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The Big Read: Technology helps break down barriers for workers with disabilities

SINGAPORE — For Mr Arulraj Johnston, his trusty sidekick at work is 61cm wide, weighs more than 15kg, and comes with a cool price tag of S$2,500.

Mr Colin Loh, a tech support staff at the Tech Able centre, showing how a magnifier works. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Mr Colin Loh, a tech support staff at the Tech Able centre, showing how a magnifier works. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

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SINGAPORE — For Mr Arulraj Johnston, his trusty sidekick at work is 61cm wide, weighs more than 15kg, and comes with a cool price tag of S$2,500.

His sidekick is a high-definition magnifier, which the 52-year-old uses every day at motion and control technologies company Parker Hannifin Singapore.

Mr Johnston has low vision, a condition that he has been living with since he was 12.

For more than three decades, he worked at the company’s warehousing department, using a magnifying lens to assist him in tasks such as stocktaking and packing — until last year, when his vision deteriorated and it was no longer possible for him to continue in the role.

His company, which hired him when he was 17 years old, then redeployed him to the front desk. With the help of the magnifier, he is able to carry out the tasks such as sorting out mails and handling financial documents. The magnifier has a moveable platform that allows him to read and write simultaneously. The magnification power and background colour can be adjusted too. “It can help relax the eyes, no overstraining,” said Mr Johnston.

Much has been said about the wave of technological advancements causing upheavals across the globe. But for one group of people - those with visual, hearing or physical impairment - it has changed their lives. Not only is technology helping them with daily living, it is also making their work easier and in some cases, enabling them to earn a respectable living for themselves and contribute to society.

At Uber, the company has developed a “Beethoven” function on its app to cater to hearing-impaired drivers on its books, such as Mr Roslan Junid. The function will alert these drivers to new trip requests via a flashing light, on top of the existing audio notification available to all drivers.

Passengers can also send text messages to the hearing-impaired drivers while waiting for their vehicles to arrive.

“It can help deaf drivers like myself communicate better,” said Mr Roslan, 51, who started driving with Uber about five months ago. Describing the feature as easy to use, he said it has helped make interactions with customers “less awkward”.

Fellow Uber driver Roland Goh, 45, who is also hearing impaired, is thankful for the fact that it has helped many of them in the deaf community to find a source of income. As a Uber driver, he is able to earn between S$3,000 and S$4,000 a month - significantly better than his previous job as a delivery man, where he was also bullied for his condition.

There is a plethora of assistive technology devices in the international marketplace. In Singapore, devices available here range from optical character recognition scanners which can read a passage of text at twice the normal reading speed of 70 to 80 words per minute, to alternative pointing devices used to replace a standard mouse. There are also braille readers for the visually handicapped, and tables that automatically adjust their height at a push of a button.

A slew of smartphone applications have also come onstream: For example, Mirror Notes, a locally-developed application that helps a hearing-impaired person communicate: A user can place a phone on the table and type in what he or she wants to say. As the typing is being done, the text will appear, in mirror image, to a person sitting opposite.

In Singapore, the Tech Able centre - co-managed by SG Enable and the SPD - is spearheading the adoption of assistive technology. Located at the Enabling Village in Lengkok Bahru, the centre was officially opened in October last year to promote the use of assistive technology among persons with disabilities, through advisory and assessment services, as well as providing training facilities and showcasing the technolgy and devices.

The movement was given a push in recent months through several initiatives: In March, the government announced tweaks to the Assistive Technology Fund (ATF) to allow more persons with disabilities to qualify for subsidies to buy assistive technology devices. Four months later, six voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) received government grants — amounting between S$8.600 and S$38,000 — to tap on information technology aids for their clients.

At the same time, SG Enable - an agency that supports persons with disabilities - runs the Open Door Programme where employers who recruit or are intending to hire persons with disabilities are given grants to defray the cost of buying assistive technology and modifying the workplace. Advisory services are also available for firms to learn about using suitable equipment and devices for employees with disabilities.


However, despite these efforts and the advancements in technology, obstacles remain: Even as costs are coming down, companies are reluctant to pay the additional money to buy equipment that would help employees with disabilities perform better. There is also a lack of awareness among both firms and persons with disabilities about the range of assistive technology that is available and how to tap on it.

