Why I Founded Matamata to Help the Blind Gain Independence Online

Today, we reached a minor milestone in our organization.

We had just collected our first payment for a transcription job [1] that was successfully completed by one of the aspiring freelancers that Matamata works with.

Ming Soon, a Bachelor of East Asian Studies student at University Malaya, was born completely blind. When I asked him about his life story and what motivates him, he said,

“I always believe where there is a will, there is a way.”

As a sighted person, I will never truly understand what living life in the dark must be like for members of the blind and visually impaired community.

But, late last year, an opportunity to help elevate the quality of their lives through the use of technology presented itself to me unexpectedly.

In this long-form article (lengthy, be warned!), I’ll explain what we do, why we do it, and how it matters.

 


Table of Contents

  1. So, What is Matamata?
  2. Matamata, the App
  3. From App to Social Enterprise
  4. The Catalyst for Taking the Leap
  5. The Need to Right a Social Injustice
  6. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  7. The Issues
  8. Employment Discrimination Against the Blind and Visually Impaired (BVIs)
  9. Digital Inclusion of BVIs in Malaysia
  10. The Takeaway


 

So, What is Matamata?

As a social enterprise, we do several things to empower blind and visually impaired persons (BVIs) living in Malaysia. We do this through the use of technology:

1 – We find and create remote work for BVIs

We help create a side income for BVIs by connecting them to freelancing opportunities on the web. We encourage these aspiring freelancers to utilize their information, communication and technology (ICT) skills in performing a number of web-based tasks that include transcription, translation, data entry, coaching and more.

2 – We build accessible tech things

We’re working towards building an accessible freelancing website that will help BVIs work faster, more efficiently and most importantly, more independently.

3 – We advocate for the rights of BVIs in the country

We pledge our support to other organizations and groups in the country in their fight for the rights of BVIs and Persons with Disabilities (PWD). We do this through storytelling and whatever the heck we’re good at.

However, this wasn’t exactly how we started.

 

Matamata, the App

Matamata was initially conceived at a Microsoft AI for Accessibility Hackathon as an AI-driven image reader prototype [2].

Leveraging on tools developed by Microsoft—mainly the Microsoft Azure Cognitive Servicesthe Matamata app was designed to seamlessly describe images regardless of platform, whether on a social media app or phone gallery.

Unlike other existing image reader apps currently in the market, the Matamata app also has a platform for collaboration and understanding between visually impaired users and sighted users through the AI-driven Q and A channel.

This feature is further enhanced by the Support channel that connects visually impaired users to local non-profit organizations and the welfare department. It provides the visually impaired community, both existing and new members [3], with immediate access to resources and information already made available to them.

If you’re interested to see how the app functions, here is the app portion of the video presentation that we submitted to the Microsoft hackathon organizers. Our entry was listed top 5 in the country. And, we also had the privilege of presenting our prototype live to an esteemed panel of judges. Here’s an interview that our team did with LEAD.

 

From App to Social Enterprise

Today, Matamata is registered in Malaysia as a social-driven enterprise that harnesses technology to help the blind and visually impaired community gain independence and inclusivity online.

Nevermind what a mouthful that was.

The real question is, how did we go from a hack to a social enterprise? And are we still working on the Matamata image reader app?

The short answer is no. At least, not at the moment. The reason why is simple.

After the hackathon ended, my co-founder [4] and I went back to speak again to representatives of the blind community. And this time, instead of asking, “Will this app help you?”

We asked, “How can we help?”

When we realized the true extent of economic inequality and discrimination toward the blind community, we knew that it must be addressed first.

We thought, “In light of the pandemic, what can we do now to create the greatest impact?” And so, we set aside our image reader app to focus on finding and creating remote jobs for blind and visually impaired persons.

In paraphrasing the words of our mentor, Dr. Lau Cher Han, “Know the difference between nice to have and need to have.”

 

The Catalyst for Taking the Leap

Hackathons are great places to test out ideas and meet like-minded people. Not only that, but they also have the advantage of being a networking platform for immediate product validation.

