Sight And Sound

Published Date
01 - Jul - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Jul - 2006
Sight And Sound
Artificial limbs. Cochlear implants. Pacemakers. People with disabilities have benefited tremendously from these marvels of technology. But entire eye transplants apart, a cure for blindness still seems far away. So how is society to help the blind lead lives that could be considered "normal"?

Most learning happens via association. As children, we see a fruit red in colour and round as an orb, and we hear "apple." The next time we see the object, the mind connects the image to the word-now etched in our memory-and we know it is an apple. Association, however, is not limited to the sense of sight: the visually handicapped use touch and hearing to discern, make associations, and learn.

Using Their Ears
One way of empowering the blind is to teach them to use computers: this not only enriches their lives, it also helps them gain employment. A piece of software is bringing light to thousands of lives: called JAWS, it is a screen reader, and is used by most training centres for the visually handicapped all over the country.

Upon first thought, it sounds incredible that the blind can be taught to use computers. The concept is simple, however: have the software read out everything on the screen. JAWS does just that: everything that is typed-word for word, letter for letter-it reads it all out and helps the user understand what they've just done and what actions are available.

Effective Empowerment
The MN Banaji Institute at Mumbai for the Blind is one of the institutes that teach basic courses in computers. The visually handicapped here have long been trained in various industries such as weaving and stitching so they can work to support themselves financially, but it is only recently that an institute for the blind has been opened to instruct them in the use of computers. "To learn and be a part of the social world is a human need. Besides, the use of computers is so widespread that to not know how to use them is a big impediment to gaining employment. The institute therefore hopes that the ability to use computers with the help of JAWS will make a difference in gaining employment for the students," says Vikas Joseph, head of the Institute.

The courses are of a six-month duration. Tanya Balsara, who herself learnt computing with the help of JAWS, teaches the courses and conducts the examinations as well. The students are anywhere between 18 and 45 years old. Balsara says, "It's a pleasure to teach them. Because of my own disability, I personally understand their confusion in not comprehending a particular detail, so I can take added care to explain features and tasks."

Balsara was a student of the Indian Association for the Visually Handicapped (IAVH), located at the University Club House near Churchgate station in Mumbai. The IAVH has been involved in imparting basic computer knowledge to the visually handicapped since 2000. The students, like those at the MN Banaji Institute, are taught MS Office and the use of the Internet in a six-month course. The IAVH allows the students to access the Internet; the computers there have JAWS installed. Material in Braille is also provided.
The Keyboard Is Key
A screen reader cannot accomplish everything the blind need, of course, but it helps. To begin with, the visually handicapped cannot use the mouse. All commands and shortcuts are therefore taught on the keyboard. They are also familiarised with the various parts of a typical computer. For example, after being explained what a motherboard and a CPU do, they actually hold the components, feel the grids and bumps on the surface of the devices, and get a feel for what they are. Once they have the tactile idea in place, association with the concept becomes easy.

'Each one teach one' is the motto for some

After getting up to speed with the use of the keyboard, typing to and reading from the computer screen is easy, because, as we've mentioned, JAWS reads aloud the letters, words and sentences on the screen.

Joseph explains, "We see BPOs as a possible place of employment for the visually handicapped, since they can interact with customers and use JAWS to read information off the computers." He, however, adds: "The software is expensive-Rs 44,000-and this is a possible deterrent to potential employers. Besides, there are certain other things to be taken care of. For example, the earphones have to be placed in the right slot; it is difficult for the blind to find a slot. We need to be sensitive to such matters even as we prepare them to be independent."

A Boon For The Blind
Ram Agarwal, president of the IAVH, says, "JAWS is designed to complement MS Word. But it is user-friendly when it comes to Skype as well. Now, even Yahoo! has configured itself such that the screen reader can read off the pages of the site. The software is American, and when JAWS was introduced, users had to cope with the differences in pronunciation. But today, the software is designed with an Indian voice called "Sangeeta," which has greatly eased the problem.

It is important for the blind to gain mastery over the keyboard, and there is another software the IAVH uses-the Talking Typing Teacher-which helps students acquaint themselves thoroughly with keyboard functions.

Besides helping the visually handicapped gain employment, which is the primary aim, there are other benefits associated with the use of JAWS. For example, Braille books can be cumbersome; with JAWS, the blind can easily read e-books and e-journals.
In The Real-World
While the two institutes mentioned above do not charge their students, there are a few organisations that do. The GTL Foundation (GTLF) is one such charitable trust that set up an advanced computer training centre for the visually impaired at Wadala, Mumbai, in mid-2005. The institute teaches not just basic computer operation with the help of JAWS, but also has a "train-the-trainer" program for someone who is already teaching others how to operate computers, besides courses that teach programming, medical transcription and call centre training-all of which are gateways to employment. The courses have a nominal fee associated, and potential students have certain criteria to meet. For example, to enrol for the advanced computer operations course, a candidate has to have a grasp of the basic operations on a computer, and also needs to clear an eligibility test.

Wouldn't setting preliminary requirements deter the visually impaired from pursuing such courses? "We do not just plan to train them, but impart thorough working knowledge so that they are prepared for work in the software industry," says Charudatta Jadhav, project manager for software solutions at GTL. Jadhav also oversees the work at the Centre. "We plan to prepare individuals so that they can compete with other candidates for positions. The idea of having requirements is to prepare the visually handicapped for the seriousness of the situation."

A Helping Hand
Frank Fernandes, head for CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) at GTL, talks about their plans to develop a screen reader software very much like JAWS. If there will be a difference, it is in the price. Fernandes says, "JAWS is expensive, which is something that anyone who is visually impaired or who hires a visually impaired person does not miss. They all are put to inconvenience and strained financially. Hence, we're planning to create software that can be obtained for just about Rs 5,000." The GTLF plans to use this software for purely philanthropic reasons, and hence will not be marketing it. 

Besides training, the CSR activities of GTL include helping the blind play computer chess: the company has developed a software called Talk 64, which can read chess software.

With evolving technology and continuous efforts being channelled towards developing software for the handicapped, the disabled can be aided towards their goals-goals at the same level as those lucky enough to be able to perceive the world through five senses.

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