No Holds Barred

Published Date
01 - Feb - 2008
| Last Updated
01 - Feb - 2008
No Holds Barred

Technology now helps the visually-challenged hear things they can’t see

Today, if you ask a visually-challenged person conversant with computers about Braille or Talking Libraries, don’t be surprised if he says “They’re so last decade!” Technology has broadened their horizons. What follows is about what it’s like right now... what’s happening in India, and what people are doing.

They Aren’t Sitting Idle

Shanti Raghavan, founder and managing trustee, Enable India (a charitable trust that helps people with disabilities), avers, “Technology has proved to be a boon for visually-challenged people. It’s due to technology that these individuals are now able to pursue education, entertainment, and, most importantly, employment, to make their lives better and more meaningful.”

(The term “visually-challenged” refers to those who have entirely lost their sight as well as those with very poor vision.)

In 2002-03, Krishnakant Mane became India’s first visually-challenged IT engineer. Inspired by friends with engineering backgrounds, he started off on GNU / Linux, and began promoting the Free as in Freedom philosophy. Today, Mane is a free software developer, teacher, and activist who works with Dr Nagarjuna, computer head at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Mumbai. Mane is currently co-developing Orca, a free screen-reading software for GNU/Linux meant for the visually-challenged.

Jyotindra Mehta is known amongst his peers for his proficiency in IBM Mainframe technology. He currently works with IBM Global Services India as Advisory Software Engineer. Born blind, Mehta is India’s first software programmer to have been awarded the Shell Helen Keller Award (in 2004) by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled Persons.

Raghavan goes on to say—with no mention of names, though—“A shy group of three people with limited knowledge of the world are now working in the challenging field of medical transcription. It requires perfection—being very careful with spelling—which they mastered in the face of several challenges.”

There are many other visually-challenged individuals who have learnt to earn their living with the help of technology. The dynamism of their talent has taken them beyond basic data entry work or writing code to software development and even troubleshooting.

Getting Them Up To Speed

Screen readers, text-to-speech software, and other things which we’ll soon mention, are crucial aids: they enable differently-abled people to perform various tasks, by helping them learn how to use technology for education, their main occupation, and of course, entertainment. They are, in short, intended to make them independent.

In the last decade and a half, screen readers, screen magnifiers, text-to-speech software, and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software has evolved to a great degree. These aids, along with text-to-speech software, audio / MP3 players, audio book readers, and more have fuelled the hunger for knowledge in visually-impaired people.

A number of cyber-cafés, Government-supported training centres, and NGOs imparting computer courses to visually-challenged people are functional across India. Resource centres at colleges, like Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC) at Mumbai, managed by Dr Sam Taraporewala, imparts computer training to the visually impaired using various technological aids and state-of-the-art computers.

“Along with screen readers, screen magnifiers, and book players, we use other hardware-based aids like Mountbatten MB Pro (a talking / typing Brailler), SARA (Scanning and Reading Appliance), Prisma (a CCTV-based device for low-vision users) and Zoom Ex (an instant photo scanner),” says Prashant Naik, Training and Development Officer, XRCVC. The Centre also serves as a test-bench for upcoming Web sites to check for accessibility features and software meant to help the visually-challenged cope with technology.

At these junctions, computer training courses are offered to make the visually-challenged conversant with basic packages like Microsoft Office and with the Internet. “Besides computer-centric training, we at Enable India provide training programmes that involve the development of communication skills in English, analytical skills, and error-proofing techniques to help the visually-challenged perform well even in difficult situations—that is, those where proper eyesight would be considered a must,” says Raghavan.

The IT industry has expressed the interest in employing visually challenged
individuals through NGOs like Enable India

We’re now seeing several instances where the visually-challenged are employed for even challenging tasks. The IT industry has expressed tremendous interest in employing such individuals through NGOs like Enable India, as part of their social responsibility. Enable India provides, for the visually-challenged, workplace solutions involving job identification, system configuration, and troubleshooting.

The Next Step

Three major areas where development is taking place on a major scale in India in terms of software are:

  • Indian-sounding text-to-speech synthesiser engines for screen readers,
  • Tactile imaging embossers (embossers that convert images to embossed dots), and
  • Screen readers for different browsers.

The Internet being the ocean of knowledge that it is, a majority of the developments in existing and upcoming software is taking place for better Web accessibility.

Loads of screen readers, as well as tools like Opera’s voice-commands feature are available, but why aren’t Indian citizens being made aware of them? Well, there is the accent problem with us Indians, and not every Web page is designed   with a screen reader in mind.

Web pages scripted with different languages—for instance, AJAX carrying dynamic JavaScript—make it difficult for screen reader software like JAWS to cope. To combat the browser issue, Mane, with other global developers, is working on the Accessibility functions in the Firefox browser. He believes that Web pages should be formatted using W3C-certified scripting languages.