While working on our prototype, I reached out to one of the local NGOs that work with blind and visually impaired individuals in the country.

The National Council for the Blind Malaysia (NCBM) is a non-governmental and non-profit organization that was formed in 1986 to bring together five organizations to work together for the blind and visually impaired community.

The executive director of NCBM—Moses Choo, who is himself blind—was forthcoming and very willing to help us understand how the blind use technology in their daily lives. He patiently showed us—through a Zoom call—how he navigates social media apps on a Smartphone and the accessibility tools that he employs to get work done on a computer.

I must admit, I was ashamed of my ignorance when he spoke about the technological challenges that blind people face daily in Malaysia.

You see, we use the term ‘disabled-friendly’ so loosely here that it is rarely represented by anything more than thesededicated parking spots, wheelchair-accessible ramps, and the inconsistent or poorly designed Tactile paving [5] on sidewalks.

But the aim for inclusion and disability-friendliness extends beyond the physical built-up of our environment.

As the web continues to form an increasingly crucial resource of our everyday lives, Web accessibility becomes the key to ensuring equal access and equal opportunities to all.

Think about this.

When was the last time you had to do something important relating to education, employment, banking, health care, or e-commerce without going online?

Up to that point, it had never crossed my mind that even the most basic online activities—activities that I find simple or even enjoyable, such as finding information, paying bills (not enjoyable), or online shopping—could become tedious or impossible for a visually impaired person.

What baffled me more is that implementing Web accessibility isn’t necessarily that hard. One only has to make the correct choices when selecting design features, tools, or web applications.

Looking back, that eye-opening first conversation with Moses Choo was definitely the catalyst for a mission that we have set out to achieve.

 

The Need to Right a Social Injustice

I can’t say for sure what has made the most significant impact on my decisions in life. Maybe it was a combination of my upbringing and the influences of the people and environments that I associate myself with.

But for as long as I can remember, there have always been these two values that I uphold dearly in life: freedom and justice.

Naturally, I feel anger when I witness the vulnerable being oppressed and their rights stripped away.

But being angry alone has never changed anything.

So, I decided to do something about it.

Below, I’ll explain what issues drive my pursuit of social justice for the BVI community in the country. But first, I need to give you an overview of the rights—or the lack of them—of Persons with Disabilities (PWD) in Malaysia.

 

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities

In Malaysia, the rights and future development of Persons with Disabilities (PWD) are supposedly protected under several corresponding instruments:

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) – Global Mandate

The Government of Malaysia became a signatory of the CRPD in 2008. The CRPD affirms protection for people with disabilities, including the rights to life, freedom from discrimination, equal recognition before the law, and access to justice, education, employment, and health.

Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 (Act 685) – Law of Malaysia

Following the CRPD, Malaysia introduced the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 (Act 685) to provide for the registration, protection, rehabilitation, development, and wellbeing of Persons with Disabilities (PWD).

According to the Act, PWDs in the country have equal rights to access, among others, general education and all levels of schooling, employment and just, favourable working conditions, and information, communication, and technology (ICT).

Incheon Strategy to “Make the Right Real” for Persons with Disabilities in Asia and the Pacific 2013 – 2022 – Regional Mandate (PWD Action Plan)

Following the Incheon Strategy in 2012, the 10 Incheon Strategy Goals were used to form the PWD Action Plan (Pelan Tindakan OKU). Strategy 1 of the Action Plan is:

“Improve mobility and quality of life of people with disabilities to be [sic] more productive and inclusive society.”

 

The Issues

Now, the above list seems comprehensible enough to guide the actions of the Government. However, there are still several issues that don’t sit right:

Issue 1 – No penal provisions in the Act for enforcement or guarantee of compliance

Since the Persons with Disabilities Act was enforced in 2008, PWDs have called it a ‘toothless tiger’. According to them, the Act is purely an administrative actwith no punitive measures for non-compliance or acts of discrimination. [6]

For more than ten years, advocacy groups and PWDs in the country have been calling for the Act to be reviewed to sufficiently uphold the rights of persons with disabilities.

I have a question.

