Visionary Technology for Helping The Visually Impaired

“Good afternoon, how may I help you?” you hear the calm and confident voice after dialling the helpline regarding a problem with your credit card. The voice guides you in what’s to be done and you thank the person before hanging up, without realising that he or she may be visually-impaired.

“I work through the talking computer software Job Access With Speech [JAWS],” explains Shahnaz Deedar, tele-consultant at Standard Chartered Bank. “I have earphones in both ears, the caller in one ear and my computer reading out to me in the other,” she laughs. “None of this would have been possible without all this technology,” she points out.

In Cambridge, Massuchusetts, Aqil Sajjad, walks around the corner to use the ATM. He plugs in his headphones into the port provided on the machine and listens intently as it informs him about his balance and the rest of the transaction he is carrying out. “The headphone option is there to prevent others from listening in,” explains Aqil who has been visually-impaired for the last 16 years and is working on his doctoral thesis at Harvard these days.

Back in Karachi, while surfing the internet, Shazia Hasan comes across an article she finds interesting. She prints it out in Braille with her Braille embosser.

Groping in the dark

“Disability doesn’t exist in the person. It is out there in the environment,” points out Zahid Abdullah, a right to information and disability rights activist based in Islamabad. “You remove the barrier and you have a way,” adds the gentleman who, being visually impaired himself, knows the challenges faced by those in the same situation while also having a good idea about the technology out there that can make life so easier for them.“Technology is changing and with it comes the need for regular upgrading,” he says. “When I first started using JAWS, I was using a demo version of the software that would work for up to 40 minutes only. Thereafter I needed to reboot my computer to get it working again,” he remembers.

“In 1999, thanks to this screen-reading software I was meeting many other visually impaired people. We all helped each other out in whatever challenges we were facing. One day while chatting on MSN a friend got to know about my using a demo version of the software and helped me in cracking the programme in order to use it non-stop,” Zahid laughs.

Popular software tends to get pirated easily thanks to the demand, but this wasn’t the case here. “But since JAWS is used by the visually impaired it doesn’t have a big market so there are no pirated versions available. Most users have to buy it, and the software doesn’t come cheap,” Zahid says.

“Expecting a visually impaired person to pay so much is like discrimination. Normal people can pay for computer programmes but still can acquire pirated versions, while we who depend on such screen-reading programmes have to pay though our nose to get it,” he says.

“Besides English, JAWS is available in French, Arabic, German, Brazilian but not in Urdu. The Punjab Information Technology Board is trying to come up with a similar software that reads Urdu, but it is at so early a stage that we don’t know when and if it’ll be available,” he says.

Vision to see

Aqil Sajjad lost his sight soon after completing his Matriculation. “I was studying Science hoping to become an engineer but after losing my vision I had to switch to Arts due to some policies preventing visually impaired students from taking science subjects. Later, I went for a Bachelor in Business Administration. “Meanwhile, I kept track of all the technology available for the visually impaired abroad and learnt about a visually impaired professor at Oregon State University who was developing software to help blind people study maths and physics. I wrote to the university and got admission.

“Now I’m working towards a PhD in physics at Harvard. JAWS provided me a window to the world. I first learnt about it while going through a technology catalogue. Now I also download freeware for the visually impaired. I also work with other software such as Win Triangle which is designed for Maths and Lean Maths,” he says.

“Due to the society’s attitude in Pakistan, people who are faced with a disability themselves look for exemptions. I was lucky as my mother is a mathematician and taught me at home in the beginning as she knew how to explain the graphs and diagrams to me,” he shares.

Aqil says that many things that have made life easier for him in the USA are recent developments even there. “People here as well didn’t have access to ATMs, etc., until some 10 to 15 years ago. Then there is also a copyright exemption for books for the visually impaired here. If someone likes a book they can scan and upload it on . Then all we need is a medical certificate to get a membership of the website. For reading there is a variety of software like JAWS, though errors in scanning software for uploading maths and physics books do occur as these things are still in the developing stages and haven’t been mastered as yet.

Moving ahead

Sitting in her living room, Shazia Hasan gives a demonstration of how her phone, computer and tablet work through the screen-reading software. “I have a talkback application in my cell phone (which reads out messages) and, of course, there is JAWS in my computer and tablet.”

The reader, which speaks with a heavy American accent, tells her about everything on her desktop, along with the size and colour of the fonts as Shazia listens before going to her next action.

“I can choose from various voices but they all are foreign. That’s why some of my students’ parents complain to me that their child is pronouncing ‘milk’ as ‘melk’ or ‘chocolate’ ‘shocklet’,” she laughs.

“Still, it is a great achievement for me to help empower others. I wouldn’t call us ‘visually-impaired’. We are all ‘differently-impaired’ as you work though picking up details though your eyes and we do it through our ears,” Shazia points out.

Nineteen of her students now have acquired good jobs in the computer departments of organisations such as Standard Chartered Bank, United Bank Limited, Pizza Hut, K-Electric and some call centres, after mastering JAWS.

“I first learnt about this software on a trip to the UK, where I mastered it. Then I came to teach it to others at the Ida Rieu School here. Today we can connect to the world through JAWS and learn about all the great inventions and improvements in tools for the blind,” she says.

“The creator of JAWS was visually impaired himself. Therefore he understood our need for such software. We have several associations and institutes for the blind in Pakistan but none of them take you beyond the basics,” Shazia points out.

“The reason for this,” she explains, “is that all these institutions are charity-based. Hence they stop at where the visually impaired person is able to use the computer or read in Braille or use the white cane, for instance. They aren’t really interested in taking one forward from there,” she concludes.

Source: Dawn News


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