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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

Canadian Information Highway - Special Needs Addressed

Mary Frances Laughton
Chief, Social and Informatics Applications
Industry Canada
Ottawa, Ontario
phone: 613-990-4316
fax: 613-998-5923
internet: laughton@clark.dgim.doc.ca


The Information Highway is the current preoccupation of much of Canada's advanced technology Sector. Persons with disabilities have major reasons for use of adaptive systems. These individuals are o ften handicapped by not having access to traditional forms of communication and information. An individual who is blind cannot read print information. A person who is deaf cannot usually obtain inf ormation directly via telephone. An individual with a speech impairment may have the same problem with respect to telephone contact. A person who is in a wheelchair may not have physical access to buildings which house information services and, even if they can get in, their physical limitations may prevent them from using those services without extraordinary assistance. The Canadian Federal Government through Industry Canada has been involved for a number of years in the development of assistive devices in partnership with a number of Canadian organizations. The search for a global mar ket is always there.



This paper will report on the state of development of access for people with disabilities and seniors to the Canadian information highway as well as a series of Industry Canada supported projects to develop communications and information technology (C&IT) tools, systems and services to assist persons with disabilities to communicate with each other and with persons without disabilities. The base programme described is called "Communications for Persons with Disabilities". It is managed in the Communications Research Centre of Industry Canada under the advice on the Advisory Committee on Com munications for Persons with Disabilities, a 14 member committee of senior persons with disabilities and those that serve them and develop products for them.

The right to communicate has been regarded by many as a fundamental right. However, many Canadians are denied access to the normal communications channels due to a disability. The visually impaired cannot fully enjoy television, books and computer screens without special aids. They need special devices to be able to be fully functional in the workplace. The hearing impaired require captioning to enjoy movies and television. They require special devices to use the telephone. Speech impaired persons have need for augmentative communications tools and languages. Mobility impaired have nee d for special interfaces to use computers and other communications devices.

The ability to communicate without the need for an intermediary increases independence and will reduce attendant care costs significantly. The ability to easily communicate increases one's self este em greatly.

Canada is putting in place its policies and programmes to support the development of the Information Highway. A policy statement on convergence was issued in May 1995 by the telecom/broadcasting reg ulatory body in Canada. The 29 member Information Highway Advisory Council (reporting to the Minister of Industry) will release its final report of 16 months of deliberation. In a number of places in this document, the special needs of people with disabilities and seniors will be noted.

One of the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Communications for Persons with Disabilities is "One highway for All!!".


Canada has always been a world leader in communications. The telephone was invented in Canada and Canada maintains one of the best phone systems in the world with over 97% of households having at le ast one telephone. Canada had the first domestic communications satellite. Our packet switched network was one of the first. Our radio and television broadcasts are world renowned. There are many good ideas and technologies and services developed which mostly for reasons of cost and market have not been put into wide application. There are a number of private sector and governm ent organizations who are trying to address the C&IT needs of persons with disabilities.

The overall aim of the Industry Canada strategy is to implement tangible steps that will address the communications needs of Canadians with disabilities in a coherent and pragmatic fashion through co operation amongst all levels of Government and the private sector.

Industry Canada has been active in the development and implementation of technology and services that improve communications for Canadians with disabilities, but there is much more to do. Many commun ications problems can only be addressed by fully researching the problem and then developing devices, programmes, tools or whatever is required to meet the needs. There are many activities that go on in Government and other laboratories that could be used to improve communications. Financial assistance needs to be provided to share some of the risk for field testing, trial and other demonstrati ons.

Of great benefit is the ability to get a "critical mass" of devices or systems to be tested to provide the feedback required and to provide the momentum required for full implementation. In this paper, I will describe the projects ongoing and planned. The partnership aspect with the private sector will be highlighted. The possibility of global markets for these developments will be examined.

All Industry Canada activities relating to persons with disabilities are done within the context of the Canadian National Strategy on the Integration of Persons with Disabilities. This is a cross-Gov ernment programme designed to increase the integration of persons with disabilities into Canadian society. Communications and information technologies are but one of many tools required but they are a fundamental need!

