These persons with disabilities (PWDs) tap into digital technologies to make the world more accessible for them.
A conversation with Joseph Chua De Bao used to involve writing on notepads. Born deaf, and unable to adjust to hearing aids or lip-read accurately, Joseph’s only way of communicating with others was in writing — that was until he got his first smartphone, an Apple iPhone in 2007.
“The challenges of communicating with people via pen and paper are lack of patience and time,” writes the freelance software developer in an e-mail interview. “When I noticed the Notes app, it jolted my ideas because it was paperless so I used this technology to communicate with people.”
However, over time, Joseph found it a hassle to manually erase what he typed. Determined to find a better solution, he taught himself mobile application development by reading books and online resources. When he discovered that the iPhone could recognise the shaking motion and convert speech to text, Joseph incorporated both functions into ShakeNotes, his first ever app to help the deaf communicate with others. Users could now converse by typing or getting users to speak into their phones, and a shake was all it took to conveniently erase the words.
Feedback from friends on the app, first released in 2015, led him to develop other solutions for the deaf. A plus version of ShakeNotes lets users to save their notes, while MirrorNotes and ChatNotes build upon his original app to offer the additional feature of mirroring what a user types so people standing across can read the message live. His latest app is PeerNotes enables up to 7 users in a meeting to receive a speech converted to text and even save it in soft copy for others to read later.
Besides solving problems he faces as a deaf person, Joseph says his interest in software development is what led him to create these iOS apps that have been downloaded by hundreds of users worldwide. “Without passion, I don’t think I would be motivated to master software development,” writes the 34-year-old. “I have passion in developing software apps so I am interested to learn and explore something new on my own.”
Such perseverance is also what enabled Joseph to progress from a Higher NITEC certificate in Electronics Engineering at the Institute of Technical Education to obtaining a diploma in information technology from Ngee Ann Polytechnic. In 2010, he even got a computer science degree from Nanyang Technological University’s computer science programme.
Compared to the past, Joseph says there are much more technologies available to aid PWDs. He looks forward to having close captioning in public spaces so he can understand what is going on around him, and even a national relay service like in Australia that helps the deaf make confidential calls to communicate with others.
“The problem lies with accessibility, not disability.”
INFORMING AN ACCESSIBLE CITY
Watching a movie at a “wheelchair-friendly“ cinema turned out to be a headache for Rajaraman Kanagasabai. “It was at the first row! I went there and found out the hard way,” recalls the wheelchair user.
Fellow wheelchair user Tony Zhu has also faced similar problems when he attends meetings in Shenton Way. “Many of the buildings don’t have wheelchair accessible washrooms. Some of them have only 1 or 2. Some are locked up,” says the IT consultant. “Usually, you will face some difficulties.”
Such experiences motivated Rajamaran and Tony to join Jang Leong Chia’s pitch to create the AllGoEasy app at a hackathon organised by the then Ministry of Social and Family Development, SG Enable and UP Singapore in 2014. Together with Clara Loh, Ivan Yong and Manya Krishnaswamy, the team won the seed fund of $20,000 to create this free digital resource for users to access, contribute and request information on the accessibility of places in Singapore.
“The whole idea is to provide information upfront so users can at least get a better idea of a place’s accessibility,” says Rajaraman, who works as a research scientist at A*Star. While the Building and Construction Authority has an online portal detailing the accessibility of buildings in Singapore, there are no details on whether the offices, shops and restaurants within are or not. So a wheelchair user may get to an accessible shopping mall only to realise the aisle of a particular shop is too narrow for them to enter. “Many people think that a place is accessible, but in reality, it’s not.”
This mismatch is something Leong Chia witnessed when the team visited Sentosa to gather information for their app. While the resort had a shuttle service with a hydraulic lift for wheelchair users, the vehicle ceiling was too low for some. “We’re not saying a place must have all the facilities (for PWDs), but we need information and images to tell ourselves so we can manage expectations,” says Leong Chia who is a senior project engineer at an engineering consultancy.
Moreover, disabilities differ from one person to another, adds Tony. Even though their app currently caters only to wheelchair users, the community is not uniform. For example, those in a motorised wheelchair may find it easier to go up a slope than those who manually wheel themselves. “A person can manage some of the difficulties, but another person may not be able to do the same,” he says.
This is why details on places matter. Having spent their seed fund developing the Android app, the team now works on populating it with content in their own time. They also train volunteers — PWDs and the able-bodied — hoping that more can contribute to this public database. In response to the many tourists who have written in to AllGoEasy for advice on getting around Singapore, the team recently launched a blog and forum to make such information more readily available online too.
If they can get more resources and funding, AllGoEasy hopes to include information not just on places but accessible ways of getting to them too. The team also wants to provide accessibility information to other PWDs and even the elderly and families with prams. This is crucial in enriching the lives of these communities, and ultimately, creating a more inclusive society, says Leong Chia.
“If they feel that it’s easy to go out, then they will go out and explore,” she says. “Society will benefit from increased commercial activities and interaction with PWDs, so there will be greater engagement and understanding.”