Stan­ley De­bono

Malta Independent - - NEWS -

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

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