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Deaf-Blind Japanese Gain Access to World Through Computers

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Disability World, Issue No. 24, June-August 2004.

The Deaf-Blind and I.T. (information technology)

The deaf-blind people are those who have disabilities both in sight and hearing at the same time. To be more concrete, we can also say that they are "people with dual disability in sight and hearing". Since we can neither see nor hear, there is difficulty in communicating with others. Even just getting information is a lot of trouble for these people. For one of them, sign language is the only way of communication, while for another conversation is only possible by asking others to spell words slowly on his/her palm. It is estimated that there are about 13,000 deaf-blind people all over the country.

Getting communication and information has been a very serious problem for them. Not being able to communicate means that they cannot make good conversation with others, which increases their stress, besides not being able to get information, which means that they fall behind the times. To put it in an extreme way, it is like they are living in the darkness alone, never knowing the present time or weather.

Fortunately, though gradually, these deaf-blind people have come to receive social supports. A system has been organized to train and send "interpreters for deaf-blind people" to ensure their communication and information, which has enabled more deaf-blind people to participate in society.

In addition, personal computers (PC's) were introduced to the deaf-blind people's world and the number of the deaf-blind who wish to learn PC so that they are not excluded from I.T. society is increasing year by year. Unfortunately, it is not clear how many deaf-blind people are using PC because there is no research on the deaf-blind and their actual use of PC's. However, as lots of deaf-blind people attend the PC courses provided by our day service centre, "Smile", it seems that many of them are challenging themselves to learn to exchange electronic mail every year.

Since PC is very useful for the deaf-blind, it is not too much to say that PC supports them in various aspects. Including myself, a lot of deaf-blind people using PC's now say, "I cannot imagine my life without the PC." Thus, the PC is now indispensable for the life of the deaf-blind. This is natural because the deaf-blind can get lots of different kinds of information through communicating by electronic mails or using the internet. Deaf-blind people are eager to communicate and get information.

When the deaf-blind operate PC's, they first have to enlarge the letters on the screen or to output text in braille. Therefore, they need software to enlarge the screen or braille display to output in braille. Braille display is especially expensive and it is very hard to purchase it as an individual, because many of the deaf-blind are living on pensions.

Fortunately, the government made a new system and started a project in 1999 to provide braille displays for the qualified deaf-blind people. Later in 2001, the "Information Barrier Free Supporting Project" was started and the government provided partial financial assistance for deaf-blind individuals when they purchase necessary software, such as screen readers and other peripheral devices.

However, these projects by the government are not at all sufficient, because braille display is provided only once for each deaf-blind person and when it breaks down (both braille displays and PC's do break down when their time comes, just as living creatures are mortal), the deaf-blind user has to buy it again by himself/herself. Besides, since the "Barrier Free Supporting Project" only supports part of the expenses to buy such specialized technology as screen enlargement software, naturally deaf-blind people have to pay the rest themselves. Therefore even if deaf-blind people purchase PC's at PC shops, they still need to pay some more in order to actually operate it.

However, once we get braille display and screen enlargement software and prepare the environment where we can operate our PC's properly, it is like a Heaven! The benefits are quite a lot from PC's, including wonderful experiences never enjoyed before. They can be immersed in the world of communication as much as they like, and can search for the information they would like to get as much as possible for a whole day without asking others' help. There are even deaf-blind "Internet Couples" who were brought together through the internet.

Supporting Environments for the Deaf-Blind to Learn the PC

Once mastered, the PC is a convenient I.T. device for deaf-blind people. However, the way to master it is very hard. There are several reasons for that as follows:

  1. In the case of PC's with Windows, many images and figures are used which are generally operated by using a mouse.

At present, it is difficult for deaf-blind users who read information on screen by braille output to operate a mouse or to understand images. In addition, recently the mainstream of PC software has expanded to include movies and music, both of which the deaf-blind cannot enjoy without any help by using the present technology. If it keeps on developing this way, deaf-blind people will be left out even more.

One of the causes is the limitation of the Screen Reader's performance. However, the most important cause is the fact that PC makers do not take into consideration the presence of people having problems in accessing information, such as the deaf-blind.