If a party fails to comply with the PWD Act 2008, and nothing in the Act compels them to be penalized, is the Act still a legal instrument, or is it more of a guideline?

Disappointingly, while any provisions for judicial remedies and penalties for non-compliance are omitted, the Act does, however, express exclusion of the Government from being sued for any wrongdoing. [7]

Also, this somewhat comical observation here makes you wonder what was going on when the PWD Act was drawn up.

Issue 2 – Failure to comply and to be in full agreement with the CRPD

Despite being a signatory of the CRPD for the last 11 years, Malaysia has yet to submit a country report (due every four years) to the United Nations.

Questions.

One, how are we keeping track of actual progress?

Two, who is answering for the lack of any significant actions in protecting the rights of PWDs in Malaysia?

In 2010, Malaysia ratified the CRPD with reservations to Article 15 (freedom of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment) and Article 18 (liberty of movement and nationality).

Ratified with reservations simply means that the Government of Malaysia agrees to the CRPD as long as it doesn’t need to comply with Article 15 and Article 18. [8]

To date, Malaysia has yet to withdraw its reservations.

The Government of Malaysia has also not ratified the Optional Protocol to the CRPD. Basically, the Optional Protocol allows individuals to lodge complaints with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities should a signatory country violate its obligations under the CRPD.

You know what this means right?

I may be wrong, but it appears to me that the Government seems more interested in protecting itself—from any obligation to protect the rights of PWDs—than in actually protecting the rights of PWDs.

You’re mind blown. I know. But here’s the thing.

Matamata wasn’t founded to poke blame. We’re here to challenge the status quo.

True, the lack of follow-through from the Government has only encouraged further discrimination and segregation of PWDs in the country.

Many people in Malaysia still believe that disabled persons should stay home. Obviously, the failure to integrate PWDs into society has created a lack of awareness from the general public.

So, what does this mean for the BVI community?

 

Employment Discrimination Against the Blind and Visually Impaired (BVIs)

For the BVIs, this means, among others, employment discrimination, lack of access to certain facilities and services, and the over-reliance on welfare and government handouts.

Even with the implementation of the 1% Policy [9] of employment for PWDs in the public sector, job seekers with other forms of disabilities are often favoured over BVIs for advertised vacancies.

Why is that?

Well, possibly because, due to a lack of awareness, employers tend to have little confidence in the abilities of BVIs to do the job and are, therefore, reluctant to take the risk in hiring them.

Or, employers lack the knowledge or incentive to accommodate the needs of BVIs in an office environment.

But as more and more jobs in the market become digitalized, the impact of disability changes.

Digitalization removes the barriers to communication, interaction, and productivity that many people, disabled or otherwise, face in the physical world.

So I’ll ask you this.

In a country gearing towards digital transformation, why must the blind community in Malaysia continue to be pigeonholed into a limited set of career options?

You know what I’m talking about.

Just go down to Brickfields and count the number of blind massage centres in the area. That is what occupational segregation looks like.

Listen, I have nothing against the massage and reflexology sector. I think massages are great!

All I’m saying is, the decision to take up a job as a massage therapist should come from choice, not from the product of being blind.

I believe that all of us have the capacity to change the future landscape of the lives of blind and visually impaired people in the country.

To achieve that, I believe we must empower BVIs living in Malaysia to embrace technology and include them in our shift towards a digital economy. But for that to happen, we need to focus our attention on Web accessibility.

So, where do we currently stand?

 

Digital Inclusion of BVIs in Malaysia

With regard to Web accessibility, Malaysia is still not there yet.

According to the Digital Accessibility Rights Evaluation (DARE) Index, Malaysia has a ranking of 46.5/100 in 2020. We have neither a government agency for accessible ICTs nor a process to involve DPOs in ICT accessibility policymaking. Plus, ICT accessibility courses have yet to be made compulsory or available in universities.

In 2020, really?

I was somewhat surprised by this information, so I reached out to a network of developers in the country. Sadly, here’s what I found out.

In Malaysia, building an accessible project usually cost the client more money, and accessibility is not even considered a requirement but an add-on feature that the client must specify.

