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Bridging the digital divide

MaltaToday visits FITA – the Foundation for Information Technology Accessibility – to learn how this small group of dedicated people is making huge strides in empowering disabled persons through the use of IT

Paul Cocks
14 December 2016, 9:30am
From right: FITA chairperson Elizabeth Olivieri, and CEO Stanley Debono, speaking to Paul Cocks. Left: Michael Micallef, head of human resources and IT accessibility
From right: FITA chairperson Elizabeth Olivieri, and CEO Stanley Debono, speaking to Paul Cocks. Left: Michael Micallef, head of human resources and IT accessibility
I must admit, when invited to interview the CEO of FITA, I did not know what it was; nor did any of the people I asked. The Foundation for Information Technology Accessibility, I learned, is the main advocate and coordinator for making information communications technology (ICT) accessible to disabled people in Malta. 

At the foundation’s office at Gattard House in Blata l-Bajda, I met CEO Stanley M. Debono and Elizabeth Olivieri, chairperson of the board of directors, who both provided some crucial insight into FITA and its mission.

“The foundation was set up in 2000 by MITA (Malta Information Technology Agency) and the KNPD (National Commission Disabled Persons) to address the digital divide and to assist disabled persons who might have access to IT but do not necessarily know how to use it,” Debono said.

“IT not only improves the performance and experience of disabled persons, but it can also make things – previously thought unattainable – possible.”

Debono explained that FITA provides accessibility software for disabled persons, consultancy services to businesses on accessibility, information for disabled persons and their families on available technology, including a helpdesk and community online portal, loans refurbished computers and other ICT equipment, and organises training courses. 

At the core of FITA’s activities are the ICT Accessibility Certification and the Assistive ICT Consultancy services, but the foundation also collaborates closely with a number of entities, including private ICT industry players, the Education Directorate, MCAST, the University of Malta and the JobsPlus (formerly ETC).  

“We have, for example, a range of products and equipment specifically for blind people,” Olivieri said. “But we offer advice and our services to people, of any age, with any kind of disability.”

She said that FITA offered its services for free, asking only for a deposit when people take out equipment on loan to try out. Persons interested in any of the equipment would then be directed to the approved suppliers.

Olivieri said that FITA worked closely with employers on introducing accessible software and equipment, including some forward-thinking major players in the tourism and services industries.

Debono said that a number of ECDL courses were also organised every year, attracting mostly 16- to 25-year-olds and that the foundation also catered for elderly people with some kind of impairment.

At the core of FITA’s activities are the ICT Accessibility Certification and the Assistive ICT Consultancy services
At the core of FITA’s activities are the ICT Accessibility Certification and the Assistive ICT Consultancy services
But how does the foundation make people aware of its services? Was it just word of mouth?

“Word of mouth plays a big part in spreading the word about us and what we do,” Olivieri acknowledged. “We also get many referrals through organisations like Nanniet ta’ Malta as well as through speech and occupational therapists.”

One core function of FITA is research and development, and the foundation is working closely with a number of institutions, including MCAST and University, on a number of projects.

“The hope, the dream, is to have one of our projects end up in actual production,” Debono said. “And we are currently working on a particular project with MCAST that is looking very promising.”

He said it was FITA’s aim to try and reach more people and to bring IT to them; more awareness campaigns are planned to explain what options are available for disabled persons and what opportunities the foundation’s services could open up.

“The IT hardware is all there, and everyone knows about it,” Debono said. “But when it comes to accessibility, many companies and businesses – as well as disabled persons themselves – have no idea of what is really possible.”

I also met and spoke to Michael Micallef, in charge of human resources and ICT accessibility at FITA as well as the training for the visually impaired.

Being visually-impaired did not stop Micallef from achieving his goals. He routinely checks websites at random for accessibility and ease of use and provides consultancy and support services to various companies, through telephone or on site.

Like any other IT head of department, Micallef keeps himself up to date on emerging technologies and software, using specialised programmes like screen-readers to keep himself informed and at the forefront of the industry.

“IT helps me a lot at work but also in my personal life, allowing me to follow the news and use the PC to stay up to date,” he said. 

“But if Malta does not start to look at the core infrastructure, if we do not start examining how to integrate new technology even into existing products, we will fall behind other countries.”

Micallef said one example of how society was still “blind” to how simple things could help many people around the world was the remote control for airconditioning units.

“Most of these remotes do not make a sound or provide tactile feedback when pressed, making it near-impossible for visually-impaired people to use,” he said. “Yet one simple, small chip – integrated in the production and assembly line – could change all that.”

Micallef also recommended that companies and business start including accessibility in their planning stages to avoid having to retro-fit hardware and procedures down the line.

I was surprised to learn that FITA does all this with a mere staff complement of seven, including a number of highly empowered disabled persons with their own areas of responsibility.

But work it does. FITA might suffer from a lack of public awareness, but it is already reaching out to individuals, families and businesses in its mission to make IT accessible to disabled persons.

If the range of software and hardware innovations that I was shown is not enough to make everyone aware of the services FITA offers, the commitment and dedication of the staff and management surely will.

And as technology gains more and more importance and relevance in everyday life, FITA and its work will be indispensable to ensure that disabled persons, and people with some kind of impairment, are not left behind to fend for themselves.

Paul Cocks joined MaltaToday after having spent years working in newspapers with The Times...
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