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How normal it is to talk about "snail-mail" to refer to the post delived by the postman! How normal it is for us to visit the Louvre Museum from our personal computer! How normal it is to write an article for IFLA in Barcelona, send a copy to Wales in the UK and have it here today in Amsterdam and it has never travelled in its printed form!
The normality of our behaviour vis-à-vis NITs makes us forget that people with disadvantages, who live and work in our midst, lack the possibility to react the same way we do. If within the context of pilot projects, some disadvantaged people have been able to come into contact with and use NITs (computer facilities in special centres, sophisticated mobile equipment, and so on), the fact remains that most of them are marginalised from NIT employment in general.
It is within the context of "standard" NITs that we will try to examine how theTechnological Society sees our attempt to "over-marginalise" people with disabilities at the dawn of the 21st century.
Before broaching this issue, it is worth mentioning once again the global context surrounding NITs.
Not to be too specific, but by way of illustration, we all know that there are barriers which have ceased to exist thanks to the telephone and fax. The world soon heard of a serious incident in a Latin American country and the international electronic demands made to certain governments prevented some political prisoners from being locked up for years.
Fortunately, there are only a few countries left which do not abide by this Right to Communication, but what has become of this Right as far as people with disabilities are concerned?
Undoubtedly, communication is devoid of form thanks to the NITs, but how does physical access resemble this world devoid of form? And how do people with disabilities gain access to it?
Even though both of them may be small and portable, a keyboard, a screen and connections need to be used to have access to NITs.
From the point of view of the disabled, we may observe that access is carried out through their hands and their sight. What exists today that will allow us to do away with these non truly functional interfaces from the standpoint of people with disabilities?
It is obvious that this contribution I am presenting here does not pretend to be an exhaustive list of existing standard NITs for disabled people, but rather a tool for reflection which will allow us to find a way to stop technology from creating or extending their exclusions.
Disabled people must find themselves welcome in all public places and their access must be facilitated -- before I facilitate their access to an NIT tool, have I thought of providing the adequate access to my library? The access to NITs by people with disabilities must be provided in the same place and using the same tools as the public in general -- there is no need to accommodate them in special rooms where once again they will feel discriminated against.
The costs of facilities, training and development of NITs are important for public institutions which have the obligation to help their fellow citizens use them. Must societies for the disabled make extraordinary efforts to help out public authorities in those instances where it might be possible to set up standard NITs?
The examples provided in the following sections do not intend to promote any particular commercial business, society or NGO. They are merely illustrations of what can be achieved without prior impediments or national boundaries. There will certainly be many other ventures that will be left out, but perhaps we should start thinking of the possibility of collecting one day all information relating to standard NITs for the disabled in one Web page.
All solutions provided are based on simple and relatively economical systems and easy to install in computers generally used in public institutions by both people with and without disabilities.
Touch screens (1) which facilitate the full use of the computer without the need to press the keyboard. This is a tool facilitating the operation of the computer with the help of some simple accessories mentioned below.
Simplified 9-key keypads similuating mouse movements that may coexist with the traditional computer (2).
Braille keyboard which complement the traditional keyboard (3).
Voice synthesisers are becoming increasingly perfect and more humanlike. A few dollars are sufficient to buy high quality products and it is hoped that in a few weeks time our Big Brother (4) will bring out a new version with a voice interface in his new Windows98.
BrailleNet makes it possible for people who are unfortunate not to see the Internet "see" it. Aimed mainly at schools, BrailleNet stands out for its ergonomic features and its easy adaptation to standard computers. The best way to see what BrailleNet does is to navigate through its Web pages, but this tool above all allows for the standardisation of access by the blind and also establish links with other similar projects. When will there exist BrailleNet in every library? When will BrailleNet become an integral component of implementation plans of Internet in schools?
Other institutions in different countries have developed almost identical solutions but it is their incorporation into public institutions that needs to be fostered. BrailleNet can cohabit in perfect harmony with any public access system to NITs. We must not forget this when setting up the access system to NITs in our public institution.
The philosophy developed by Handicap International (6), an NGO, may be used as guide by public institutions intending to follow the same practice.
Have you noticed how simplicity is the main resource for the seriously disabled who click by means of a stick attached to their forehead or chin or others who use the mouse by blowing through a plastic tube? Most of these adaptations are not the result of the work carried out by computer multinational firms but by small groups of friends, students or people with special manual skills.
If we think in terms of integrating people with disabilities into our public libraries, if we work in collaboration with local associations and if we incorporate groups of volunteers into our institution's research on ergnomics, we will find simple and economical solutions which will increase our public services' resources.
Think different! Just do it!
Thanks to integrated chip card technology, SmartCard, these companies (7) have developed innovative tools which reduce connection and navigation through the Internet to the mere introduction of an integrated chip card in a special reader. They also include the most heavily used Internet service, electronic mail. In this way a good number of people with disabilities will be able to use NITs in a simple manner without the need to manipulate the program or the risk of changing the program's configuration.
There exists a risk of teleworking fostering the formation of ghettoes but I cannot but applaud when hearing about the employment of a technician in infographics bedridden for the past 18 years!
It is easier to accommodate our NIT area to fit the needs of people with disabilities than to knock down the walls of the library!
Thanks to the Internet and an article in Le Monde newspaper my husband and I have been able to exchange e-mail messages with Patrick (9) who since he was nine-month old has been disabled and since April 1979 has been hospitalised. He sends us messages from his bed mentioning always that his computer equipment allows him to spend less time thinking about his disability and more opening himself to the world. In a different context, what have we to say to the presence of blind people in one of the Cyber-Cafés in Paris during the "Fête de l'Internet" (10) on March 10th this year?
To demand is a person's duty and right. Thanks Internet for favouring this function!
So far we have talked about guidelines, but to help us pin down this concept I present to you a very easy and simple action carried out in the town where I live.
According to the local authorities and the associations of people with disabilities, an agreement is to be signed between a private firm and those institutions so that people in wheelchairs train library users in NITs. This is a symbolic action in which the person who has the knowledge is the one with a disability -- a simple action repeatable anywhere in the world.