January 2008

Empowering Disabled Communities In Asia

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In a perfect world, all children would be born alike, each with fully-functional physical faculties and equal ability as students, to learn, live and apply those skills and knowledge for life. But unfortunately, many of our children either are born physically handicapped, or develop a certain disability in their growing years, rendering them disadvantaged, in the learning process and all throughout their lives.  The World Health Organisation estimates that ten percent of the world's population has a disability, making them the world's largest minority. Within this group, eighty percent of the disabled population will remain unemployed and unable to support themselves.

Technology literacy and disability
But every child with a disability can, and should, be given an equal opportunity to attain a good education. While in the past, children with disabilities inevitably fall behind their peers for lack of a good education, things have changed today.

Technology has long leveled the playing field for smaller businesses, and given competitive advantage to others.  And today, technology can help individuals to overcome their physical disabilities and unlock the possibilities in education, once denied to the disabled communities. Technology can help students with disabilities to achieve their fullest potential by enhancing their ability to participate in the same educational experience.

Microsoft, educational technology and disability
As a corporate citizen, Microsoft believes that there is no reason that anyone, regardless of their physical, mental or environmental disabilities, should be left out of Asia's technology education revolution. With this vision, the company strives to build technology for everyone, including those who experience physical difficulties or disabilities; and for the past twenty years, Microsoft has focused on making computers easier to use for people with disabilities.

The popular Microsoft Windows Vista operating system for example, has a comprehensive range of built-in accessibility settings and programs that make it easier for computer users to see, hear, and use their computers. They are particularly helpful to those with visual difficulties, hearing loss, pain in their hands or arms, or reasoning and cognitive issues. All this is a result of more than three years of research to better understand the needs of people who experience a wide range of physical challenges that can impact their computer use.

In the same way, the 2007 Microsoft Office system is made accessible to those with physical disabilities, enabling them to do everything that others are capable of in a computing environment. Microsoft also works closely with members of its Microsoft Assistive Technology Vendor Program (MATvp) to forge a strong ecosystem providing support to the disabled communities. These companies develop assistive technology products that offer innovative technology solutions to help individuals with difficulties and impairments successfully use computers.

The Microsoft website is also filled with articles and resources including visual guides and tutorials to coach students with learning disability on how to better manage their physical handicaps and overcome their various challenges in learning.

Technology literacy in Asia
As the regional economy continues to swell, increasing the need for a literate workforce, the impact that the disabled community can have on the region's workforce and economy is clear. It is also apparent that technology literacy is essential to helping disabled individuals realise their full potential, and consequently contribute to the growth of a strong economy. Microsoft believes that technology in education can be a powerful catalyst to promote learning; and that education changes lives, families, communities and ultimately nations. Because of this, technology literacy should be a key priority to governments, educators and socially-responsible businesses throughout the region.

In addition to directly helping the disabled cope with their physical limitations, Microsoft believes that by training teachers to share technology with their students, a greater number of disabled individuals can be part of the technology revolution and ultimately have greater access and impact on our societies through increased communication alternatives and employment potential.

Partnerships in addressing the needs
The challenge of addressing the issues faced by the disabled in education is a massive one, and is not the job of any one individual or company. Microsoft works closely with partners to develop the right technology for those with disabilities. To that end, the Microsoft ecosystem aims to connect a global community that shares a common interest in using technology to enhance and extend learning. These partnerships are also invaluable in connecting Microsoft to the communities that would     otherwise be left out of traditional education programs.

Role of technology leaders
The Partners in Learning Grants Program (PiL) is one example of a successful partnership that provides government and education leaders with the local resources to deliver information and communication technology (ICT) skills training and curriculum leadership to primary and secondary teachers, school leaders, and students within their countries.

Launched in the Asia Pacific in 2003, the programme was designed to enable partners to integrate technology into daily teaching, learning and research. To date, PiL has trained 225,000 teachers and 2.8 million students across the region. Globally, the program will deliver IT literacy and skills development to more than 5 million teachers and 100 million students over the next 5 years.

In Singapore, Microsoft is working with the Centre for the Physically Disabled providing software as well as training opportunities to support those with physical disabilities gain technology skills that help them get employment so that they can live independently and support their families.

CARE-ing for the disabled
Just three months ago, in September 2007, as part of PiL, Microsoft and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) unveiled Asia's first Information Communications Technology (ICT) curriculum. Abbreviated CARE (CARE stands for Curriculum for Accessibility REach); the programme was first developed by the University of Tokyo for teachers of students with special needs. CARE provides the framework to make classrooms accessible and engage students with physical or mental disabilities by allowing those who are unable to write and others, who are unable to see, an opportunity to access technology and engage with the wider community.

Currently being trialled in Australia, the CARE curriculum encourages educators to experience how the technology is seen and felt by those with a disability. This is done by simulating the experiences of physically disabled persons as they use a mouse and perform tasks such as starting up and shutting down a computer without the use of their arms.  CARE is now being trialled in more than 10 countries and we have just completed training for about 30+ master trainers from more than 12 countries.  We do need to provide a link or something for people to contact MS regarding CARE and documentation for localisation through the local PIL managers.  Do we also need to highlight some examples of what is provided in the curriculum?

Disability has been, and will always be, a problem that Man faces, and the medical profession is charged with the crucial task of dealing with the complexities of treating, managing and learning to live with a handicap. But Technology will continue to play a crucial role in enabling those with disabilities to overcome the challenges they face, and acquire the necessary skills and knowledge through education to live independently.

Today, with unprecedented explosion of knowledge and economic growth driven by information and communication technology, educated and technology literate individuals with a physical disabilities, can be attain independence in learning and working. And today, we have an awesome opportunity and responsibility to help students with disabilities to overcome the odds they face in learning, and achieve their fullest potential. 

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