[Viewpoint] High-tech access is a right for all

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[Viewpoint] High-tech access is a right for all

July 26 was the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States. The ADA is a law that guarantees equal rights for people with disabilities - prohibiting discrimination against physically-challenged people in all areas of the society, including government, the public and private sectors.

Many countries around the world have passed similar legislation banning discrimination against the disabled. Korea, too, enacted the Anti-Discrimination Act and the Accommodation and Improvement Act for the Disabled several years ago.

In a speech celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ADA, U.S. President Barack Obama expressed great pride in the law that requires accommodations for the disabled to enjoy equal rights. On the same day, the U.S. Congress passed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which requires television broadcasting and mobile devices to be accessible to the disabled.

For a while, the mobile phone market was heated over the Apple iPhone. The cutting-edge functions, sleek design and innovative App Store took people’s breath away when it first came out.

However, what makes the iPhone really amazing is the “accessibility” menu in the setting. If you turn on the accessibility function, you can activate an application that adjusts the size of the screen or reads text for the disabled or elderly. Also, people with visual impairment can check messages and e-mails as well as have the iPhone read the text on Web sites.

In order to compete against the Apple iPhone for the smartphone market share, Samsung Electronics introduced its Galaxy S smartphone and has received favorable reviews. Unfortunately, the Galaxy S lacks one impressive feature: Although Android OS, the platform on which Galaxy S is based, offers accessible menus for the disabled, the applications need to be downloaded.

Moreover, the TTS engine, which reads Korean text aloud, is not included, which menas Koreans with visual impairment cannot check e-mails and text messages on the Galaxy S.

Koreans with disabilities can easily use the iPhone, which has a built-in Korean voice reader, but they cannot use the Galaxy S. In contrast, Americans with disabilities can fully enjoy the Galaxy S. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, products that do not provide accessible features to disabled Americans cannot be imported to the U.S. Of course, the Galaxy S is built on the Android operating system, which has a built-in English voice engine.

The social responsibility of large corporations is not just about the promotion of employment. Another social duty is to provide equal convenience to all members of society through their products and services.

NTT Docomo, Inc., a Japanese communications services provider, operates a consulting center for the elderly and the disabled within the service center in downtown Tokyo. The company is making special considerations for people who are physically challenged.

The service center provides the elderly with copies of manuals with bigger fonts and more pictures. Designated staff members explain the content of the manuals and provide magnified copies. Also, manuals in braille are offered to the visually impaired. All of these services cannot be found at the customer service centers operated by SKT and KT in Korea.

The Lee Myung-bak administration vowed to focus on implementing “people-friendly” policies in the second half of his term. The elderly and the disabled are the members of our society who need the most consideration. Industry leaders such as Apple’s computers and iPhone, Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Toyota’s automobiles have always had accessibility features.

They are considered true “masterpieces” because they allow the disabled to enjoy convenience and social equality while using these products.

Many Korean companies have emerged as global leaders in various sectors, and they have begun to realize the need to accommodate the disadvantaged members of our society. Nevertheless, these companies’ efforts to that end remain at a basic level. I wonder when Korean products maximizing convenience for the disabled and elderly will hit the market.

I am also concered that Korean companies might be reluctant or slow to develop such features to provide higher accessibility to the disabled because they believe the products lack marketability and profitability. The president rightfully said that companies need to take care of the disadvantaged members of our society, too.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of systems management engineering at Sungkyunkwan University.

By Lee Seong-il
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