  1. Few PC instructors are prepared to teach the deaf-blind population.

Potentially, there are not enough PC instructors who have good understanding of deaf-blind people. Even though they have knowledge on PC's, they still have to understand the communication needs of the deaf-blind people to support them as instructors.

The people who understand the communication needs of the deaf-blind must be deaf-blind themselves. One cannot imagine how much a deaf-blind had suffered until getting his/her own way of communication, placed in the environment without being able to see or hear ... straining just to live a hard life. The deaf-blind have to overcome a lot of hardships not only to get their own means of communication (such as sign language or braille), but also to learn how to operate a PC. Therefore, we can say that deaf-blind people themselves are most appropriate to play active roles as their instructors.

When we turn our eyes to the situation in other countries, PC training courses for deaf-blind individuals are provided in such countries as the United States (USA) and Sweden. In the USA, at the Helen Keller National Center, there is a professional who himself is deaf-blind but works as Manager of the Technology Department. In Sweden, there is a company called ExKomp, which is like a PC school for the deaf-blind, and 90% of its staff are deaf-blind.

  1. No support centre to provide after services.

Even though deaf-blind Japanese are mastering PC's, when the PC's malfunction, there is not much support under the present conditions. Ordinary users can just bring the PC to the shop where they bought it and have it repaired, but in the case of the deaf-blind, since they use enlarged screen or braille displays, it sometimes happens that the ordinary shops cannot do anything at all. Therefore once their PC breaks down, they cannot exchange electronic mails for a while, which increases their frustration.

Utilization of I.T.--PC enables employment of deaf-blind persons

As cited above, there are three major problems in the process of learning PC for the deaf-blind population. While seeking ways to solve these problems, I would like to realize the following three plans. These are all possible by the deaf-blind themselves, and I hope they will be established as new occupational fields for the deaf-blind population.

Firstly, the development of software. This will be best achieved if the engineer programmers are deaf-blind themselves. However, even if they are not, both deaf-blind individuals and the programmers should work as one team to develop appropriate software.

At Smile, the software development project has already started. The software that Smile developed for the first time is the one that enables use of electronic mails and internet in a very simple operation. This software is called Easypad and has allowed many deaf-blind people to start using electronic mails in the past year.

Secondly, to train deaf-blind PC instructors. The deaf-blind teaching the deaf-blind is sometimes called peer training or peer instruction. In this way, they can encourage, support each other and learn to foster give and take relationships. The teachers also learn from the students and the students get self-confidence and then try to become instructors. It is very meaningful for deaf-blind people to have self-confidence about something, as they can be too passive.

The third thing that I really wish to realize is to establish PC schools for the deaf-blind users. In order for that, we have to have enough deaf-blind instructors, prepare manuals and ensure that there are enough budgets for personnel expenses and others. If this comes true, it means that another new environment where deaf-blind people can work will have been established.

All these could be started, not tomorrow, but at once, if there were more social understanding, especially about the fact that deaf-blind people have the capability to work. We do need the proper working environment and financial assistance to support it. In order to expand social understanding, deaf-blind people themselves should publicize more actively how I.T. utilizing the PC is useful and effective for them.

References

NPO (non-profit organization) "The day service centre of the deaf-blind people, smile"

The facility providing day services, training on daily life activities, PC lessons, recreation and so on, run by the deaf-blind. URL: http://www.geocities.co.jp/WallStreet_Stock/3975/ Email: db.smile_osaka@nifty.com

Helen Keller National Center General rehabilitation centre specialized in the deaf-blind people in the USA. URL: http://www.hknc.org

ExKomp-a group of experts in computers and communications for deaf-blind people in Sweden. It can also provide education to those who have relationship with the deaf-blind people, in accordance with their requests, who need to be educated as well. The advisors focus on supporting equipment, family or relatives, and lots of other people who need to be educated. URL: http://www.exkomp.nu

Mr. Shinichiro Kadokawa, a deaf-blind person, is Executive President of an NPO (Non-profit Organization), called "The day service center of the Deaf-Blind people smile". He reported on "Utilization of I.T. and Employment" from the viewpoint of being deaf and blind, introducing some of the practical cases in Japan. This article has been translated by the Japanese Society for Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities.

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