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Internet Facilities for the Disabled Community in Singapore

LIM Kin Chew <>
Temasek Polytechnic

LIM Fung <>
Derek Beng-Kee KIONG <>
National University of Singapore


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.


What is Enable2000?

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.

Enable2000's objectives

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:

  • To help the disabled community to catch up with IT developments;
  • To provide general and specific training to the disabled community;
  • To help set up links between the various disabled organizations in Singapore; and
  • To assist them to secure gainful employment.

Our activities

The following are our activities:

  • Help to set up computer laboratories and networks/intranets for disability organizations/schools;
  • Conduct training sessions for people with disabilities and those who are helping them (e.g., teachers in disability schools);
  • Set up Internet and Web servers and information resources for people with disabilities;
  • Publicize endeavors of handicapped people -- e.g., the overland trip by Dr. William Tan on a wheelchair from Singapore to Penang -- over the Internet; and
  • Conduct site surveys for IT projects for special education schools.

Projects and milestones to date

The following table summarizes the projects that our volunteer group has done:

Date Projects
Sept. 1994Project HIIT: Hearing Impaired Web site was set up.
Sept. 1994Singapore School for the Deaf (SSD) Internet network (SSDnet1) was set up.
Nov. 1994We set up the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SAD), SADnet I for administration
Nov. 1994Disabled People's Association (DPA) Enablenet I was established.
Jan. 1995A Web site for the Visually Handicapped was set up.
Mar. 1995Web site for the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped was set up.
June 1995Plan for Enablenet II was firmed up.
Oct. 1995Bizlink Web site: We offered to host the Web site for Bizlink, a centralized job placement agency for the disabled communities.
Dec. 1995SADnet II was set up to network a computer laboratory for the hearing impaired in SAD. An Internet camp for hearing impaired students was also conducted.
Jan. 1996Enable2000 made a presentation for the Asia-Pacific Networking Group (APNG) Conference.
Feb. 1996Enable2000 formulated the IT masterplan to promote IT and Internet for the disabled community
Mar. 1996Internet R & D Unit of the National University of Singapore formed an Internet Disability Group
Apr. 1996Mobile Internet TechTeam formed. Marathon feat of a well-known disabled person, Dr. William Tan, was recorded and beamed via the Internet.
Dec. 19962nd Internet camp for the hearing impaired students. This is a 5-day course which aimed to provide basic Internet, WWW, and Web page creation skills to the students.
Mar. 1997Enable2000 group was awarded the Life Insurance Association Team Award.
May 1997Technical subcommittee on IT for Special Schools was formed to study the feasibility of piloting a few CAL projects for four special education schools.
June 1997Enable2000 participated in a Disability Panel Discussion in INET'97 Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Nov. 1997Enable2000 started a project to collect used PCs for the disabled people.

Significant projects and activities

Some of the significant projects of Enable2000 include helping the Disabled Peoples' Association (DPA) of Singapore create their Web site ( 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

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

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:

  • Sun Sparc 10 (Solaris 2.5) @36 MHz, 32 MB RAM, 1 GB hard disk drive running as gateway router, SMTP, POP3, FTP, and WWW proxy server
  • Internet connectivity is provided free of charge (telco charges are payable) via an analog leased line (28.8kbps)
  • The network is based on the 10Base2 network with about 23 client machines running Windows 95

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.

The Singapore Association for the Deaf (SAD)

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:

  • Pentium 133 (Linux 2.0.x) compatible w/64 MB RAM, 4 GB hard disk drive running as gateway router, SMTP, POP3, FTP, and WWW proxy server
  • Internet connectivity is provided free of charge (telco charges are payable) via an analog leased line (28.8kbps)
  • The network is based on the 10Base2 network with 23 client machines running Windows '95 (Pentium 90 - 133 and compatibles). CyberLab has full lecturing facilities, including LCD display projector, HP scanner, and printer.

