Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A more blind-friendly island?

It's a mixed report card on whether urban changes have all been for the better
by Tan Weizhen, TODAY, 6 Oct 2012

At the Marina Bay Sands' ArtScience Museum exhibit, blind visitors can trace, with their fingers, the outlines of six artworks by legendary artist Andy Warhol done in an embossed reproduction for their benefit. 

Over at Resorts World Sentosa (RWS), the blind will soon be able to "read" all about Universal Studios' attractions in Braille. Singapore's only two seeing-eye guide dogs will even be able to join their owners on some of the rides, with RWS having adapted the seats.

And Singapore's latest jewel, the Gardens by the Bay, not only has tactile paving that guides the blind along certain paths, but is also working toward adapting its guided and audio tours "to provide a sensorial experience for the visually impaired", says Chief Operating Officer Kenneth Er.

Some of the island's most hyped new developments in recent years are taking steps to become more inclusive of the sight-impaired.

Both integrated resorts, for instance, worked with the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) on this. An MBS spokesman said exhibits were made blind-friendly for the first time with the Warhol showcase, which opened in March. The IR is working towards being inclusive of "a group which is often excluded from being able to entirely experience art in galleries and museums", she added.


Unlike a generation ago, when many with disabilities rarely ventured out, today more are sallying forth and independently making their way through the streets and places of Singapore, members of the visually-handicapped community told TODAY.

But while there have been many dramatic changes to the cityscape and transport networks, has it become easier for the blind to navigate around?

On Thursday, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) revealed it was reviewing the code on accessibility in buildings, malls and other parts of the environment to benefit disabled groups, including the visually impaired.

While there has been progress, accessibility can be improved, members of the blind community have said. At Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station, for instance, which serves as the interchange between three lines, busker Steven Yeo, 44, could not find any tactile paving that would help guide him between the North East and Circle lines.

Freelance masseur Seet Wee Sin, in his 40s, finds the newer stations - like the one at Holland Village - more "confusing" and convoluted than the older stations. "The layout of the stations is a bit weird ... For the old stations, I either turn left or right and I can find the way out," he said.

According to an SMRT spokesman, service ambassadors are on hand to offer assistance, and will even alert staff at the blind passenger's alighting station to help him upon his arrival. 

SMRT also organised a tour of Caldecott Station located near the SAVH, to familiarise its members (who number around 374) with the station.


For many visually-impaired Singaporeans, ICT has played a big role in their being more social and outgoing. Thanks to social networking sites like Facebook, they have linked up with other members of their community. 

On the other hand, Internet accessibility for the blind has taken several steps backwards. No thanks to the tonne of pictures and myriad plugins such as Flash applications, most websites today are more unfriendly than ever to screen-reader technology, which vocalises text for the blind user.

Assistant Professor Wong Meng Ee of the National Institute of Education, whose research interests include assistive technology for the blind and is himself visually-impaired, said: "The push for more aesthetically pleasing websites have made it harder for the blind to participate. When mainstream products are developed, developers need to think of a larger audience or it will be a catch-up game for the disabled."

However, the blind have advances in assistive technology to thank for making their travelling about more seamless and for contributing to their independence.

Like many others, Mr Kua Cheng Hock, 47, depends on his GPS device to get around the island, and an iPhone app to tell him when his bus will arrive.


There are some places where even a GPS guide can't help him, however.

Mr Kua, who has travelled abroad and owns Singapore's first seeing-eye dog, Kendra, pointed out that even he gets "completely lost" attempting to navigate the newer malls, such as ION Orchard, because of the complicated layout.

Organisations here are working to help the blind be more mobile. The SAVH, together with the BCA, earlier this year organised a tour for the blind and other disabled groups to Gardens by the Bay, to get their feedback on accessibility features.

Mr Khoo Kong Ngian enjoyed the tour as he could smell and touch the flowers. The active 66-year-old - who has explored the casino and jogs every Saturday with his sightless friends - attributed his mobility to improvements in the country's physical infrastructure.

But Mr Ron Chandran-Dudley, former SAVH President, summed up sentiments when he said: "While assistance to the blind has improved, many developments have not occurred in tandem with the rest of the community."

For instance, there could be more voice-activated lifts, extendable platforms on buses to bridge the gap with the pavement, and training in using assistive software. 

Mr Kua and Prof Wong also emphasised the need for training for the blind to get around, even as accessibility improvements are still underway. Said Prof Wong: "As our city becomes increasingly crowded, how visually impaired people are going to manoeuvre in crowded spaces will be an issue. Buildings are one thing, but it is also about how to train the visually impaired to move around in limited spaces." Additional reporting by Amanda Lee

An ATM that talks, thanks to StanChart
by Tan Weizhen & Amanda Lee, TODAY, 6 Oct 2012

Discussions between the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) and the banks association started in the middle of last year. Yesterday, Standard Chartered announced that it has installed a talking ATM for persons with visual impairment - the first bank here to do so. 

The ATM is currently in operation at its Upper Thomson Branch. The bank said that it has plans to install two more such ATMS.

Apart from having a raised "5" to help visually impaired customers find the middle of the keypad, the talking ATM allows customers to make cash withdrawals, change their PIN or check their balance through a voice-activated system. Customers can use either their own earphones or those available at the branch to listen to pre-recorded instructions. 

SAVH Executive Director Michael Tan told TODAY that it has been speaking to the Association of Banks in Singapore to improve ways of allowing persons with visual impairment to withdraw money and carry out bank transactions. 

SAVH President Phillip Lee added: "We hope that more of such ATMs will be installed across Singapore." 

When contacted, the three major local banks - DBS, OCBC and UOB - did not indicate whether they had plans to also introduce talking ATMs.

Nevertheless, they cited the visually impaired-friendly features of their existing ATMs, such as tactile features on the keypads. 

UOB customers can also, for example, pre-set their favourite transactions on the ATM homepage so that they only need to press one button to complete the transaction. The banks added that at their branches, staff are on hand to assist customers who are visually impaired. 

Around the world, talking ATMs are installed in countries such as the United States, Philippines and India. In the UK, Barclays announced last year that it will introduce such ATMs towards the end of this year.

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