National

Kita Ward Assembly adopts hearing, speaking aids to help legislators with disabilities

by Atsushi Kodera

Staff Writer

The Kita Ward Assembly, where deaf-mute Tokyo author Rie Saito was elected in the quadrennial unified elections in April, has become the first legislature in the nation to develop a system that allows lawmakers with hearing or speech impediments to participate in sessions in real time.

The text-to-speech conversion system announced Tuesday makes use of wireless devices, the public address system, and personal computers so lawmakers with disabilities can interact with other members in a more seamless fashion.

The system, which also converts speech to text, is part of a computer project the Kita Ward Assembly started in fiscal 2013 to facilitate participation by assembly members with hearing or speech disabilities.

“I feel my presence is pushing a move to make the assembly floor barrier-free,” Saito wrote in a blog post (saitorie.com/blog/kusei/335/) Tuesday in response to the assembly’s announcement.

In 2009, Saito published an autobiography that described how she lost her hearing at age 2 and evolved from delinquent to top hostess at a club in Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza district. The book, “Hitsudan Hosutesu” (“Writing Hostess”), became a best-seller and drew attention for her use of writing to communicate with and charm the club’s patrons, bringing her instant fame.

Saito’s election on April 26 made headlines but also posed a challenge to the assembly: how to enable members with disabilities to participate effectively in an environment where the use of networked electronic devices is prohibited.

According to a Kita Ward Assembly official, the new system was combined with one that was already under development when Saito was elected. It’s an adaptation of a system that was originally intended to let deaf observers listen in on the assembly’s proceedings.

At a session, when an assembly member speaks into the microphone, the system channels the audio signal from the PA to a main computer that converts the words into text that appears on a wireless tablet computer loaned to a deaf participant, allowing statements to be read as they are spoken.

Conversely, any legislator with a speaking impediment who wishes to comment can type into an authorized computer and, via the software, be heard as the words are rendered aloud by its speakers into his or her desk microphone.

The system is expected to debut during Saito’s first appearance when the assembly convenes on Tuesday.

“Since we have yet to use it, we’re going to have to deal with issues that may come up along the way,” the assembly official said. “We’re hoping to hear Saito’s opinions and reflect upon them to improve the system.”

In her blog post, Saito said she was assured by administrators and fellow assembly members that the new system is precise enough to accurately cover assembly activities, adding, “I feel I owe it to advances in technology.”

Nevertheless, she expressed concern about how well the speech-to-text side of the system works and how naturally her statements will be rendered by the synthesized voice.

While appreciating the assembly’s rush to accommodate her in just a month, Saito said the system’s development and the assembly’s decision to change its rules to allow the use of personal computers and software is only a start.

“Permission to use software alone won’t resolve all the issues faced by the hearing impaired. I hope technological advancements will continue so that the software will be improved,” Saito blogged.

“I will still need assistance from administrative staff and other assembly members, but I feel like I’m finally on the starting line,” she added.