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Sunday February 20, 2011

Relying on technology to change lives

Many people take software for granted but four challenged young people used it to change their lives.

MORE often than not, most of us treat applications software as a tool to getting a job done or having fun.

For example, presenting your homework with tables and charts; compiling a book of your own Masterchef recipes complete with a how-to video; networking with colleagues based abroad, or just playing Scrabulous on Facebook.

But for many others, the simple act of using Microsoft’s Powerpoint/Excel/Word applications and the Internet is the difference between a life without education or skills, and one filled with empowerment and dignity.

From left: Chia Woon Yee, director of technology at the Society for the Physically Disabled, with SPD graduates Gerald Bartholomew and Lim Jin Sheng at the Microsoft Accelerating Asia Pacific Summit in Singapore.

The lives of Lim Jin Sheng, Gerald Bartholomew, Lilibeth Masamloc and Kenny Johar epitomise the latter.

For a non-tech-geek like me, the two-day Microsoft Accelerating Asia Pacific Summit in Singapore last December could have been one session of gobbledygook after another but the life stories of the four showed clearly the powerful combination of the partnership between civil society and technology and their own indomitable spirit.

Lim’s life changed drastically after he was involved a traffic accident in 2006. The injury to the Singaporean’s brain affected his vision, speech and coordination.

While he was at the rehabilitation centre at the hospital, Lim enrolled in the school run by the Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD).

“At the SPD, they recommended I upgrade my skills by taking IT courses so I could compete in the corporate world,” he said.

A visually-impaired student using a software named Job Access with Speech (JAWS) in a school for the visually impaired in New Delhi. JAWS provides users access to the information displayed on the screen via text-to-speech or by means of a Braille display and allows for comprehensive keyboard interaction with the computer. – EPA

However, he was a mite concerned that he would not be able to undertake the courses because “in my state, normal learning conditions are difficult, if not impossible.

“However, SPD provided me with a comfortable and suitable learning environment to learn new IT skills. After my training, I was able to get a job and am now working as a general administrative assistant in a local company.”

Asked what had kept him going, the serious young man replied: “I didn’t want to admit defeat because of my disabilities. I wanted to show and prove to everyone that I could achieve something and stand up for myself.”

Bartholomew, on the other hand, was born with a visual impairment. His low vision cannot be corrected; he is legally blind and is described medically as 6-60.

“That means what an average person can see from 60m away I can only see from 6m. My central vision is also affected. There is a blind spot in front of me so I cannot see what’s right in front. I have to look at an angle in order to see an object or a person.”

He came to know about the SPD while looking for a job. “When I joined, it was recommended I take up the corporate services course so I could learn Microsoft applications like Excel, Powerpoint and Word,” said the Singaporean.

The society has assistive devices for persons with disabilities to access computers. It was also able to spur the musician in him as he had the opportunity to take up a digital music arrangement course.

Kenny Johar gave up his dream of becoming a neurologist after developing retinitis pigmentosa. But technology has directed him to a new career path.

After Bartholomew completed the corporate services course, SPD offered him a job there.

“I was able to perform my task as a research assistant with those devices. After my contract ended, I was able to find another job with the assistance of SPD.”

Unlike many Malaysian employers who are reluctant to take on those with visual impairment, except as telephone operators, Bartholomew became an administrator for a company in Singapore.

Malaysia could also take lessons from the SPD’s Employment Support Programme, that not only provides job matching but up to six months of job support on successful placement to ensure the new employees will be able to adapt and make it.

Bartholomew says his employer gives him “realistic deadlines and the time to rest my eyes as they get tired after long hours of working.

“They are very understanding. They also give me the opportunity to take on more responsibilities. They monitor my performance and have been quite pleased with me. They’ve promised me more roles and I am quite pleased with that,” he said.

These days, petite Masamloc travels frequently as the national president of Sumapi, a 8,000-strong organisation of domestic workers in the Philippines.

But at the age of 13, she was “trafficked” to Davao City from her home in Davao del Sur, southern Philippines.

Masamloc became a domestic slave for all intents and purposes there and even contemplated suicide at one point.

