And Then, There Was Light

Published Date
01 - Mar - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Mar - 2005
And Then, There Was  Light
"A person who is severely handicapped never knows his own hidden source of strength until he is treated like a normal human being and allowed and supported to shape his own life-for life is either a challenge and an adventure or nothing at all."

They gently feel your hands, your watch, the shape of your fingernails and the texture of your skin. Their hands talk and are, in effect, their eyes. They write the letters of the alphabet on your palm and tap your wrist to signal the end of each word. After this novel exercise in palm printing follows an interactive session on the computer.

"Hi Zamir."
"How are you?"
"I am doing fine."
"Tell me more about yourself."
"I first came to the Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf and Deafblind when I was 12…"

Does this resemble a chat transcript? Actually, it is a written dialogue in MS Word, with Zamir Dhale, who is deaf-blind. Dhale cannot use the mouse, can't see the monitor and neither can he hear any instructions. Yet, he does not falter or hesitate while working on the computer.

Dhale is an assistant computer trainer at the Helen Keller Institute for Deaf and Deafblind (HKIDB), Mumbai, a pioneering institute in India and Asia in the education of the deaf-blind. In 1977, founder Beroz Vacha and two other teachers-Diana Fernandes and Brinda Nanavati, started with just three students and a meagre Rs 150. At the time, services existed for the deaf and blind separately, but none were available for the deaf-blind.

In 1979, they moved to the present municipal school at Byculla. HKIDB provides early education services for deaf-blind children, a school for older students, vocational training for  rehabilitation and a teacher-training course.  Most of the students come from the lower strata of society, but from families with a vision of their children having access to adequate educational facilities and happy futures.

The Legacy Of Helen Keller
Dr Helen Keller (1880-1968) who paved the way for educating the deaf and deaf-blind, was herself deaf-blind. Says Vacha, "I believe that there is no dearth of goodness in this world. Our strength comes from Helen Keller's legacy. Our belief that 'No one is incapable of being educated, loved and accepted with dignity; it is the fundamental birthright of every child to be educated, loved and accepted with dignity' has served us over the years. Our students think, 'we can because we think we can'."

The deaf and deaf-blind have differing degrees of both vision and hearing loss, that could be accompanied by other debilitating conditions such as mental retardation, cerebral palsy and seizures. A deaf-blind child, due to the combination of hearing and visual handicaps, needs a specialised, individualised programme that will help him or her function better. By and large, HKIDB has a 1:1 teacher-student ratio.

HKIDB follows the philosophy of total communication-oral, aural, manual, print, mime and dance that helps improve cognitive levels, thus enabling free modes of self-expression.

Productions of HKIDB's Computerised Mini Braille Press 
Twelve different types of greeting cards for special occasions such as festivals, birthdays, and so on.
A unique all-time desktop calendar of inspirational thoughts.   
101 amazing science experiments and brain tickling activities for students.    Human anatomy Atlas.   
An India Atlas titled 'India at your Fingertips'.  

Books in Braille and large print so that deaf-blind and low-vision students can read them. These include Who Moved My Cheese, the Chicken Soup series, Indian Cookery and Light From Many Lamps.   
Braille labelling, another upcoming income-generating line.

Why Teach Computing?
The educational curriculum at HKIDB aims to develop a student's literary and academic skills including reading and writing, cognitive skills (reasoning, attention to tasks, memory, retention, cause and effect), motor skills (such as hand-eye coordination), perceptual skills, orientation and mobility. So far, these skills were taught the old-fashioned way, using books or charts in Braille.

Computers have become a vital part of the modern education process. Some children with deaf-blindness are disinclined to explore their environment-computers motivate such children and improve concentration. Software with attractive visual and auditory features encourage low vision or hearing impaired children to use their residual vision and hearing-larger fonts enable children suffering from low vision to read comfortably.

Vacha says, "How long will the deaf and deaf-blind earn a living making flowers, candles and paper bags? They are not lesser mortals! They can be as competent as the next person if given the right chance. Don't they have an equal right to be computer-savvy? Deaf-blind children are bright and have tremendous potential for education and work. Computer literacy enables children with disabilities to lead a normal life."

Former students Zamir Dhale and Pradip Sinha (both deaf-blind) insisted on learning computers. Both are now computer training assistants at HKIDB.
The Cybernetic Approach
"Language is the channel through which you become expressive. Language acquisition takes place  almost automatically and in due course for people with normal vision and hearing. However, the deaf and deaf-blind must first learn to communicate using language before they can move on to using technology.

"But, how do you expect a deaf-blind person to use the PC or even the typewriter without knowing the alphabet? For that, they must first learn to communicate through sign language, palm-printing, writing and reading in Braille," adds Vacha.

She reflects, "Most suggestions centred on  imprinting the tactile Braille script on the keyboard. Again, that would mean undermining their intelligence. I insisted that all the deaf-blind learned touch-typing, a pre-requisite to operate the keyboard. While our aim is to work effectively with electronic technology, we cannot afford to ignore manual technology such as the portable 'Brailler' that teaches alphanumeric typing in Braille. We essentially follow a cybernetic approach."
Teaching With Tender Loving Care
Katy Gundevia has been teaching English and other subjects at HKIDB for three years. She says, "My initial reaction when I was faced with the prospect of teaching them was-how can I do it? I learnt palm printing and sign language. On hearing that we would soon use computers, I was instantly relieved! The familiar sight of the PC was encouraging. It is now easier to communicate with  students through computers."

