While the global progression of the World Wide Web has enabled us to publish and retrieve information on an unprecedented scale, little provision has been made for people who are print-disabled and low literate.
At the same time, if the South African government wishes to create an informed and empowered citizenry, as envisaged in the National Development Plan (NDP), it will have to address the challenge of delivering effective, development-oriented services to a population with highly diverse language needs and preferences. Dr Karen Calteaux, leader of the Human Language Technology Research Group (HLTRG) at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), an entity of the Department of Science and Technology, believes that ensuring the accessibility of information to print-disabled and low-literate users can only be achieved through active effort. “Just as specific standards have been put in place to enhance access to most buildings by people with disabilities, so provisions should be put in place to enable access to information.
Websites should therefore also conform to a specific standard which enhances access to information by all end-users,” Dr Calteaux says.“For instance, websites should be usable by all end-users regardless of the interfaces they use. These interfaces may include screen readers for the blind, speech recognition software for the physically disabled, as well as other input and output devices. Applying accessibility standards to website design will not only make the website accessible to people with disabilities, but also to people using mobile devices or slow Internet connections.”
However, when it comes to ensuring equitable access to government services and information, Dr Calteaux believes that information and communications technology (ICT), in particular human language technology (HLT), may offer the only possible solution. “This technology, if used effectively, will enable digitised access to information in multiple languages, as well as a digital presence for African languages, thereby bridging communication barriers and supporting decision-making.” To pilot its HLT-enabled website solutions in a real-world environment, the HLTRG has partnered with Cape Access, a programme of the Western Cape government that provides ICT access to less privileged and rural communities across the province.
To date, Cape Access has established more than 50 ICT centres, or eCentres, that offer people free access to computers and the Internet, as well as training in computer literacy and Internet usage. The partnership with the CSIR grew out of a desire expressed by Cape Access to make information at its eCentres more accessible to visually impaired and low-literate users. The HLTRG has so far piloted its HLT programmes at 12 eCentres in the Western Cape.
Emphasis was placed on users who speak isiXhosa, Afrikaans and English, and who live in less-privileged and rural communities across the province. “So far, 20 blind users and 12 eCentre managers have been trained, and more eCentres want the solution,” said Dr Calteaux. The HLT programme comprises computer applications with various functions, including mobile assisted language learning (MALL), text-to-speech (TTS), automatic speech recognition, and computer synthesised voices in local languages.
The MALL application, which uses TTS software, was used to enhance the acquisition of isiXhosa communication skills by students in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University. TTS software empowers people with limited reading skills by using voices to read from the computer screen. The software includes voices in South Africa’s most marginalised languages in order to provide access to information regardless of people’s language preferences.
Monwabisi Mtyanga of Swellendam has nothing but praise for the TTS software. He is blind, and previously could only use a computer with the help of another person. “With the TTS software I am able to operate a computer without anybody’s help. I can read and type emails all by myself.” Mtyanga (37) is in the process of establishing his own business, and thanks to the HLT programme is able to communicate with potential funders, partners and clients. According to Dr Calteaux, the overall aim of the HLTRG is to make South Africa competitive in HLT while providing citizens with equitable access to the technology. “Although technology is available for purchase to make websites and downloadable information more accessible to end-user communities, these are often costly and not localised to South African needs.”
Another priority is to ensure that TTS voices that can support HLT-enabled service delivery are available in each of South Africa’s 11 official languages. “When the project started, TTS voices were already available in Afrikaans, English, isiXhosa, isiZulu, and Sepedi,” says Dr Calteaux.
“Voices for the remaining languages were developed during the project.”