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OSS giving voice to the disabled

By   |  May 17, 2006

It’s one thing relying on proprietary technology to write a document, touch up a photograph, or send an email. But the stakes are much higher when the technology may be your only communication link to the world.

This is the reality for people like Martin Pistorius, a disability consultant who is quadriplegic and cannot speak. He uses a head-mounted pointer to select words on a computer screen using proprietary software imported from the UK.

“Currently 99% of all augmentative and alternative communications (AAC) technologies are imported, which makes them incredibly expensive,” Pistorius told Tectonic via email. “Just to give you an idea, the top of the range dedicated AAC device called a Pathfinder costs approximately R90 000 and if it breaks it needs to be shipped back to the US, repaired and shipped back.”

What can I do to help?

Patel and Pistorius offered some tips for web designers who want to make their websites more accessible.

They both agreed that compliance with the W3C accessibility guidelines is paramount. For example, adding embedded voice prompts that enable blind users to easily navigate your web page, and using the hover and focus properties in CSS to highlight features when you tab through links for users with only a keyboard-like interface.

Using CSS, you can also easily create options for switching background colors, creating high-contrast displays for people who are color-blind, or displaying larger fonts for those who have poor eyesight. “You need to make sure none of your pages scroll horizontally even on the low resolution (800×600); then make sure that your website can be accessed just using a keyboard,” notes Pretorius.

For the more ambitious, you can provide information in “different modalities” such as video clips in sign language for the deaf, or audio clips for the blind.
Not only is the repair usually costly, but it can take up to a year for the device to be returned. “It could mean that for a year, or however long, someone is left without
an effective means to communicate. In other words: without a voice essentially.”

It’s a costly and frustrating exercise, and one of the reasons Pistorius has teamed up system architect, Dr Louis Coetzee, and other researchers at the CSIR to develop an open source solution called GNApp, a highly configurable and low cost AAC framework, as part of the larger National Accessibility Portal project.

“There’s a massive need for assistive technologies that are affordable and localised,” says Hina Patel, project manager of the National Accessibility Portal, “because the ones that are proprietary, or are imported, are often not supported [in SA].”

Patel says the GNApp framework enables people who use assistive technologies to design and develop their own user interfaces, based on the individual’s need, education and literacy. “The idea is that we don’t just take this and develop, but that we actually get it out there so people can actually contribute to it,” says Patel.

The open source model has “significant cost advantages”, says Pretorius. “If you run it on an Ubuntu Linux machine the only cost would be the hardware, which you could probably get for about R3 500.”

“The other major advantage to the GNApp framework is because it’s being developed locally we are able to address our rich cultural and linguistic diversity, something none of the proprietary systems cater for,” he adds. “All the TTS (Text To Speech) systems are only available in European languages. Now if you are an individual who needs to use AAC and your only real language of communication is Zulu and there are only English-based TTS systems available it becomes a huge barrier.”

The National Accessibility Portal is a five-year research and development project that aims to address the marginalisation of people with disabilities in South Africa through ICT. Although still in its pilot phase, the project plans to eventually role out 27 specially-equipped centres around South Africa where people with disabilities will be able to access disability-related information, training materials, and e-commerce facilities. The web-based portal will also enable persons with disabilities and others to communicate with other disabled people and share experiences and advice.

The NAP team is also planning to develop or extend an open source screen reader for the South African context.

Willem van der Walt, a blind Linux programmer working for the team, says proprietary screen readers are expensive. “The cost of screen readers in general is high – R8000 and more,” he says, and proprietary solutions are built for Windows.

Van der Walt currently uses a Linux console-based screen reader called Speakup. “We are looking at localising Speakup which currently just supports English,” he says. “We [will] also look at working with the people developing Orca for the graphical Gnome desktop.”

Says Patel: “Whenever we talk about open source screen readers, there is this flood of relief, from a lot of people who are not economically able to afford R9 000.”

She says the team is looking to work more closely with the open source community. “We really need critical mass here, because there are so many different types of modules and applications and development that we need to do.”

People interested in the project can visit the National Accessibility Portal website and subscribe to mailing lists hosted on the site.

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