15.3 % of Canadians (4.5 million people) indicated in the 1991 Census that they have some form of disability.

In 1993, Industry Canada published the first Needs Study for communications products, systems and services. It has been widely distributed and is being used as an awareness raising tool for the prog ramme. It was revised in May 1995. It is our hope to undertake the R&D to meet many of the needs identified.


Industry Canada has the responsibility for the development and implementation of telecommunication and information technology standards.

Computer technology has provided persons with disabilities with a means by which they can be more independent in their quest for information. Within computer mediated communications systems, it is n ot just barriers between the individual and the information they seek which are broken down; it is also the barriers between people. A person who is deaf may talk to a person who is blind; a person who is both deaf and blind may communicate with the world. An able bodied individual may discuss issues with people with disabilities without knowing the state of the other individual. The only way that this communication can be ensured is with the adherence to recognized standards. The TTY/TDD telephone for the deaf is first and foremost a standard. The Blissphone project revolved around the development of an international standard.


Each project undertaken is reviewed against several criteria.

1. Is there a user need?

In each of the projects described in this paper, the user community was involved in the design of the project and, indeed, is in most cases a partner in the project. This is one of the mandatory crit eria for participation.

2. Does the project deal with developed or emerging standards?

In each of the projects, the adoption of information or telecommunications standards is the central point of the project.

3. Will the systems developed continue after Government involvement?

It is important in any project but especially one in support of people with disabilities that expectations not be created that will not be met. This is the case in each of the described projects.

With each project undertaken, we try to produce a report that can assist others in understanding the lessons learned, both positive and negative, in the development process. These reports are availab le in both languages and, by the time this paper will be given, will be available over the Internet.


Recently, Industry Canada has put in place a plan of action for the research and development dealing with people with disabilities and seniors and their access to the information highway. This will b uild on existing activities in the department.


Needing only simple tools, a computer, a speech synthesizer, a relational database and a standard, the UPC (universal product code), in partnership with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, a product has been developed to allow people with visual disability to identify their grocery products using a scanner. This product, called ScanTell (a project of Compusult in St. John's, Newfoundl and) is now on the market and other uses of the technology are being investigated in work situations including libraries.


It is now possible and commercially viable to send a newspaper electronically using a datacasting channel. This originally did not seem to be an interesting application since the paper copies which we all love so dearly are relatively cheap to produce and people do not generally like to read from a computer screen. However, the transmission of the newspaper via datacasting to print-handicappe d individuals is ideal. The newspaper is received and stored in a micro-computer. The end-user can then use the numeric keypad to choose which stories should be read to him/her by a voice synthesiz er or an alternative braille output device. This enables people with a print-handicap to have all the news stories the same as somebody fully sighted.

Since there are over 500,000 visually impaired and over 80,000 mobility impaired persons in Canada and other persons with disabilities which make it difficult for them to read a newspaper, a datacast ing service was required to distribute the text of the newspaper in order that they all be served. Over 20 newspapers are now available in Canada at the same price electronically as they cost in pape r format. The only difference is the delivery mechanism.

Similar projects are underway in Sweden, Britain and Japan. In conjunction with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, an international network of Newspapers for the Blind is being instituted so that information gained in each of the projects will benefit from other's work.


Descriptive captioning is a means by which the visually impaired can enjoy a television broadcast in the same way the sighted can. The system in use in the United States uses the stereo channel of a TV broadcast to distribute a narrative of the scenes on the screen between the dialogue on-screen.

The Canadian project, in partnership with programme developers, broadcasters and cable companies, is to examine other mechanisms than stereo broadcasting by which the description can be distributed. This includes looking at the use of sub-carriers on the FM sound channel and the vertical blanking interval (VBI) of the TV broadcasts. Some software will need to be developed to properly synchronize the description and dialogue of the described shows.

