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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.