Sweden is considered to be one of the world’s leading IT-nations. The Swedes’ intense use of the Internet and the high density of computers among the populace speak in its favour. Nevertheless, there are groups whose computer and Internet access is well beneath the national average. Among these are persons with disabilities and the elderly. To many of them, the purchase of a computer is seen as a costly expenditure and they lack the basic necessary skills.
IT carries different implications for people with disabilities or impairments as opposed to those of other groups of people. It is not merely a matter of performing tasks in an efficient manner. It is about performing tasks that are taken for granted by others – such as reading, writing, communicating, independent decision making, studying, working. In short, technology can realise dreams of independence. IT can contribute towards breaching pockets of isolation in society and increasing social contacts.
IT-café for persons with disabilities
Gotland is an island that lies to the south east off the Swedish mainland and has a population of 57,000. In order to reduce the ‘digital gap’ between people with disabilities and impairments and other people on the island, the library branch in Hemse, Gotland realised the notion of an ITcafé on its premises for persons with disabilities. The IT-café is a co-operative endeavour shared among various organisations representing persons with disabilities, the social services and Arbetarnas Bildingsförbund. (Workers’ education society).
The main target groups are people with disabilities, but also the elderly and persons unfamiliar with computers who wish to acquire the necessary skills. Visitors will gain
- increased competence in using a computer
- increased access to civic information
- improved public services
- increased participation and equality.
The IT-café is equipped with a number of aids and programmes aimed at facilitating the use of computers for all including persons with disabilities. To mention a few, there are items equipped with speech technology – speech to text and text to speech, talking keyboards, large print software programmes, alternative keyboards with builtin enhancements, mouse trappers, wrist supports, vertically adjustable desks. There are also concept flexiboards with various covers for people who communicate through the aid of images.
Study circle associations
Study circle associations constitute an important aspect of the public sector. During 2001 and 2002 there were approximately 60 active study circles associations involving more than 300 participants. Those participating were given basic computer tuition facilitating word processing and accessing the Internet.What differentiates study circle associations from regular computer instruction courses is that the pace of teaching is unhurried, the groups are smaller in size and computer-based technical aids are provided. If a person has a disability or has reached the age of eighty or more, it usually takes a longer period of time to absorb new technological knowledge.
The participating groups have been made up of people who are visually impaired, deaf people and those hard of hearing, persons with mental disabilities, physically impaired, developmental disabilities etc. Our most senior participants are 88 years of age.
Open to all
The IT-café is open to all on weekdays 15.00 – 17.00 and Saturdays between 10.00 – 14.00. Visitors are given the opportunity to try out computers by themselves, but if needed there are instructors willing to lend support.
Activities at the IT-café create a spirit of community. Together you learn something completely new. During coffee breaks, newly gained knowledge and information is shared among the participants. IT is no longer the exclusive property of the younger generation or those in the clerical professions. IT is public property. It is there for everyone.
The Internet has enormous potential for the visually impaired who experience difficulties reading texts.With the aid of computer-based assistive devices, information becomes available to a greater extent than previously. For this to be realised the texts on web sites need to be constructed in such a way as to facilitate easier access. There needs to be a systematic approach in the construction, enabling features such as speech technology to interpret a text on a computer screen, and screen contrasts need to be distinct to enable the visually impaired to read texts etc.
The Swedish Handicap Institute (HI) issue guidelines on how to produce accessible web pages. The HI also arranges teaching courses for web editors and information specialists on how to create web pages for everyone, regardless of disabilities. Such an instructional course took place in the autumn of 2001 on Gotland in co-operation with the library in Hemse. This was part of a process presenting Gotlandish information on the Internet to the general public.
Everyone’s right to vote
A special project entitled Everyone’s right to vote was implemented during 2002 within the framework of the ITcafé initiative. The project received financial backing from the Department of Justice who has subsidised several developmental projects aimed at strengthening Sweden’s democratic processes. The project’s aim has, among other things, been to increase dialogue between people with disabilities and politicians as well as improving access to the polling stations. An important feature has been using the Internet to search for political information and for e-mailing politicians.
Plans for 2003
A number of activities are planned for 2003 involving the use of computers as a tool for artistic creativity, a joint action in close co-operation with the Gotland Art School, a consumer project in collaboration with the municipality’s consumer guidance department. There will also be summer courses for people with disabilities from other parts of Sweden.
Translated by Jonathan Pearman Children and adults in handicapIT café at a children’s culture event, photographed by MAGNESIUM