are popular with the hearing impaired students to such an extent that the school has to ration the usage time for the students. At present, the school is attempting to infuse the use of such IT and Internet technologies into their day-to-day teaching. For example, when students work on their project work report, they now create Web pages, scan the images, create their own graphic images, and put these up as their project reports. Teachers also found out that the students become more motivated and interested in their studies. Of course, during our interactions with the hearing impaired people, we realized that multimedia applications with a lot of sound output are of limited use.
The future plan is to pool all these resources -- graphic images, Web pages on project work, project reports -- onto a common server so that other teachers can share these resources.
At the same time that we were helping to build up the computer network in the Singapore School for the Deaf, we had a few adult hearing impaired volunteers. They broached the idea of forming a "CyberLab" specially for members of our Singapore Association for the Deaf. Through the generous donation of a company, a member of the SAD managed to purchase 10 Pentium PCs and a high-end PC to be used as an Internet server. These computers were then connected in an ethernet-based Local Area Network with access to the Internet. The CyberLab is very popular with the members of the SAD. Initially, the volunteers guided the members by helping them in the cabling, networking, and setting up of the Internet server. Now, the members are running the "CyberLab" entirely by themselves. They have regular classes at least once a week. It is indeed heartening to note that the members have also become good at repairing the computers and making them work well.
The actual network infrastructure is as follows:
The Singapore School for the Visually Handicapped presented us with a new set of challenges. Whereas previously we dealt with the hearing impaired people, we now dealt with people whose vision was very poor. Sound applications in Web pages are all right with the visually handicapped people. However, textual materials must be developed with large fonts. Even graphic images must be accompanied by textual links which can provide audio output. In this way, by designing the Web pages properly, we minimize the visual effect (their weak point) but maximize the hearing power (their heightened sense).
The actual network infrastructure is as follows:
An interesting aspect of this computer laboratory is that the client PCs were all reconditioned 486 PCs. These were all donated by our Singapore Ministry of Education. Although they are slightly outdated, we managed to get them working. Enable2000 volunteers also provided IT and Internet training to the teachers, some of whom suffer from poor vision.
What we will be doing next is to connect all the PCs in the Singapore School for the Visually Handicapped and connect the Braille printer to this network. By doing so, we will be able to print out information from the Internet in Braille and the visually handicapped students will be able to keep up with the latest happenings in the world. We see this as a very positive way to use technology effectively for the benefit of the visually handicapped.
The Canossian School for the Hearing Impaired focuses on a different aspect of helping their students adapt to the social world by training them to learn to listen with the aid of assistive technology devices instead of focusing on sign language. Dr. Eric Cheong (Singapore Polytechnic), who is a member of our Enable2000 team, is currently working on developing specialized electronic devices that cater to the students' audio frequency response.
We have initiated a project with the Canossian School for the Hearing Impaired to link them up permanently to the Internet once they have shifted to their new premises. Computer-assisted learning using multimedia courseware may be very useful to the students as their focus is on hearing and speech therapy.
Currently their interim network infrastructure is as follows:
We have chosen to use Linux instead of using WinGate on a Windows '95 machine as it is noncommercial and provides greater functionality in terms of performance, as proxy-cache software such as Squid may be deployed on the 486-based PC router.
Undoubtedly, providing IT training to the disabled people is a key issue in our volunteer work. For this, we are quite fortunate to have the services of two polytechnics and the National University of Singapore. Specifically, a typical IT training program includes the following:
From our experience, we found that the above training program serves the needs of the disabled community very well. Typically, such training courses are held on Saturday afternoons.
From our voluntary work with the disabled community in Singapore, we have encountered the following issues which affect the disabled people in their desire to use IT and the Internet technologies in their daily lives:
We believe we have done a fair bit of work for the disabled community in Singapore. However, with the rapidly changing world and the economic downturn and currency turmoil we are facing in this part of the world, where do we go from here?