I find this practice hard to accept, but I understand where it’s coming from. It all comes down to a lack of awareness.

And when the industry becomes aware of the equal rights of PWDs to have access to ICT, it follows that accessibility then becomes a priority to allow for them to exercise those rights.

 

The Takeaway

We at Matamata have a vision.

We envision a future where blind and visually impaired persons receive equal opportunities on the web.

Yep, I know. We have a monstrous task ahead of us to make that happen. We’re optimistic.

And yet, humility tells me we’re not supposed to do it alone.

So, I’ll leave you with my call to action.

I call on all stakeholders in the tech industry.

Don’t wait for policies to change to tell you what needs to be done. Start by informing yourselves on Web accessibility now, then embrace it wholeheartedly in all your projects.

Believe you me, you’ll be changing the lives of Persons with Disabilities in more ways than one.

I call on all employers and HR managers.

It’s time we recognize that diversity and inclusion go beyond race and gender. Allow BVIs the opportunity to apply their skills and talents to your organization. [10]

I call on all YouTubers, content creators, educators.

Start by making your content accessible today. We know a group of highly motivated transcribers from the BVI community who would love to transcribe and translate video and audio files for you.

When you hire them for their services, it doesn’t just earn them a side income. You’ll also be giving them something they have expressly wantedto be a contributing member of society. Plus, people from the Deaf community will have access to your content.

Interested in hiring them? Get in touch here.

If you have any questions about Matamata or would like to get involved, feel free to send me a note at jas@matamata.io!

 

Notes:

 

[1] We act as an intermediary between clients and our blind and visually impaired freelancers. We approach clients for transcription and translation jobs that we then pass on to the freelancers.

While we are still doing the QC work ourselves, we’re also looking at outsourcing QC positions to job seekers from other disability groups.

[2] Definition. A prototype is a rudimentary working sample, model, mock-up or just a simulation of the actual product based on which the other forms (MVP, final product, and variations) are developed. The main motive behind prototyping is to validate the design of the actual product.

[3] The idea of the Support channel came when we learnt about the experiences of a newly blind person in the country. Presently, the existing journey for a patient from the doctor’s office to getting the help and support needed as a new member of the BVI community isn’t always direct or well informed.

[4] Before the Microsoft hackathon, my co-founder, Mee San and I barely knew one another. We had met at a Data Science course only a month before, and when she asked if I was interested in competing in the hackathon with her, I said yes.

While working together on the Matamata App, I glimpsed a side of her that I admired—a side that was both conscientious and empathetic. And as soon as I decided to continue the work we had started with the BVIs, I knew no one would be a better fit. So, I asked her to join me as co-founder, and she said yes.

[5] Definition. Tactile paving is a system of textured ground surface indicators commonly found on footpaths, stairs, and railway station platforms. Its purpose—to assist pedestrians who are visually impaired.

In Malaysia, blind-friendly walkways tend to be hit-or-miss. Sometimes, boleh masuk longkang terus.

[6] Letter from Harapan OKU Law Reform Group to the Star newspaper.

[7] Press Release from the Malaysia Bar regarding the PWD Act 2008.

[8] The Government of Malaysia’s reservation here: https://treaties.un.org/

[9] The Government set a 1% Policy for Disabled people in the public sector. A survey by the Social Welfare Department found that up till 2019, the actual percentage of PWDs employed in the whole country stands at 0.31%.

[10] Here’s a local jobs platform that connects employers to PWDs in Malaysia: https://specialjobs.com.my/

 
 

Resources:

  1. Here’s a somewhat comical observation from Peter Tan, a former columnist on disability issues, regarding the provision for penalties as stated in the PWD Act 2008.
  2. World Report on Disability produced jointly by WHO and the World Bank
  3. Letter from Harapan OKU Reform Group to Malaysiakini in October 2019
  4. Letter from Harapan OKU Reform Group to The Star newspaper in October 2020
  5. Letter from Harapan OKU to The Star newspaper in July 2018
  6. Malaysia: Increased Focus on Digital Inclusion for PWDs

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