The students are very enthusiastic about using computers and often try to monopolise the machine! They are taught the aids and appliances necessary to operate the computer-starting with the typewriter to learn touch-typing, followed by the Perkins Brailler (a special Braille typewriter) and finally moving on to the computer keyboard.

The deaf-blind and the blind cannot see the monitor and the mouse serves no purpose either.  This is where the electronic Braille display board comes in. This display board indicates each and every change that takes place on the monitor.

The deaf-blind and the blindcan understand these changes by moving their fingertips across the cells on the display board, which are in Braille.

The Braille cells move as data is entered through the keyboard   enabling the deaf-blind to read the text on the screen, manoeuvre accordingly, make changes and even e-mail, surf and download content from the Internet.

The Computerised Mini Braille Press
An integral part of HKIDB is the pioneering Computerised Mini Braille Press project, set up in January 2002. Here, the deaf and deaf-blind are trained to use computers and undertake computer-related programming and designing. This computer-training unit-cum-mini braille press produces a variety of materials to suit the needs of the deaf-blind/blind/low vision/sighted and hearing individuals.

The deaf students are trained in graphic design and produce tactile graphic educational material. While, the blind, those who are proficient in Braille, help in proofreading. The newsletter Deaf-blindness in Asia: A Communication Link is composed and published by the Braille Press and is circulated among all centres for the deaf-blind in Asia, Europe and other parts of the world.

Vacha says, "The success of our Computerised Mini Braille Press is thanks to the contribution of the Rangoonwala Foundation, UK. We also owe a debt of gratitude to the British High Commission, Christoffel Blindenmission and  other donors. We are equally grateful to our trainers for  their efforts to teach the students."

The Process
A software called JAWS (Jobs Accessing With Speech) enables the blind (who have normal hearing) to use computers by listening to the audio instructions. 

JAWS is also essential for synthesising text or commands on screen into Braille, which then appear on the electronic Braille display board. The deaf who have normal vision work on graphics using CorelDraw, while the printing and the packaging jobs are looked after by the deaf-blind.

Computer trainer Devyani  P states, "We had nobody to emulate and had to start from scratch. We  researched a lot to produce material in Braille and normal print. We started with greeting cards."

Tools And Techniques
The Duxbury Braille Translator (DBT) is a software that translates text, say, from MS Word, into Braille. Printouts in Braille can then be taken through an embosser. Even those who do not know Braille, can type in regular English and print in Braille, which otherwise would be time-consuming and tedious even for those who can write in Braille.

Picture In A Flash or PIAF is used to print tactile graphics

Picture In A Flash (PIAF) is a piece of hardware that produces excellent tactile graphics.        However, the A3 paper required for PIAF is costlier as compared to the one used on the Tiger Advantage machine, another output device that prints tactile graphics.  But the print-outs from the Tiger Advantage machine are no match for the PIAF ones that are more distinguishable and attractive.

The equipment used at the Braille press is expensive-a single electronic Braille display board costs an astronomical Rs 2.5 lakh! Prices of other equipment range from Rs 50,000 to Rs six lakh.

Don't the deafblind have an equal right to be computer-savvy? Computer literacy enables them to lead normal lives
Beroz N Vacha, Director and Consultant, HKIDB, Mumbai

At The Workshop
Assistant computer trainer Pradip Sinha (25) is a father of five. His family is in Kolkata, while he stays in Mumbai, as the facilities provided by HKIDB are not available elsewhere.

A Devkumar (25) who is deaf, is the DTP operator. The hearing-impaired but extraordinarily talented Mahesh Joshi (31) and Dhirendra Dubey (27) are graphics designers. A first-year B.Com student,  Aarti Shetty (20) is hearing-impaired and works as the data-entry operator. Naina (30) was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and her vision and hearing is on the decline. She says, "In seven months I have learnt Braille, computers, candle and perfume making and other crafts. I am glad to be independent."

Incidentally, Dhale (27) is one of the people responsible for teaching Amitabh Bachchan manual communication for the deaf-blind for the film Black, where the Big B plays the teacher of a deaf-blind girl. Sanjay Leela Bhansali and his team visited HKIDB to study the characteristics of the deaf-blind.

Income Generation
Balaji J, administrator at the  Braille Press, says, "Our assignments range from printing stationery, brochures to educational material. These assignments help us disburse stipends and salaries to the deaf and deaf-blind who work in the Braille press."

Their clientele reads Sunchem Corp, Sauradip Chemical Industries, Fine Stitches, Tankaria Exim, Shreepaul and Company and various other firms. They recently completed an assignment for the Mumbai District AIDS Control Society-a brochure in Hindi and English with 5,000 copies in normal print and 10,000 in Braille. They received a work order for 2,500 copies  from Dignity Foundation. At present, they are working on a safety introduction manual in Braille for Jet Airways.

At exhibitions and displays of the  Braille Press products, visitors are stunned to  see the deaf and deaf-blind expertly handle computers. Through learning and using computers, the physically handicapped can become contributing members of the society and lead successful lives.

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