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    Equal Rights, Equal Access

    Date published: 7 November 2005

    Human resources are an indisputably crucial element in building and developing societies..

    The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) has realized that in order to successfully create its envisioned information society it has to widely invest in human capital, focusing especially on children and youth, who constitute almost 50% of Egyptís total population.

    At the turn of the millennium, MCIT launched a number of initiatives to encourage the Egyptian population, with a special focus on remote and economically impoverished areas, to join their counterparts worldwide and improve the quality of their lives through the use of advanced technology and tools of information and communications technology (ICT).

    Among these initiatives was the Information Technology (IT) Clubs Initiative, which has witnessed tremendous growth over the past five years and expanded throughout the country.

    IT Clubs opened the door to thousands to explore new horizons and move towards realizing their full potential at minimal cost by providing them with basic to advanced training tailored to their needs in a hall equipped with state-of-the-art technology. In partnership with MCIT, civil society organizations (CSOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have stretched out a helping hand to make the vision of IT Clubs come true.

    Yet MCIT has not rested with this success. As part of its efforts to foster inclusion and build human capacity, MCIT has also directed its attention towards a significant segment of society that has long suffered from neglect and isolation, the disabled.

    There are approximately 2 million people with disabilities in Egypt, making up about 3.5% of the population. Their disabilities range from visual, hearing and mobility impairment to forms of mental disability.

    With its firm belief in access for all, MCIT has paid extra attention to the disabled sector since 2004 through the creation of IT Clubs specially designed to serve their needs.

    Abdel-Rahman Othman, a translator in the news sector of Egyptian television and the vice president of the Egyptian Cooperative for the Visually Impaired, is a living proof of how this once neglected sector can advance personally and professionally and contribute to the development of their society.

    Ten years ago, Othman lost his sight, an experience he describes as rough. He had no idea about computers at that time, when, according to Othman, it was challenging for the average sighted person to learn about computers let alone someone who couldnít see.

    Yet, Othman was willing to take on the challenge in order to get back to work. With sheer persistence and a powerful will, Othman learned exactly what the average sighted person would.. Today, he is the vice president of an NGO concerned with people with visual impairment. Othman believes that just because people might have a certain disability that does not make them any different or less capable of learning new technology than those who donít.

    Othmanís NGO has provided the visually impaired with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to recapitulate on what they have been missing out on for so long. In a classroom of 10, an IBM instructor introduces the use of Windows, Word, Excel, Access and the Internet. There are two software programs designed to help the visually impaired go through this learning process:

    1- "Ibsar": a comprehensive solution for the visually challenged that encompasses a strong screen reader that transforms screen contents to high quality human voice, thus enabling the visually challenged to interact with all computer applications, in both Arabic and English.

    2- "JAWS": Job Access with Speech (JAWS) is a screen reader for the visually impaired. Its purpose is to make Microsoft Windows accessible to a visually challenged user. It accomplishes this by providing the user with access to the information displayed on the screen either via text-to-speech ďtranslation,Ē or by means of a Braille display.

    MCIT has joined efforts with NGOs and CSOs to spread the use of IT among communities that suffer from disabilities. To date, 20 IT Clubs have been established that are designed to serve disabled communities. While the number of such clubs is still small, it is expected to double in the coming years.

    Microsoft and IBM have been major contributors throughout this project by training the visually impaired and equipping them to become trainers themselves one day.

    According to Othman, trainees have so far have exhibited intense interest and have learned quickly the same things average sighted people learn. The four-month course includes people between the ages of 19 to 30 with mild or severe visual impairment.

    "If other people can make it, then we can," says Othman, "all we need is for people to give us a chance and encourage us."

    In the future, MCIT hopes to reach all communities in Egypt and provide access to people of all different disabilities. Egyptís envisioned information society will only be realized through the contribution of all members of society.

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