International estimates state that at least one billion people live with disabilities across the world. Out of this number, millions are Arabic language speakers. In fact, Arabic is recognised as the fifth most spoken language in the world. Despite the large number of people with disabilities who speak Arabic, all of whom are potential users of Assistive Technology (AT), the number of tools in the Arabic language until recently has been limited.
When Mada (Qatar Assistive Technology Center) opened its doors in June 2010, the small team of AT experts working on the project with ictQatar recognised the absence of these tools in the Arabic language as a big problem. CEO of Mada, David Banes, said:
‘Immediately, we realised that we need to provide tools in the Arabic language, particularly when it came to supporting the needs of those with learning disabilities.’
For people with learning difficulties, assistive technology plays an important role in supporting their skills in the areas of reading, writing and arithmetic. More recently, the widespread use of tablet computers such as the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy has increased the number of applications available to support the learning needs of people with disabilities. Unfortunately, most of them are only available in the English language.
Deputy CEO of Mada and formerly an educator with the independent school sector in Qatar, Maha Al Mansouri, said:
At Mada, we didn’t surrender to the reality that the overwhelming majority of assistive technology tools are available in the English language. We took it upon ourselves to actively change the landscape of assistive technology, so we can serve the needs of Arabic language speaking people with disabilities,’
For the last three years, the Mada Research and Development team has worked closely with AT developers and manufacturers from around the world to develop Assistive Technologies in the Arabic language. Mada approached companies that were already established producers and developers, all of whom were providing leading products in the field of Assistive Technology. However, the specialised nature of these firms means that they are relatively much smaller than other high tech giants such as Apple or Google. Al Mansouri added:
The small size of the resources available to these firms made it difficult for them to venture in the Arabic speaking world in the past. Many of them were unfamiliar with the language and did not have a good sense of the readiness of people with disabilities to use these technologies. We knew that we needed to be active partners with them in order to produce versions in the Arabic language.’
After identifying the most imminent technology needs of the Arabic speaking community, and assessing where gaps in the availability of such technology exist, Mada reached out to the AT industry and offered both financial and logistical support to these firms to create Arabic language versions of much needed software and other tools.
In less than three years, Mada has been able to develop over 20 Arabic language tools, some of which are localised versions, while others are being introduced to the global market at the same time. One of the most successful was the work Mada carried out with the British technology firm Crick Software to release an Arabic version of Clicker 5, an easy to use tool used by special educational needs teachers around the world. The programme enables teachers and parents to create multimedia grids that would help children with learning difficulties to read and write.
As part of the localisation process, Mada has provided the software free of charge to any independent school in the country taking advantage of a free training course that is being offered by Mada, to ensure the correct implementation of the tool in classrooms across the country. To this date, more than 340 teachers have received training on the fundamentals of the programme.
Head of Training at Mada, Ohood Al Sheeb, said:
By ensuring that special education teachers receive the training that they need, we are taking a step towards building much needed local capacity in Qatar around the use of assistive technology in the classroom as well as other settings.’
Al Sheeb added:
Through our year‑long training programme, hundreds of teachers are now able to leverage on continuous support from our team of Assistive Technology experts on everything from installation to the creation of customised Arabic language grids,’
Training and support also form the cornerstone of the introduction of other Arabic language tools to the disabled community in Qatar. Another important software developed in Arabic has been the Grid 2, a simplified operating system that enables people with physical disabilities to send and receive email, browse the web or edit text without the use of a keyboard or mouse.
Mada has also introduced products that are being made available for the first time. One such tool is the Mada Reader and Writer, an easy to use screen reader and word prediction software that is being made available for free to teachers and therapists throughout the country. Another first time innovation to come out of collaborations developed by the Mada research team has been the AT Bar, a web based tool that allows users to change font size and colour contrast as well as activate text to speech on any website found on the internet.
Other Arabic language tools that have been developed by Mada to facilitate easier access to digital content for people with disabilities include Claro Read, a web based customisation tool, the FXC Software Series, which allow users to set different browsing settings, and EZ Converter, used by people with visual impairments to convert text into alternative formats, such as sound or Braille.
Although the small Mada research team has achieved considerable success in facilitating the development of much needed Arabic language tools, the Doha‑based centre has much bigger ambitions.
Aejaz Zahid, who heads the Research efforts at Mada, said:
We want to become active participants in the improvement of critical technologies such as Optical Character Recognition and Text to Speech, so they can better serve the needs of Arabic language communities around the world, particularly those with disabilities…We have established the Qatar AT Research Forum which brings together academics and scientists alongside people working day in and day out with people with disabilities to start identifying concrete steps that can be taken towards carrying out substantial research efforts in the area of access technologies.’
Since the Forum was set up almost two years ago, Mada has established robust working relationships with the Qatar National Research Fund as well as the Qatar Computer Research Institute to design and execute large scaled research projects. In the near future, the results of these relationships will bring benefit to Arabic speaking people with disabilities wherever they may live.
For people with disabilities, reaping the benefits of the digital world depends on having access to assistive technology as well as accessible digital content. For Arabic speaking people with disabilities, neither of these components is widely available in their own language. Through the work that Mada is doing, however, important partnerships are being built to fill this large gap.
Through greater awareness about the important role that Assistive Technology can play in the creation of accessible classrooms and workplaces, the work carried out by Mada in the area of research and development can hopefully trigger a wider movement that will truly see the rise of Arabic AT.
Recently, an app that supports the needs of people with communication difficulties was released in Saudi Arabia. Sawti, the Arabic word for ‘my voice’, offers parents and therapists the ability to create customised communication grids that can be used to offer an alternative means of communication.
The foundation laid down has created a new expectation amongst Arabic speaking persons with disabilities. This significant market segment is now beginning to see that their disability and cultural needs are being considered in the planning and delivery of Assistive Technologies in the Arabic language.
Looking ahead, Mada will be working on a project to develop an Arabic language symbol set in conjunction with the Qatar National Research Fund and the University of Southampton. The success of this project will offer a tremendous boost to parents and teachers who want to use symbols that are both culturally and linguistically relevant. In addition to that, Mada continues to work closely with the academic community in Qatar by offering internships to students. In the past, students have been able to work on a variety of projects including voice activated environmental controls and others.
Marhaba Information Guide thanks Mada Qatar Assistance Technology Center for their assistance in writing this feature. Mada is a non‑profit organisation dedicated to connecting people with disabilities to the world of information and communication technology. Mada was established by the Supreme Council for Information and Communication Technology (ictQatar) in June 2010 as a public private partnership with Ooredoo, Vodafone Qatar, Qatar National Bank, and Microsoft.
Author: Sarah Palmer
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