A Caf?(C) For The Blind

Published Date
01 - Aug - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Aug - 2005
A Café For The Blind
As you walk down the sea-front, the salty spray lands softly on your face. Unwelcome on a sweltering July afternoon, the same would have evoked a sense of poetry on a better day. You ignore the play of light on the foam, the multitude of reflections and imagery that the sunlight lends to the waves. You ignore it because you can see it.

You'd more want to look at nature's little ditties if you couldn't see at all.

We've all realised, at some point, how difficult it is to function in the dark. But just to refresh your conscience, imagine sitting in front of a computer with a blindfold across your eyes. Now try to navigate to a link.

You wouldn't be able to without assistance, of course. Let's try voice prompts, or software that reads what's on your screen. The text-to-speech tool is cumbersome, and for those stuck on point-and-click, it's difficult to navigate from one window or link to the next following voice commands.

But then, isn't it difficult to walk a few steps with a blindfold on? If you throw in a couple of turns there's sure to be a lot of tripping and falling.
It is indeed difficult for us to visualise, if one may use the term, moving around in the real world or in cyberspace without the aid of our eyes. But spare a thought for those who do it every day, and are pretty adept at it.

The National Association for the Blind (NAB) in India has been offering lessons in technology to the visually impaired for a long time now. But with the arrival of the Internet and with computer skills becoming mainstream, it had become imperative to incorporate these into their training and knowledge programmes.

Converting books into audio files using software, and creating Braille transcripts when the need arose, are some of the activities the NAB has been a pioneer at.

The Internet is one truly open forum. Even people like us can chat, mail and surf without much difficulty

This, however, did not fill the lacuna that was created due to lack of access to the Internet. To address this, in May 2002 in Mumbai, the NAB, with assistance from Microsoft, launched a cyber café aimed at catering to the needs of the visually impaired. The café consists of five customised computers, each of which is loaded with software to help the blind browse the Internet as effectively as anyone else. The café also has people volunteering as instructors.

The computers have a broadband connection to the Net. Configured to meet the needs of the visually impaired, they enable effective word processing, and the blind can also use some basic multimedia applications. "We never need anything more than the word processing or browsing software," says a regular user. "On some occasions, we do use the computers to listen to e-books or a couple of MP3 tracks," he adds.

The browsing software that guides the blind through cyberspace is called JAWS (Job Access With Speech) for Windows. This text-to-speech software by Freedom Scientific, creators of technology for the visually- and learning-impaired, can read out text appearing on the screen.

JAWS streamlines keyboard functions, automates commands, and eliminates repetition, allowing the user to work faster.

It's based upon a whole new approach to talking computers-that of designing software with the priorities of the blind user in mind.

The sighted trainer or supervisor has not been forgotten: JAWS offers both aural and visual flexibility, with simple keyboard commands to help navigate through cyberspace, as well as to change the voice, tone and speed of reading.

JAWS has the ability to read almost every page on the Internet using IE. With a simple keystroke, pages with graphics, complex columns, and even frames are reformatted into an easy-to-read single column format.

In addition, with another single keystroke, the user has access to all the frames or links on the page in a list box. Once in the list box, all he or she needs to do is type in the first letter of the link that is to be viewed.

The computers are attached to a scanner, which is equipped with specialised software known as Kurzweil 1000, which converts print to speech.

"The advent of the cyber café has opened up a number of vistas for the blind," says Ketan Kothari, manager, NAB Mumbai. "A lot of us out here are computer fanatics," he adds. Visually-impaired Kothari is as computer- and technology-savvy as any other technophile.

Our discussion veers from mail clients that are most suited for the blind to networking sites such as Hi5 and Orkut. You know the man is on solid ground as far as technology and computing is concerned when he starts discussing the pros of different Internet gateways. "It was always the lack of a viable avenue that stopped people like me from digging too deep into technology," says Kothari. The cyber café designed for the blind has certainly changed all that.

The NAB cyber cafe has opened new vistas for a visually impaired

Users at the café enjoy JAWS' easy-to-use features. But like any other piece of code, JAWS has its glitches. Just as we're chatting about the viability of setting up similar cafés across the country-the only other one being in Delhi-the software runs into a Flash Web site and goes silent.

Kothari taps furiously at the keyboard. "See, this is what I was telling you about," he says. "The software works fine as long as it is dealing with simple HTML or other such scripts." The Flash script has totally flummoxed JAWS. "Anyway, Flash is almost always a visual treat, not something we can enjoy," chuckles Kothari.

"The Internet is one truly open forum. Even people like us can chat, mail and surf without much difficulty," opines a regular user. And what sites do they visit most often? "Chat and mail sites," says Sameer, one of the instructors. "A lot of us also visit online encyclopaedias."

Walking out of the café, one notices a surfer listening intently to JAWS reading out text from an adventure sports Web site.

This particular link is actually giving details on how to scale tricky overhanging cliffs. His interest is evident, and so is the resilience of his spirit. The discomfort of walking back into the sweltering afternoon now seems  rivial.

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