OSS giving voice to the disabled

Posted by salparadise on May 17, 2006 6:11 AM EDT
Tectonic.co.za; By Richard Frank
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Imagine you cannot speak, or move your hands. Now imagine your only means of communication is through a proprietary voice synthesiser that only speaks in European languages, cannot be localised and costs a fortune. Researchers at the CSIR are currently developing open source technology and a web-based portal that aims to empower and enhance the lives of over four-million people with disabilities in South Africa.

It's one thing relying on proprietary technology to write a document, touch up a photograph, or send an email. But the stakes are much higher when the technology may be your only communication link to the world.

This is the reality for people like Martin Pistorius, a disability consultant who is quadriplegic and cannot speak. He uses a head-mounted pointer to select words on a computer screen using proprietary software imported from the UK.

"Currently 99% of all augmentative and alternative communications (AAC) technologies are imported, which makes them incredibly expensive," Pistorius told Tectonic via email. "Just to give you an idea, the top of the range dedicated AAC device called a Pathfinder costs approximately R90 000 and if it breaks it needs to be shipped back to the US, repaired and shipped back."

Not only is the repair usually costly, but it can take up to a year for the device to be returned. "It could mean that for a year, or however long, someone is left without an effective means to communicate. In other words: without a voice essentially."

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