Tech Helps Improve Iives but Also Leaves Some Struggling

07 Nov 2020

Straits Times, 7 Nov 2020, Tech Helps Improve Iives but Also Leaves Some Struggling

Senior finance executive Phillip Ang's heart sinks each time he has to use his mobile phone to scan QR codes for contact tracing before entering public places.

A spinal muscular atrophy condition prevents Mr Ang, 55, from moving his hands much, and the QR codes are "always too high", so he has to ask for help.

Another person who faces similar problems is part-time GrabFood delivery partner Juni Syafiqah Jumat, who has cerebral palsy.

To get past the scanning of QR codes, Ms Syafiqah, 25, uses the digital barcode in the TraceTogether app and shows that to mall staff, but this does not always work.

She said: "Some places don't have barcode scanners, so I need to ask someone to help me scan."

People with disabilities and their caregivers told Insight that while technological conveniences have made life easier, gaps remain in making such tech accessible.

Those with cognitive disabilities, for instance, may face challenges toggling from one app to another, said Mr Mark Lim, who heads The Social Factor, a consultancy that conducts special needs training for educators.

The self-worth of individuals with disabilities may be affected when they see others easily accomplishing tasks like scanning QR codes in public spaces while they struggle to do the same, he said.

This sentiment is echoed by Mr Ang, who said he feels the pressure of quickly tapping his ez-link card on buses, despite the task being difficult for him.

But like all the people with disabilities Insight spoke to, Mr Ang is aware that technology significantly contributes to his life.

In his case, special accessories such as motorised wheelchairs and a trackball mouse - which allows users to move their cursors with only their thumbs - help him to get around and do his job.

"There has been more awareness of the need for accessibility, particularly for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in Singapore," said Ms Joyce Wong, director of centralised services at local disability-focused charity SPD. "We see that in the captioning of news bulletins on television, talking ATMs and accessibility features on mobile phones and tablets."

Auto-generating caption technology has made things much easier for Mr Sean Poh, who is hearing-impaired. The 27-year-old, who works in public relations, said he uses it during all his work meetings, but it is not perfect as sometimes captions are not captured when people speak too fast or when too many people talk at once.

Also highly useful is text-to-speech technology, which reads out words on screen to help visually impaired people.

Retiree Dennis Teo, 59, who used to work in information technology, became almost completely blind six years ago. He remembers how hard life was when text-to-speech technology was almost non-existent. But it has progressed so quickly that it helps him to use his smartphone well, doing things like getting news and organising his music.

"This feature, five or six years ago, was not comprehensive, almost non-existent. For blind people, we couldn't do anything without it - but it's now everywhere," said Mr Teo, who is a beneficiary of the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH).

But even with these improvements, the quick pace of technological advancements risks leaving people with disabilities behind.

Some told Insight they still find it difficult to access essential services like banking, as many digital applications and services are still being developed without considering their needs.

"Reviewing of a solution or device's accessibility is also often done after they have been rolled out, and with limited consultation with persons with disabilities," said Ms Wong.

Professor Lim Sun Sun, head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and who conducts research on digital inclusion, highlighted the need for inclusion by design in digital solutions, where the needs of every group of society, including people with disabilities, are considered in the planning stages.

Church worker Ng Choon Hwee, 65, who is visually impaired and a beneficiary of SAVH, noted that while the public may still need to step in to help them at times, people with disabilities want to try to be as independent as possible.

For instance, said Mr Teo, while apps exist to inform those who cannot see when their buses are arriving, what if two buses arrive at the same time? When this happens, he is forced to ask for help. Most people in his situation do, but Mr Teo said he was initially frustrated at having to do so.

"Some bus captains and people are nice - when you ask them, some will answer. But some don't - some might turn their heads or nod - but I can't see that because I am blind!" he said.

Dangers online such as cyber bullying, hacking and phishing scams pose an even bigger threat to people with disabilities, said Ms Estella Mah, chairman of the information and communications technology committee at the Association for Persons with Special Needs.

But undergraduate Jonathan Tiong, 23, who has spinal muscular atrophy, said his poor motor skills make it difficult for him to use two-factor authentication features even though they guard against cybercrime.

He has to rely on his parents to retrieve his phone for the one-time password when he logs in to apps or services, and this inconveniences them. If they are not around, he will not be able to log in.

But on the plus side, he is able to type on a computer with the help of assistive technology, which allows him to use a mouse to select letters from a virtual keyboard displayed on a screen instead of typing with his fingers.

Said Mr Tiong: "The bottom line is, persons with disabilities don't really need newfangled gadgets or specially designed apps or some different kind of tech from normal people.

"We just need some minor adjustments and adaptations to the existing tech to address some pain points that are unique to us due to the limitations brought about by our disabilities."