<%-- Page Title--%> Info-Tech <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 130 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

November 14, 2003

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An Alternative Sight


Imagine sitting in front of your computer. You open a Word document, type a letter and then decide to close it clicking on the 'close' box. Or you want to do a bit of browsing to find out the remedy for chronic colds. Or you just check your mail. Sounds pretty basic if you have even basic computer knowledge right? Now do all these things with your eyes closed. It's a complete fiasco.

This is what most blind or partially blind people would face. A blank screen every time they sat in front of a computer. They may have the education and brains required to do such simple tasks but just because of a handicap and the absence of the proper software, are completely detached from a technology that characterizes today's world.

In Bangladesh, there are about 700,000 adults who have some form of visual impairment or the other. Most of them are unemployed and only a fraction has even the knowledge about the functions of a computer. Among those who are educated some have even completed university education there are individuals who have actually taken courses in computer technology only to find that such skills are redundant unless they are used with the proper software. This in turn, is both expensive and not widely available making it virtually impossible for a visually impaired person to be computer literate further limiting his/her chances of being employed. These are some of the findings of a recent study on the state and scope of computer usage for the visually impaired. The study was conducted by Centre for Services and Information on Disability and Peace corps Fredskorpset. A team from the Norwegian Association of the blind and Partially-sighted, visited Bangladesh to find out the extent of computer knowledge and use among the educated visually blind and the possibilities of establishing a Centre of Excellence to train these people in computer technology.

The study found that only 12% of the 190 respondents (from eleven districts), used computers at the workplace. This is either because the employers do not have confidence in the visually impaired person's computer abilities or simply because they don't have the necessary equipment needed for such a person to use.

Training opportunities are also limited with only a handful of NGOs providing training. The Vocational Centre for the Blind (VTCB) has initiated training on JAWS windows with support from Christoffel Blind Mission (CBM). A Braille-to-text as well as text-to-Braille formats are part of the nine month course. JAWS for windows, moreover, being quite popular among the visually impaired, has been used by a few organisations such as Helen Keller International, Baptist Shangha for Blind Girls and the Vocational Training Centre. In schools, the scope for visually impaired children to learn computer skills is even more remote.

So what kind of basic computer skills would be appropriate for the visually impaired in Bangladesh? Respondents of the study have cited fundamentals of computer operation, word processing, spreadsheet operation and Internet communication.

Farzana Taleb Liza a 32 year old Chief Executive of an NGO, lost her sight as an infant when she contracted small pox. Belonging to a supportive and well-to-do family, Farzana completed her HSC and her Honors degree in Social Welfare at Dhaka University. She also took a four year diploma course in physiotherapy and a short course in leadership in the US. Her education included becoming quite computer savvy by completing various computer courses. She even bought her own computer and installed JAWS talking software. Although she found it quite difficult at fist, with continued practice she acquired the required profficiency.

Most of the respondents were city dwellers, almost 70 percent were university students. While most of them were completely blind, a significant number had partial vision and so obviously had an advantage over those with no vision.

Information Communication Technology (ICT) for the visually impaired is still far from being a priority issue. But there are some encouraging factors. Information technology tailor made for the visually impaired is quite advanced in neighbouring countries and can be adapted in Bangladesh. There are quite a number of NGOs working for the disabled and eager to promote ICT for the visually impaired. From the government side too, the concerned ministries Science and Technology ministry and Ministry of Social welfare are also interested in making the visually impaired better equipped to enter the job market.

The study however, indicates that a lot more needs to done in making computers and computing technologies more accessible for people with special needs. One of the study's suggestions is greater awareness among the visually impaired and the general public regarding the potential of ICT use for the visually impaired. Such ICT issues, says the study, must be included in the national ICT policy. A resource centre or Centre of Excellence has also been proposed in Dhaka which will continuously demonstrate how such specific technologies can be taken advantage of.

Another important suggestion is that such customized computer education should start as early as possible, preferably at school so that a visually impaired child can get familiar with such technology. Other recommendations include getting the NGOs to start providing training for these people and training trainers on how to teach such skills to the visually impaired. But in order for such technology to be sustainable it is important that a mechanism of maintenance of both software and hardware is developed within the resource centres. Finally, further research on these technologies has to be kept up so that specific needs of individuals are addressed.

Thirty-three year old Gopal Chandra Saha was born blind but this did not stop him from working hard to continue his education and complete his Bachelor's degree from Dhaka University. After graduation he realised that just academic achievement would not get him employment in such a competitive job market. So he took a training course in JAWS which landed him a job as a trainer in an NGO. At work Saha has made good progress and has become adept at using computer software.

But most visually impaired persons are not so lucky. Even after acquiring the necessary computer skills they find that employers are still reluctant about hiring people who to them, are simply blind and so, unproductive. Borhanuddin, a middle-aged man from a lower-middle class family has a Dhaka University degree with impressive mark sheets and has completed a nine-month course in computer training but has not been able to find employment. “When you're disabled especially visually impaired, nobody will hire you; you have to create your own job” “This sort of learning gives nothing in return except killing of time, money and energy”. Such bitterness is common among the educated visually impaired. Thus better access to advanced ICT for these individuals will only make sense if we can ensure jobs at the end of such hard work.

In recent times, many countries have invested considerably in research to find ways by which visually impaired individuals can take advantage of IT (Information Technology), to be employed and be more self-reliant. This is not just for altruistic reasons but because governments and societies are realising that blind people have great potential to contribute to society and are only held back because they are not given the opportunities to develop their skills and explore their talents. Newer and more efficient software is being developed; computers are being designed so that they function as a blind person's 'alternative eye'.

One of the most popular software is formidably named JAWS an acronym that stands for Job Access with Speech which converts a normal PC into a talking computer. A visually impaired person can learn the keyboard as it speaks out the letters and functions when pressed without affecting the computer. A talking device guides the person from one task to the next. A similar software is Connect Outloud, a low cost solution for Internet browsing, email functions and easy-to-use word processing.

An even more sophisticated software is JAWBone, aptly named as it allows the visually impaired user to talk to the computer to give commands or generate text. The JAWBone uses two kinds of software JAWS and Dragon NaturalSpeaking. It has all the specific commands and documentation and support material to help the user in acquiring basic computer capabilities.

For the low vision users there is MAGic Magnification software that magnifies the images on monitor. A screen can be magnified as much as sixteen times.

Self learning training kits for JAWS users combine theory and exercise through interactive practice in real environments. Portable computers or note takers allow the visually impaired person to be more independent and to work even when he/she is on the move.

PAC (Personal All-Purpose Computer) Mate converts objects and text into speech so users can hear documents, images and even Web content.

Then there is a whole bunch of software with Braille features. Braille to Text Software (Direct Braille 1.0) converts entered Braille into corresponding Indian languages automatically. This includes English and Bangla. Other software include Braille Writer System 1.0 for Braille file handling, Tact- Braille TR10 a PC based touch reading device and Math Braille where the user can type in English, Bangla text as well as Mathematical symbols. Math Braille can be used to create Mathematics and Scientific texts, books, notes, question papers and so on.

Apart from all such Microsoft software, there is less costly versions with similar facilities from Linux, an operating system that has gained wide popularity among visually impaired users around the world. The SuSE Blinux, for instance, enables the visually impaired user to comfortably work with Linux. Emacspeak allows blind and visually impaired users to interact independently and efficiently with a computer. This software is free on the Internet and has dramatically changed how writers and hundreds of visually impaired users around the world interact with the personal computer and the Internet.



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