When Lilibeth Masamloc – the national president of Sumapi, a 8,000- strong organisation of domestic workers in the Philippines – first sat in front of the computer, she was nervous about holding the mouse.

“I was born and raised in a tribal community called B’laan. Life was difficult for us. I have 12 siblings and farming is our sole source of income,” she said.

At eight, she was already working on the farm the family leased from a landlord, suffering “the heat of the sun in return for the pay of P40 or less than US$1 (RM3) a day”.

When she was approached to be a domestic worker, she was excited, thinking it would help put food on the table and provide her the means to study.

“I was told I would get three meals a day and earn P800 or US$18 a month, but it was a lie. I was only paid P200 or less than US$5 (RM15) a month every time I committed a mistake or broke some of their things,” said Masamloc, who worked for three households for the same paltry sum.

When she was transferred to another employer after three years, she thought things would look up because she was allowed to go to a school on her day off.

The Assumption College of Davao – which is run by a religious institution – conducts a High School Education Programme on Sunday for domestic workers who want to pursue their education.

However, Masamloc’s life took a turn for the worse when her employer opened a bar and forced her to work there at nights as well. “They forced me to entertain male customers and even serve liquor. I couldn’t stand it.”

She was sexually harassed constantly by the drunk patrons though, mercifully, she was never sexually assaulted. However, things got so bad she wanted to put and end to everything by taking her own life, but was stopped by her co-domestic worker Flor.

Masamloc finally confided in her teachers at the school and they then referred her situation to the Visayan Forum Foundation (VFF).

“The VFF immediately rescued me from my miserable life. They brought me to their shelter and I started to undergo counselling and psychological therapy together with other rescued trafficked victims,” she said.

When the VFF and Microsoft began their partnership in 2006, she was in the first batch of a programme called Step-Up – Stop Trafficking and Exploitation of People through Unlimited Potential.

While the young take to computers like a duck to water, that was not the case with Masamloc.

“I can’t forget how the computer struck me when I sat in front of one. I was nervous about pressing the keyboard or holding the mouse. I was even afraid to start a computer for fear I might break it,” she recalled with a laugh.

But the conducive and friendly learning environment helped her stay calm and focused and Masamloc took up courses in Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint, among others.

“These are coupled with the life skills training (a manual of four modules that helps develop interpersonal skills as well as communication and planning expertise) and healing sessions,” said VFF founder and president Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, who was also at the summit.

All these, she added, was to make sure the survivors were psychologically prepared before they embarked on a new direction in life.

Masamloc was also given training in how to help in the healing of the rescued trafficking victims now staying in VFF shelters or safe houses.

“Now I make use of the courses to write my reports, do my presentations in a systematic way and creative way and network with other chapters. I never imagined I would be here today,” said Masamloc, who graduated with a degree in social work last October and is currently involved in a discussion in Geneva this year as part of an international campaign for protection of domestic workers.

In Johar’s case, a childhood ambition of being a clinical neurologist was quashed when he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (a degenerative eye disease) 10 years ago.

He could have focused on research; instead, he switched to computer science and law at university.

Today, Johar has worked some eight years in computer science – first as web developer, analyst developer, enterprise architect and other jobs in the software development cycle.

He credits Microsoft technology for “a very, very significant impact on” his life in the last decade.

“Personally, I’ve used it to read books, magazines and newspapers. I’ve used it to interact with my peers and for social networking.

“I’ve used it to buy groceries, to buy and sell stuff on e-Bay and even for dating!” said the Vision Australia’s architecture, innovation and accessible solutions manager.

Johar also has several certifications to his name, thanks to the software giant’s full-support system. “I got extensive help in terms of accessible course manuals, including a reader and writer when I sat the exams.”

But his visual impairment hasn’t made him blind to the improvements the company could make to its software and applications.

“Touch computing and touch interfaces pose a problem for us. How does someone with visual impairment interact effectively with a touch interface, like a touch phone?” he asked.

Microsoft has done well in partnering with civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations round the world to give marginalised peoples the opportunity to tap their full potential.

Time will tell whether they are just tapping a market or really interested in making all of its new technology accessible to everyone.

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