by July 4, 2009 0 comments

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, says
Arthur C. Clarke. Perhaps this line summarizes the magic visually challenged
people experience when they come through software that bring a sea change to
their lives. IT has come a long way in changing the lives of visually
handicapped people with several software that help them lead a better life.

IT that engages a direct involvement with the blind people has been given the
name assistive or accessible technology. These technologies that involve
software and hardware products has worked wonders for the visually challenged
while offering them the opportunity to perform their tasks independently. Some
of the assistive technologies include screen readers, screen magnifiers, voice
browsers and text to speech browsers.

India is now home to the world’s largest number of blind people. Of the 37
million people across the globe who are blind, over 15 million live in India.
With such a major chunk of visually challenged population, the need for
inclusive growth has been a challenge. However, several efforts are being taken
by different vendors and governments departments including CDAC, Freedom
Scientific, Karishma Enterprises in this regard are worthy of appreciation.

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Keywords: Technologies for blind,
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The road ahead
With new text to speech software hitting the market ,the scenario has
dramatically changed. Computer literacy has become an avenue for new job
opportunities and it has taken ahead people with visual impairment as well.
Let’s have a look at some of the common software that are being used these days.

JAWS (Job Access With Speech) is the most popular one amongst the
software that are widely used these days. It has acquired high degree of
reliability in premier institutes across the country including National
Association for Blind (NAB), All India Confederation for the Blind, Society for
Child Development, Blind Relief Association(BRA). JAWS is being used across the
country and other parts of the world. The software with an American accent
converts text to speech. It can be adjusted for varied reading speed depending
on the comfort level of the user. This software is one of the most useful and
convenient one available in the market. JAWS when combined with the scanner
(like Kurzweil),OCR (Optical Character Recognition) reads out the text. JAWS for
Windows XP Professional costs $1095 and JAWS for home is $895 as against Window
Eyes for home which costs $795. In the Indian context, these prices are
exorbitant. Only a few institutions for the blind in India can afford these
speech output software packages. For individual users, these prices are mostly
beyond reach.

Screen readers can be adjusted
in terms of reading speed to suit indiviual preferences.

Talk 6.3, the software that changes the mobile handsets into talking phones,
has also found a place among the differently abled people. It reads out messages
as well as the phone numbers of the people calling thereby making the
communication easy. Available for $395, the software works on certain high-end
Nokia phones.

Software like PARROT is a voice organizer. It is basically an electronic
diary, in which you can record phone numbers, addresses, memo and appointments.
It is a full voice product. You input your data by speaking , you get the answer
by voice and you search your data by voice recognition.

Kurzweil speaks text aloud in a variety of natural-sounding voices that can
be modified to suit individual preferences. It reads scanned or copied text and
provides users with document creation and editing as well as study skills
capabilities for note taking, summarizing and outlining text to gain mastery.
Kurzweil also delivers quick access to a wealth of information including online
books, magazines and encyclopedias. Besides, it retrieves information online
with features that simplify locating electronic books and magazines. In
addition, it takes reading on the road by sharing electronic information with
MP3 players, portable note taking devices, Braille printers and conventional
e-mail applications

“IT has revolutionized the way people with
visual impairments participate in the world. Apex IT institutes of the
country must ensure that opportunities are provided to them. They are no
longer behind in their knowledge, and if provided access to these
technologies, they can prove their worth. In India, technological advances
would need to factor in the language diversity, and develop software in
Indian languages .”

Dr. Madhumita Puri,
Executive Director,Society for Child Development, Delhi

Undoubtedly, the role that software like JAWS and SAFA are playing in the
lives of blind people will go a long way in strengthening the present as well as
the future prospects of the visually impaired people. The built in tutorial of
JAWS, Kurzweil not only have accelerated the learning process but have tried to
give an edge to the deprived lot.

The challenges ahead
As Dr. Madhumita puri, Executive Director, Society for Child Development, puts,
‘Unfortunately the softwares available are very expensive. Some permit multiple
users and so the cost is brought down by several persons sharing the expenses.’

The mobile phone software has the added disadvantage of requiring a high end
handset, which is not affordable by most. In these instances the human interface
is relied upon. So,dependability is still there due to the cost issues.

“IT has come a long way in changing the
lives of visually impaired people and making them independent. Softwares
like JAWS,SAFA have raised the employability ratio of the visually
challenged people. They can now actively participate in work environment
with the adept computer skills. But still there are miles to go in giving
them the real empowerment.”

Padam Chand Mehta,
Dy. Executive Secretary,The Blind Relief Association, Delhi

Another dark side of the story is that software available today are in
English and other European languages only. However, recently JAWS has tried to
make an attempt by launching the TTS in Hindi. The scanners that are available
also are at times not able to scan the bar graphs, charts or maps.

Going by the huge number of blind people in the country, the market for
assistive technologies is big. Unanimous effort can only keep the visually
impaired people on the bright side of the digital divide.

Archana Singh

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