ICT and disabilities: Seeing in the cyberworld
In line with the Universal Access to Information principle, UNESCO is committed to consistently addressing the challenges brought about by disabilities in China. From early projects on vocational training in massage techniques for visually impaired young people, its initiatives have evolved to embrace digital opportunities.
China's booming economy and the upcoming Olympics can easily overshadow people's awareness of the social costs of this growth. In fact, just below the surface of these great achievements are people whose needs merit greater attention, such as people with disabilities. Even the smallest communities in China have at least one member suffering from a chronic crippling condition, and the sheer size of this population group (82.96 million Chinese, or 6.34% of the nation) could constitute the population of an entire country on its own.
Information and communication technologies (ICT) were the enabler of choice to allow people with disabilities to compete at the high end of the job market. In cooperation with the UNESCO Office in Beijing, the Beijing Disabled Persons' Federation (BDPF) developed and conducted courses on cartoon-design and typesetting training for 71 unemployed physically challenged people. The training helped them to find employment as multimedia graphic cartoon editors, cover and package designers and professional typesetters in the public and private sectors.
ICT were introduced into the very fabric of the learning process for mentally challenged students at the Special Education Center in Daxing District of Beijing. After LAN installation and the conducting of IT literacy courses at the school, experienced psychologists, teachers and schoolchildren created the "Me Online, Me Studying and Me Growing-up" portal. The students became not only confident consumers of online materials, but also assertive providers of distance education materials for disabled people.
The disease often strikes and settles down in places where people have little capacity to fight for their health. In addition to being acutely vulnerable to exclusion, disabled people are disproportionately poor, and poor people are disproportionately disabled. That is why the UNESCO Office in Beijing, together with the China Disabled Persons' Federation (CDPF), extended its activities to remote areas of Inner Mongolia, where families with the lowest income struggle to bring up children with disabilities.
The Vocational and Technical Training Center for Disabled People in Inner Mongolia capital Hohhot extended its training base by establishing a second computer class with 30 workstations equipped with Sunshine software, which provides Internet access to the visually impaired. Upon completion of the course, students mentioned that the skills they acquired removed the barriers to information exchange between them and their peers outside the Center and allowed them to "see" the real world through the computer screen.
It is often impossible for children from poor families to attend special needs schools. Their habitats are scattered in regions far from the provincial center, roads are unpaved and no regular bus services exist. Even though all of them attend regular schools, their disabilities and the attitudes of teachers who often consider their presence in the classroom unjustified significantly hamper their learning process. Given the above barriers to educational opportunities, UNESCO proposed to conduct summer and winter IT camps for those children. The first summer camp at the Disabled Persons' Federation of Zhuozi County, Wulanchabu City, gathered 30 young participants accompanied by their parents.
Support to minority areas will continues in 2008 through cooperation with the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region Disabled Persons' Foundation: as a first step, UNESCO established a computer playroom at the Rehabilitation Center for Deaf Children and distributed hearing aids to families in need.
UNESCO regularly draws attention of decision-makers to its pilot projects and their potential for scale-up. It also participates in the annual China Information Accessibility Forum. At the Fourth Forum, which took place in December 2007 in Chongqing, a representative from Inner Mongolia presented the results of the above projects. It was attended by Abdul Waheed Khan, UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, who noted: "UNESCO works to promote the rights and needs of people with disabilities among professionals, to encourage the development of adaptable policy frameworks and to increase awareness of accessible ICT".
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