The Zoomax Aurora magnifier which Mr Johnston is using can cost up to S$5,000, depending on the model and where it is made. He also carries a handheld magnifier which costs about S$1,000. “I think a lot of devices here (for persons who are visually impaired) are very expensive. I was told that there is no choice, this is the way they are priced and that there was no profit made from it. These were the prices that the supplier had sold them at,” said Mr Johnston.

While he is grateful that his company is going the extra mile for him and paying for the equipment, he said for some of his friends, the cost of the devices is a constant problem which they face. He said: “(My friends) have the interest of buying (assistive technology devices), but when they hear the costs, they back off, they say that it is too expensive. ‘If I am going to spend this amount of money, what am I going to do?”

He added that given the heavy reliance by employees with disabilities on such devices, a faulty product — which might take weeks, or months, to repair — might mean a loss of productivity for employees, never the mind the hefty cost of repair: Fixing a faulty magnifier, for example, can sometimes come up to a few thousand dollars.

Smaller businesses interviewed by TODAY admitted that the costs involved were a potential stumbling block. A senior manager at an engineering company, who wanted to be known only as Mr Tan, said that given the sluggish economy, it would be “more difficult to spend extra money to make modifications” for employees with disabilities. However, he stressed that his company would be “inclusive in hiring, wherever we can”.

While costs can be prohibitive for both companies and individuals, SG Enable pointed to the grants available. Apart from costs, the lack of awareness was cited by voluntary welfare organisations and firms as another major problem.

SPD deputy director (Adult and elderly services) Jeffrey Chin said: “Among persons with disabilities, there will be one group that would not have been exposed to what technology is available, so they do not know what it is.” Some outreach efforts would have to be focused on people working with the community, such as caregivers and teachers.

The rapid advancement in technology could also pose an issue for some persons with disabilities, who are unable to keep up, SG Enable said. For this group, the devices they use may have become obsolete and they are unaware of the latest developments.

For employers, an issue is that some of them do not have the knowledge on how to integrate assistive technology in their workplace, said SG Enable chief executive officer Ku Geok Boon.

To that end, SG Enable provides consultative services for companies at the Tech Able centre. Despite the challenges, SG Enable said that anecdotally, there has been an “encouraging” increase in employer interest in assistive technology.


Indeed, costs are coming down rapidly as the technolgy becomes more widespread. For example, a handheld device from New Zealand that can detect 12 basic colours would cost NZ$266 (S$271). But a smartphone application called Airpoly Vision is now available for free, and it recognises up to 954 colours, as well as objects. It also has the ability to learn to recognise new objects and it supports multiple languages.

Another example is the GoTalk32+, a device that helps “augmentative and alternative communication”, which encompasses communication methods used to supplement or replace speech or writing for those with impairments. While the device costs A$940 (S$998), its app version costs only a fraction at US$79.99 (S$113).

Going forward, advances in technology and innovation will further fuel the growth of assistive technology. At the frontier are the integration of sensors, Internet of Things, augmented reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to develop devices and technologies that can be used in a wide range of applications for portable devices, said Associate Professor Ong Soh Khim from National University of Singapore’s Mechanical Engineering Department.

Mainstream companies are also coming on board with a wider selection of universally designed products, said SG Enable. Technology giants such as Apple. Google and Microsoft incorporates many accessible features as standard features in their products.

Microsoft, for example, has also been working on an application to help the hearing-impaired community visualise sound. Called Hearing AI, it will scan the user’s surroundings to alert them to any sound. The company told TODAY: “For example, if there is a fire alarm, Hearing AI will show a red visual so that the user knows there is something wrong. Hearing AI can distinguish between four different types of sound environments and notify people if there are sudden changes or if sounds are damaging to their ears.”

The application can also help transcribe verbal conversations with “an emphasis on visualising the loudness of speech through typography”. A shout from someone could be transcribed in a larger font, which provides people who are hearing impaired with more context and a better understanding of how others are expressing themselves. The app will be on display at We Tech Care, Microsoft’s flagship philanthropy event that is taking place today at the Enabling Village.

Mr Johnston, for one, is hopeful that the trends will help more and more people with disabilites as well as companies adopt assistive technology. For people like him, it could mean a world of difference and help them overcome their disabilities.

“Without the magnifiers... I think I will be totally handicapped. I don’t even know if I would have a job in the first place,” he said.

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