It was at the turn of the century, when the millennium bug was on everybody’s mind that Mr Joseph Camilleri, voiced the concerns of the National Commission for Persons with Disability, during the annual conference of the Malta Information Technology & Training Services (MITTS), as MITA was known then. At the time, he observed that despite the huge difference, technology can bring to the lives of persons with disability, it was ironically this pervasive social aspect which presented the greatest risk of disabled people falling victim to the so-called Digital Divide.
MITA and the Ministry for Information Technology and Investment (MITI) took on the challenge, and over the years never looked back. Following on Mr Camilleri’s speech, MITTS set up the Foundation for Information Technology Accessibility, known as FITA, providing it with the support necessary to bring about the breakthroughs and innovation which characterise the ICT sector.
It has been fifteen years now and FITA can face new challenges in the knowledge that it has invested in the human resources and partner network which can help address them successfully.
While still lacking adequate office space, in early 2002 FITA consolidated its training facilities by obtaining trainer certification from the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and the British Computer Association of the Blind (BCAB). This was quickly followed by FITA’s first involvement in an EU funded project; a Leonardo project called GetResults, which featured accessible entrepreneurship training material for all participants, irrespective of impairment.
Seeking to facilitate access to Broadband Internet for persons with disability, FITA partnered with GO plc and Melita plc in 2004, in order to negotiate favourable telephony and Internet rates for disabled people. These offers were made available principally to visually impaired and deaf clients, who, because of their impairment, made above average use of such communication media. Eventually Melita plc extended an offer to all persons with disability, irrespective of impairment.
In 2005, FITA expanded its services into the development of accessible software. FITA’s software was unique in that it promoted the use of a Maltese language interface and high customisability. At about the same time, collaboration with the Physically Handicapped Rehabilitation Fund (PHRF) provided premises for the setting up of a computer refurbishment workshop. Both these services are still ongoing, although, understandably, supply and demand of refurbished computers has dwindled over the past years.
FITA has also collaborated with Microsoft (MS) on a number of occasions, on the distribution of MS software to persons with disability. FITA combined these initiatives with research exercises and, thanks to the support of MITA, over the years we have been able to continue with this trend. We now have a set of research documents accurately tracing the use and expectations of persons with disability in relation to ICT. The last of these, carried out by Ernst & Young, was published in 2014. These, and more information, are all publicly available on the FITA website.
2007 was characterised by close collaboration with the then Employment and Training Corporation (ETC). Together, ETC and FITA provided a number of work experiences for persons with disability. These exercises enabled us to find job placements for suitable individuals, some of them also within FITA itself. Giving an opportunity for persons with disability to experience employment and, conversely, for employers to understand what dealing with people who have different impairments entail is something FITA has always actively encouraged. We still do this through collaboration with JobsPlus, the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) and MITA whenever the opportunity arises.
In 2008, FITA joined an international research consortium called TACMON. The overall objective was researching different technologies linked to refreshable Braille and tactile displays. This was an interesting project. FITA contributed to the project through the design and user testing process. During the same year, MITA sponsored the creation of an educational video which compiled the life experiences of persons with different impairments together with their use of ICT and enabling technology. This resulted in one of the first local awareness videos that incorporated sign language interpretation and captions at the outset. All these media sources are available on the FITA Facebook page and FITA Youtube Channel.
In Malta it is almost impossible for disabled people to ‘try before they buy’ when ordering specialised ICT equipment. That is why, in 2009, FITA identified sponsorship from local enterprises in order to create a pool of ICT equipment which people could try out and also borrow, prior to any decision on their part to purchase the equipment. Besides additional equipment bought by FITA, this service has continued to expand in 2015 thanks to FITA’s collaboration with a recently set up NGO for visually impaired people. Known as ADVICE, the Assistive Devices for Visually Impaired organisation added many Humanware products, to the range of equipment we can make available for trial.
Also in 2009, a number of persons with disability spurred by FITA, helped compile and publish a Career Path document, which helped trace and match the different ICT qualifications, training institutions and ICT jobs applicable to the local industry. This