Once standards are developed for descriptive video, Canadian broadcasts will be able to be made available across the world and a global network of shared shows will make the lives of the visually imp aired more pleasant.


Home automation systems play a major role in facilitating environments which provide significant independence in many areas of everyday life activities. For instance, these home control systems wil l allow seniors and persons with disabilities to have integrated control of items such as lights, appliances, the television, VCR, security systems, entry ways, intercoms, telephone and thermostats. Consequently, these automated home environments significantly reduce the dependence of these persons on others and hence, facilitate a substantial increase in the quality of life of these individual s. The desire to obtain or maintain a given level of independence is extremely powerful and, therefore, persons who could potentially increase and/or maintain their independence will vigorously purs ue viable avenues that will facilitate their ability to take advantage of automated living environments.

Until recently, most home control systems have been developed in the domain of hobbyists who are interested in controlling various aspects of their home for reasons of fuel efficiency, security or no velty. The major problem with these systems is that the degree of manual dexterity required for their operation made them inaccessible for the use by persons with limited physical movement. For exa mple, most systems used input devices such as keyboards or touch-screens.

The Neil Squire Foundation has developed the Remote Gateway, primarily using simple commercially available components, a portable remote voice/video terminal mounted on an electric wheelchair, a very functional and efficient method of HA remote control.

The remote gateway presents menu oriented home control information on a compact video screen contained in a portable remote unit. The user uses voice commands to actuate the various control functio ns and is able to carry out two-way conversations either on the telephone or over an intercom system. In addition, the user can view video information from one or more security cameras. The remote u nit communicates to a base unit through a wireless link. The base unit provides the support for the user interface, the voice recognition and the portal into the HA system.

The fundamental requirements for this product were:

Continuing technological advances are increasing the extent to which people can manage their living environments. Recently advances are opening up new applications that were previously not feasible or too expensive. Industry activity suggests that one of the first areas of growth in this market will be for the special needs population. Providing seniors and persons with disabilities greater op portunities to lead autonomous lifestyles has obvious social and economic benefits.

Home automation system development is a world-wide priority. The work of Industry Canada and its partners will be on the leading edge of meeting this priority.


The jouse is a mouth activated mouse emulator that is now being beta-tested by those quadriplegics who have a need for it. This is one of a suite of adaptive switches developed under the programme.


Industry Canada was a partner in developing the BLISSPHONE, a telephone for the speech impaired. There are over 30,000 people in Canada who cannot speak for reasons other than hearing impairment. The causes of their impairment include cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, stroke and other neuro-muscular diseases. Bliss is used in over 35 countries. Currently there are more than 3500 symbols in use . The symbols are based on a language created by Charles Bliss . The symbols were left in perpetuity to the Bliss Communications Institute which is in Toronto. It is the only place where new symbols can be developed and registered.

The purpose of the project was to make electronic communication using Blissymbols available to the largest number of Canadians who could benefit from their use. Messages can be sent and read using a specially developed software programme. An electronic mail service is available and there is the possibility of real time "discussion". The aim was to ensure that the coding scheme is recognized inte rnationally and that is now the case .

Since Bliss is used in over 35 countries worldwide, the global aspects of this project are always in mind.


For many of us, disability is a word that conjures up a picture of a person in a wheelchair. But we don't really stop to think what it means to the person in the chair.

It's not just the issue of putting in wider doors and ramps to make buildings wheelchair accessible. It goes a lot deeper. Disability can mean that you have trouble feeding yourself or that you may have difficulty in making a controlled movement of the hand, foot or head in order to press a simple switch. It can also mean having ideas in your mind that you are unable to express because you ca n't easily communicate.

We are all disabled to some extent as disability is a continuum. All of us will become disabled simply as a result of the aging process. There is a good chance, therefore, that all of us will at some point need an assistive device.

We hope the Blissphone, the access switches, the automated house, the descriptive captioning, the speech synthesis, the speech recognition and many other technologies will give Canadians with disabil ities a direct line to the rest of the world.