The cheaper and affordable Indian-version screen reader called SAFA (Screen Access For All) is under development, led by Dipendra Manocha, director for IT and Services at the National Association for the Blind (NAB). Manocha also works as assistant project manager for DAISY for All-India, a project of the DAISY consortium; DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) is an open standard used for developing tools such as digital talking books.

At XRCVC, e-Signs (banking software for the visually-challenged) is being tested and developed by CMC Ltd; it was conceptualised by the Centre. This software will help banks with thumb-print recognition reach an expected accuracy closer to 100 per cent for thumb-prints by the visually-challenged. Besides, the Centre recently tested an open source screen reader called AccesibilityWorks, developed by IBM, which works with Firefox on Linux.

On the open source front, at LinuxAsia 2007, Klaus Knopper with his wife Adriane (who is visually-impaired) announced the development of Adriane Knoppix, a free operating system (GNU/Linux) specially for the visually-challenged.

An IT student of Agra College recently developed E-Netra, a device using which the visually-challenged will hear the text they can’t read; it’s a gadget with a zoom lens and unique software.

“Go Open Source”

Mane reminds us that almost 80 per cent of Web servers run on GNU/Linux-based operating systems. IT giants and many big multinationals now use GNU/Linux-based OSes for their servers.

Tools Currently Used In India
Software and hardware aids widely used by various NGOs and Resource Centres

Screen Readers
JAWS: Job Access With Speech is a proprietary screen reading software that converts text to speech and reads it out at an adjustable place, with options for voice (male/female), tone, languages, and speech engines.

ORCA: An open source application for the visually challenged with many features, including a speech synthesiser; it supports Braille and also a text magnifier.

Emacspeak: An open source text-to-speech interface meant for visually-challenged users as an enabler to browse the Web and use various programs without assistance.

SAFA (Screen Access For All): A cheaper alternative to the JAWS screen reader, which uses an Indian-sounding synthesiser for the speech engine.

MObile Phones

Mobilespeak: A screen reader application with Braille support for Symbian Series 60 Edition cell phones. id=24

TALKS: A screen reader that supports 20 languages on Symbian Series 60 phones.

Call History: Software that allows visually-impaired users to hear a description of dialled, missed, and received calls, along with voice-prompt-based navigation. Applications.html

Screen / Text Magnifiers

MAGic: Screen magnification software with hotkeys different from those in Windows.

ZoomText: A text magnifier and reading software for low-vision users.


Talking Typing Teacher: Meant for novices as well as advanced users, this is a typing tutor with speech used for every function

Braille: Duxbury’s Braille Translator
Software that provides translation, formatting, and word-processing facilities to automate the process of working from regular text to Braille and vice-versa.

WinBraille: A Braille editor meant for Index Braille embossers.

Shree-Lipi Braille (Indian-language Braille translation software):
Has support for Indian languages including Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, Gujarati, and others, with the main function of enabling translation of text to Braille. The file created can be used with a Braille embosser to print out content in Braille. braille.html

Playback Software

AMIS: (Adaptive Multimedia Information System) for the DAISY Book Reader
An open source book-reading software for talking books saved in the DAISY format, with support for South Asian languages.

This list represents software widely used in India; it is not exhaustive.

Now, though GNU/Linux-based OSes and programs are free, why is the common man still unaware of their benefits? Mane laments, “Free-of-cost programs are very costly, as the willingness to share is rare. If the government and people gain some awareness soon, they’ll realise the benefits of viable and affordable open source systems over the costly proprietary ones that lack Indian speech synthesis and language support.”

This idea has hit Kerala state. Today, over 80 IT resource centres provide training facilities to people in rural areas as well as to visually-challenged people on computers running open source OSes with the Orca screen reader installed for the benefit of the latter.

Future Expectations

Like J K Rowling wrote in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, “It is not our abilities but our choices which make us what we are.” Visually-challenged people are ready to take up the challenges of life—now with technology at their side. Many tech evangelists have predicted that the future of computing is mobile; usage patterns seem to indicate the truth of this.

Neha Trivedi, Project Officer, XRCVC, says, “In the near future, a multifunction portable gadget / device that can do nearly most functions will increase the flexibility of performing tasks like text-reading, scanning, and the use of speech technology almost anywhere. This could make the visually-challenged more independent.”

Various aids, including software, audio players, and multifunctional gadgets do exist for the visually-challenged. But they’re expensive for the most part, and quite unaffordable for most of those who need them.

You can help. Donate old working PCs to IT resource centres run by your state government, or trusts for the visually challenged, or at NGOs like Enable India and many more (take a look at the Touched by Tech section in our July 2007 issue). At the Talking Libraries and resource centres—like XRCVC in Mumbai—you can volunteer to scan printed material for conversion to audio-books. A lot of people will be happy.

Samir MakwanaSamir Makwana