Closing the Disabled's Digital Divide

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Closing the Disabled's Digital Divide

In a move to close the digital divide for the disabled, 13 venture companies and 12 associations of the disabled recently inaugurated Korea Digital Divide Council for the Disabled.

What does an information-based society mean to the 4 million disabled people in South Korea? Can they share the fruits of digitalization with the rest of society? Some claim the divide between the technologically rich and poor will get wider in the age of information, forcing the disabled - The most disadvantaged members of the industrial society- to become the least connected to the Internet and other information technologies. Others say they will no longer be impeded by physical disabilities, thanks to long-distance education, medical examinations and work.

But the reality is a far cry from the forecasts. Computer ownership by the disabled and their access to information remain impossibly low. The production of audio readers allowing the sight- impaired to use computers has only just begun in Korea. Because of the absolute lack of information about training centers for the hearing-disabled, they hardly have any opportunities to learn how to use computers. The majority of the disabled do not even know what can be done with computers and the Internet.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare has not caught up with the digital society in its policies and the Ministry of Information and Communication does not have a department working to close the digital divide for the disabled. The general public believes gaining greater access to information and technology is something to be achieved through the personal efforts of the disabled alone; it has no idea of their sense of crisis accruing from falling on the wrong side of the digital divide. Coping with ever-intensifying competition, companies do not spare a thought to the disabled and hardly any academic treatises are published on the digital exclusion of people with disabilities.

In comparison, the federal and state governments of the United States devote all kinds of legal efforts to provide the disabled with greater access to information and technology. Scores of private and community technology centers offer training for the disabled. Telephones incompatible with hearing aids cannot be sold, and TV sets 13 inches or larger without built-in decoders to display closed captioning cannot be imported or produced. Broadcasting programs offer talking signs for the hearing- impaired and audio commentaries for the sight-impaired.

Fortunately, legislation designed to close the digital divide for the disabled in South Korea was passed on Dec. 15. It specified financial support for the disabled to give them greater connectivity to information and technology. The legislation also called on central and local governments and organizations to support technology development and information training and access for the disabled. But not many people are even aware that such a bill was passed. The Ministry of Information and Communication has only just begun to perceive the lack of access by the disabled to information and technology.

Depending on the persons managing the law, it can end up achieving nothing concrete or far more than its legal objectives. It is hoped that the legislation gives the impetus for developing the technolo- gies and contents necessary for the disabled to receive information training and gain greater access to computers and the Internet.

Also urgently necessary is a change in the general public셲 perception of the digital divide sepa- rating the disabled. For the disabled, who have to see with their ears, hear with their eyes and type with their feet, cyber amenities are just as important as considerations in real life. They will be unhindered by physical disabilities when the state and society invest in the measures necessary to help them overcome their handicaps. Only then will the disabled become productive members of society.
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