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The government has launched a joint effort with the private sector to develop high-tech equipment that can help people with visual and hearing disabilities live more independently, Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry officials said Saturday.

The project is aimed at creating a device that can read out printed material and one that instantly transforms spoken words into text on a mobile phone screen.

The officials said such devices could potentially grow into key export items for Japan.

Products assisting people with visual and hearing disabilities are already commercially available.

Hitachi Ltd. sells computer software featuring an animated figure that performs sign language based on text entered on the keyboard. IBM Japan Ltd. markets software that reads out text on Web sites.

However, there is no product that can read out text from newspapers or magazines.

The officials said the development project is being undertaken by the ministry along with more than 10 companies and some public research institutes.

The ministry plans to hold meetings with organizations of visually disabled people and people with impaired hearing so their opinions can be reflected in developing the devices, they said.

The ministry sees local governments as potential buyers of the devices. They are required by law to help disabled people lead self-supporting lives, and could purchase the devices once they become available and let disabled people in their communities use them.

According to the ministry, 179,000 people across the nation have visual disabilities while 89,000 have hearing disabilities.

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