Wednesday Oct 08, 2008

Afghanistan's Disability Crisis - video on nytimes.com, thoughts on my blog...

One of the key reasons for pursing open source access solutions is to address the affordability problems many face with commercial/proprietary solutions. Another is to facilitate localization and whatever other modifications may be needed to make the access solution work best for a particular user or region. A recent video article "Afghanistan's Disability Crisis" on the New York Times website brought this into sharp focus.

While the accessibility challenges facing people with disabilities in Afghanistan are far greater than simply gaining access to technology - lack of funding for rehabilitation, lack of physical infrastructure accessibility, profound cultural problems attaching individual blame ("God's punishment") - at the heart of many of these issues is a lack of money and local expertise. While we can't eliminate the cost of creating wheelchair ramps, open source technology access solutions can eliminate the cost barriers preventing the use of screen readers and screen magnifiers and on-screen keyboards and other accessibility technologies. And while there is little profit motive for localizing most commercial software (and especially commercial assistive technologies) to the Farsi and Pashto languages, there is already an active Farsi translation team that has made great progress translating the open source GNOME desktop to Farsi (including translating the GNOME On-screen Keyboard), and likewise an active Pashto localization team that has gotten started more recently with GNOME.

Another key area is getting text-to-speech in the languages spoken in Afghanistan (important for screen readers and augmentative communication devices). One likely choice for this is the open source eSpeak text-to-speech engine, which has been localized to quite a few languages. While neither Pashto nor Farsi are among those, I daresay for the cost of a few copies of an American or European screen reader, you could work with someone like Mohammad Khalid Ameery (coordinator of the Pashto localization effort) or Amir Hedayaty (coordinator of the Farsi localization effort) and develop Pashto and Farsi voices for eSpeak. These could then be used with a localized GNOME desktop for any blind person in Afghanistan.

So, while we cannot quickly or cheaply make all buildings wheelchair accessible in Afghanistan, it wouldn't take much to start opening the Internet to people with disabilities in Afghanistan.

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Peter Korn

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