HI-TECH SOFTWARE FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES

Computing

Mackeed Masemola and his friend Martin Pistorius are having a conversation through their computers. Mackeed, confined to a wheelchair, has switched on a video conferencing tool and waves a cheery hello to his friend.

He speaks into his microphone and his greeting comes out through the speakers. Pistorius wants to reply but cannot speak , nor does he have much use of his hands . He is a quadriplegic.

So he moves his head in dozens of almost imperceptible little jerks, sending a beam of light dancing across the computer screen from a device strapped to his forehead.

Drilling down through icons bearing labels such as small words, people, landscapes, grammar and the alphabet, Pistorius uses his strongest thumb to squeeze a sensor when the beam highlights the desired word.

Later, he nods rapidly and clicks to type a sentence explaining he has used th e software since 2002 to keep in touch with friends and access information.

The software and headset device are part of a project by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research designed to help SA's 4-million disabled people to use technology to communicate, access information and even find jobs .

The council's National Accessibility Portal was unveiled on Tuesday after 18 months of research and development.

In another demonstration, Ngwanakopi Ramushu shows how blind people can apply for a job online.

As she types, "screen-reader" technology confirms each keystroke as she logs into the portal. As she moves her mouse, the voice reads out the icons and menus she is passing over.

She clicks on a job-search icon and the voice reads out the option : a call-centre vacancy, perhaps the perfect job for a blind person with good listening skills.

She types her details in the application form, a voice reassuring her she has hit the right keys, and submits her application.

Ramushu, the chairwoman of South African Blind Women in Action, does not need a job. But because only 1% of people with disabilities in SA are economically independent, a major goal for the council's technicians is to help them find work and become more self-sufficient.

The prototype technologies being demonstrated will begin real-world trials next year in partnership with organisations representing the blind, the deaf and people with physical disabilities .

The first trials will be held in Limpopo to prove technology can be used in rural areas . Where there is no electricity or telephones, the council will set up wireless connectivity.

The portal also features chat forums so that people with disabilities can share experiences and ideas, or make new friends to end their isolation.

Large amounts of information are being made available online so that interested parties can find out about the benefits and services that are available.

Employers will be able to find out how to adapt the workplace to cater for those staff members who have physical disabilities, while the educational material includes lessons in sign language.

"The whole idea is to use the power of the internet to integrate all areas of disability and bring people closer to each other, and provide them with access to a lot of services," says Louis Coetzee, the project's systems architect.

One challenge is devising workable ways to use a computer for people with different disabilities. While Martin Pistorius uses his thumb to mimic a mouse click, handless people can use a "dwell mode" on a headset device, and linger over the desired menu item to activate it.

The need to develop affordable alternatives has seen the council use a lot of open-source software, which is free to use and can be adapted from basic versions by software programmers.

"There are a number of benefits in using open source because we can change it to suit our specific needs, develop our own applications, and add our voices for text-to-speech conversions," says Coetzee.

Technology that still needs more work is converting text to sign language so that broadcasts or information are automatically translated for deaf users.

For Coetzee, the most rewarding aspect is to interact with people who have never been able to communicate, and help them to express their needs and wishes.

The work involves site visits to see what information or services people want to access and what physical limitations must be overcome. So far, the team has not come across anyone with a disability too severe to be catered for, says project leader Hina Patel.

Maluta Mulibana, a co-ordinator from the South African National Council for the Blind, says 12% of SA's population is moderately to severely disabled. Many are isolated, poorly educated, unemployed and financially dependent on other people.

SA is not technically equipped to respond effectively to that massive challenge, he says .

That will be alleviated through the innovative communications and data-sharing system using the power of the internet, he says .

But money could prove a stumbling block . The project has been split into a technology development and a sustainability component, each needing about R15m over the five-year lifespan. So far, it has received R1,5m from Eskom's Development Foundation to fund the initial pilot phase.

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