The Singapore School for the Visually Handicapped

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:

  • It consists of a PC-based server with AMD K6-200 microprocessor (Server is installed with FreeBSD 2.x) w/64MB RAM, 4 GB hard disk drive running as SMTP, POP3, FTP, and WWW proxy server.
  • A Cisco 16xx series ISDN router is connected to Singnet network ISDN Dialup service (subsidy is 10 hours free usage per month).
  • The network is based on the 10Base2 network with 10 client machines running Windows '95 (486DX-33).

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

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:

  • It consists of an Intel 486-based PC router (running on Linux 2.x) that performs IP Masquerading, allowing several clients to access the Internet simultaneously.
  • The network is based on the 10Base2 network with 14 client machines running Windows '95 (Pentium-133).

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.

IT training

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:

  • Using the PC and Windows 95
  • Using the Internet (covering e-mail and IRC services)
  • Using the WWW browser
  • Creating simple Web pages

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.

Issues affecting the disabled people

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:

  • PCs are expensive and the frequent use of the Internet is expensive. However, our volunteer group is trying to find some solutions to this problem. Recently, we started a campaign to collect slightly out-of-date PCs and have them reconditioned before donating them to the disabled community. We have so far collected about 100 used PCs and are now in the midst of reconditioning as many as we can. One hearing impaired school has even placed an order for 22 of such reconditioned PCs! We believe such a recycling project can be started in many countries. In addition to this, we also managed to get some disabled people to help us repair the used PCs. In this way, the disabled people are also helping themselves to help themselves.

  • It is hard for the disabled to receive proper IT training because most IT trainers are not equipped to train disabled people. For example, when there is a group of hearing impaired people to be trained, we need the assistance of a sign language interpreter to communicate with them. Otherwise, the training is slow and the trainer has to resort to writing out every instruction or resort to other ways of communicating with people of other disabilities.
  • The great majority of all Internet resources are not designed to be accessed by people with disabilities. Although there has been some excellent work done by people like Mike Paciello on the Design Guidelines for Web pages to be accessed by people with disabilities (WebABLE! project), most people in this part of the world are not aware of such guidelines.
  • There is a need to tackle the subject of making better use of the available manpower among members of the disabled community, especially where IT and Internet expertise is concerned. For example, we believe that members of the disabled community will become good Webmasters or even software programmers if they receive adequate training and opportunity in the IT industry.

Where do we go from here?

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?

  1. We feel that it is timely to come out with an IT Masterplan for the Disabled Community in Singapore. Such a masterplan can address the long-term development of the IT skills and industry among the different disabled communities. Initially, this masterplan should focus on the hearing impaired, the visually handicapped, and the aged. Such a masterplan should also cover the areas of education, communication access and infrastructure, research and development, and the employment aspects of the disabled community.
  2. Going from Singapore to the wider world, we want to share our experiences with volunteers from other parts of the world. This is where the Enable2000 volunteer group is happy to report the formation of the APNG Disability Working Group. A charter for this working group has been formed.
    The aim of this working group is to discuss, share, report, and plan how to overcome these barriers and where possible, to coordinate and implement these plans in our respective countries in the Asia Pacific through mutual sharing, participation, and cooperation.
    The APNG Disability Working Group is focused on
    1. Increasing the awareness of accessibility needs of people with disabilities;
    2. Promoting the formation of national special interest groups and supporting volunteer action groups for bringing Internet technology to the disabled;
    3. Disseminating Internet technologies to the disabled;
    4. Liaising with relevant international bodies on Internet accessibility; and
    5. Cooperating with national charitable and government bodies to implement plans for helping the disability communities in Internet technologies.
  3. The coordinator of this Working Group is Dr. Tan Tin Wee (e-mail: The mailing list is
  4. There must be greater dissemination of information about initiatives such as the WAI (WWW Accessibility Initiative)and WebABLE! Specific information on services like the HTML-to-Braille Transformation Service, successful solutions like pwWebspeak browser, and other research and development work should be publicized widely.

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