My name is Mirko Montecchiani. I study literature at the university of Macerata and it is my twenty-third birthday this very day. I take part into the Equal Project to representing the U.I.C (which is the Unione Italiana Ciechi, or Italian Union for the Blind), in the field of computer accessibility for disadvantaged persons. I am myself a partially-sighted person, blind in one eye, and with below average sight in the other eye.
Presentation of the U.I.C.
The U.I.C.‘s purpose is the integration of blind people into society, studies, and the working sphere, and it fights for the recognition of their legitimate rights by the Italian state. In Italy, this private association is the major representative and defender of the rights of visually impaired persons. Its structure extends over all the national territory and provides a local support network thanks to the fundamental contribution of provincial sections such as Macerata which I here am representing. The provincial sections in their turn form Regional Counsels which together constitute the National Counsel that sits in Rome. The Italian Union of the Blind, recognising research for joint strategies as their principal objective, is a member of the European Blind Union, of the World Blind Union, and in Italy, is a member of the federation of national associations for disabled persons.
To reach its goals, this association has created structures that remedy the lack of adapted public utilities. I will list some examples of its achievement:
- Le Torri Studies and Rehabilitation Centre: a pole in which experience and dialogue are combined in order to improve the quality of life of blind persons.
- The National Centre of Consultation and Legal Documentation on visual handicap.
- The National Centre of the Spoken Book which provides free voice recordings of texts for those who can not read.
- An Agency to promote employment for the blind.
- The Institute of research, formation and rehabilitation.
- The Tiflotechnical National Centre which studies technologies for unsighted persons. It plans, makes and distributes soft-ware and hard-ware which are specially adapted as an everyday aid for the blind in their studies, work, and hobbies.
- The Internet Sites Observatory which attends to the real accessibility of web sites for blind and partially-sighted persons.
U.I.C. role in Equal Project
As part of the Equal Project, the Macerata’s section most important activity is helping those blind persons who are already working to specialize further in order to improve the quality of their work. Actually, thanks to this U.I.C. activity, unemployment among blind persons is nearly nonexistent. Most of these blind persons carry out a simple switchboard job: In the province of Macerata, the U.I.C. trained and placed around 52 switchboard operators and some more trainees are now learning and will commence work soon. However, in the last few years, some specialisations have emerged which blind persons may apply for, thanks to the use of computer. This tool brings to the blind a large number of working opportunities that did not exist in the past. In the Equal Project, the U.I.C. dedicates itself to eradicate the past inherited idea that prescribes the switch-board operator job to the blind as the sole possibility of employment. The Macerata section is planning to organize computer courses centred on giving blind persons the opportunity to learn the use of the computer and its auxiliary hardware and software, thus opening up new perspectives: the computer as a studying tool: to read soft-ware material, or to scan books and transform them into soft-ware with OCR systems of recognition. the computer as a working tool: for example: accountancy, teaching and programming. The blind can understand the computer thanks to a program that reads the files and transforms the data into spoken words through a program of vocal synthesis, or in Braille through a special hardware device. Usually, the U.I.C. chooses its teachers for the computer courses among blind persons first because they know better than anyone how the specific components for blind persons’ accessibility work and secondly because they understand their pupils’ professional and personal requirements better. Obviously, this speech technology developed for the blind is useful for many other kinds of disability.
My role in Euqal Project
My part in this project is that of consultant on computer training whereby the disabled will be trained to use the computer and to reach documentation about the working sphere. Here are the general features of computer accessibility for disadvantaged persons: the computer resources, soft-ware and hard-ware, must appear in a concise, simple and clear way. The Internet documents and sites must respect the W3C (world wide web consortium) accessibility standards. Hot keys, contrasted colours, sound systems, and easily legible characters must be formulated. The following must be available:
- mouse and facilitated keyboard,
- scanner, voice recognition program, O.C.R program to read texts,
- magnifier of screen,
- screen reader and vocal synthesizer.
Proposed to collaborate
I wish to open a dialogue with anybody, among our partners, who is assigned to computer accessibility to closely confront the problems and suggest strategies and criteria to adopt, in order to improve computer teaching and disadvantaged persons’ accessibility to computers. I invite my collaborators to exchange e-mails with me so that we can begin our dialogue as soon as possible.