South Africa’s portal for the disabled

31 October 2008

It’s not just physical spaces that pose obstacles to people with disabilities. Virtual spaces can be just as inaccessible.

According to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), there are approximately 4-million people with disabilities in South Africa.

And while access to information, services and the ability to communicate effectively is a key need, existing devices and software that allow disabled people to interact via computers “are prohibitively expensive and have not been designed with the South African context in mind”.

The National Accessibility Portal (NAP), an initiative led by the CSIR’s Meraka Institute, is working to change this, using assistive technology to enable people with disabilities to access and share information online in an affordable way.

The NAP initiative was conceptualised and developed by the Meraka Institute in partnership with a representative group of disabled persons’ organisations and the Office on the Status of Disabled Persons in the Presidency.

The Meraka Institute released the latest version of the National Accessibility Portal, NAP 3.0.0, in October 2008. NAP 3.0.0 contains a number of new features and additional functionality, most notably the inclusion of South African Sign Language (SASL) on the interface, which aids the navigation process for deaf people.

It also provides information through other modalities, specifically an SMS-based query facility via the mobile phone, as well as an interactive voice response (IVR) system via the telephone.

Registration on the portal is free of charge, and content can be contributed by any registered user.

According to the Meraka Institute’s Louis Coetzee, the NAP system architect, the portal aims to empower people with disabilities, and the communities around them, by providing information and creating a collaborative environment where people can share information.

The portal, first launched in 2006, “also provides guidance on creating communities to break the barriers typically encountered by persons with disabilities and other role players in the disability space in South Africa,” Coetzee said in statement last week.

Catering for a range of disabilities

NAP is unique in the sense that it caters for people across the entire spectrum of disability.

“Some local websites do include accessibility features for disabled persons, but these are mostly aimed at people who are visually impaired,” Coetzee said.

“A range of assistive technologies are required to enable people with different disabilities to access information, and this is where NAP 3.0.0 comes into its own, specifically with the inclusion of South African Sign Language on the interface.”

According to Coetzee, while deaf people in developed countries are mostly literate, deaf people in developing countries such as South Africa often struggle with literacy in terms of the written language.

“This makes it difficult for them to access information and navigate their way through a website. NAP 3.0.0 includes Sign Language snippets or blurbs that indicate where you are on the site and what a specific section is about. This enables deaf people to navigate their way to the information they want to access in a far more efficient and less time-consuming way.”

To avoid bandwidth problems, a significant amount of research went into the optimisation of the downloading process and the information being conveyed in the portal’s Sign Language videos.

Phoning the portal, texting the portal

NAP 3.0.0 also features the addition of an interactive voice response (IVR) system that enables people to access the portal by telephone. “As the majority of disabled people probably do not have access to the internet, the telephone is still the most popular communication medium in South Africa, and can be accessed relatively easily,” Coetzee said.

“With the new system, people can dial into the portal and navigate through the structure to access the required information, which is then retrieved and voiced out to the user.”

The third major functionality added to the portal is an SMS-based query facility via the mobile phone. When the system receives an SMS query, it finds the relevant information and sends it back to the user, also via SMS. “Most people have a cellphone and know how to send an SMS, so this facility has significantly increased the number of people who can access the portal,” Coetzee said.

NAP 3.0.0 also includes expanded links to employment agencies dealing specifically with job opportunities for disabled people.

For disabled people, by disabled people

According to the Meraka Institute’s Hina Patel, the NAP initiative leader, the involvement of the full range of role players in the disability field was key to the successs of the initiative.

“As an example, the NAP 3.0.0 development team comprised about 25 people, including several persons with disabilities, experts in human language technologies, a business analyst and technical developers,” Patel said.

“Team members who are deaf or hard of hearing, including members from the Thibologa Sign Language Institution, developed the Sign Language feature, while the IVR system was developed by a blind team member.”

The number of registered users and contributors to the portal has shown a steady upward curve. Asked about future NAP developments, Coetzee said lack of bandwidth was one of the main challenges, but added that he was optimistic that funding, including corporate social funding, would be found to ensure the sustainability of the project.

“The next technical development phase will focus on adding functionality to improve peer-to-peer communication, such as mechanisms to enable instant chats and enhanced mailing capabilities.”

SAinfo reporter

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