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The Web is not off limits for the blind- By Zaki Ansari

Date on which testimonial was published:
2 Apr 2002

Every time a new technology hijacks ordinary life it has the potential to make the disabled among us some more disabled.

Consider what the Internet revolution means to the blind: For them, computing is not just one more obstacle toward a career or a job. It is the obstacle.

Simple tasks like email, surfing, researching online and keeping up with the times demands that you see the screen in front of you. It demands that you use something as visual as a mouse pointer.

But some transcend these odds and make technology work for them in ways that you and I can never imagine. And for these elite few the Internet experience is more liberating than it can ever be for the sighted. This is their story…

Perhaps one of the most amazing achievements is that of Arti Bubna. This blind girl learnt computing, surfing and email all by herself and has now set up an institute to teach others like her.

Arti is a commerce graduate. But when she lost her eyesight, a rehabilitation centre in Bombay could only offer her skills like incense and candle making!

Desperate to do intellectual work, Arti joined the family business. But to be efficient and self-reliant around the workplace she had to use the computer. Arti went to some of the best computer training institutes and begged them to teach her the basics of computing. But they refused. There was no way, they thought, the blind could use PCs.

So, Arti, with the help of her brother, downloaded several screen-reading software. After tinkering around a little, she settled for JAWS. JAWS is a software that reads out everything on the screen. It gives a voice feedback whenever you touch any key. The ‘alt’ and ‘tab’ and arrow keys replace the mouse pointer for navigation. When Arti types a letter, JAWS can voice-enable functions like spelling and grammar check. It can spell out difficult words and change the tone of its voice when it comes across a capital letter.

Armed with JAWS, Arti played with the PC till she found her way around Windows, office programmes, Internet connectivity, email clients and browsers.

Arti now spends most of her waking hours at the computer. When she sleeps, the monotonous voice of JAWS invades her dreams. Sundays are unbearable because she is away from the office PC.

JAWS has one bad habit. It lets the entire office know what you are reading. There was a time when jokes in Arti’s email made the floor laugh. When Arti had enough of this eavesdropping, she simply pushed the speed at which JAWS reads out text. Now it is so fast that only her trained ear can make sense of what the computer reads. For the rest of the office Arti’s mail has become a muted mumble at warp speed!

Arti never ceases to surprise. One day her computer monitor broke down and was carted away for repairs. Imagine the look on people’s faces when she promptly sat at the desk with just a keyboard. Soon she was busy typing while staring into blank space in front of her. She was firing formatted letters to the printer, checking email and surfing sites.

The PC and the Internet have delivered a career for Arti. But as importantly, they have put her back in the centre of social life. “Newspapers are now accessible over the Internet and I don’t have to wait for people to read them out to me. I am no longer out of a conversation because I am not aware of what is happening around me in the world. Also because of the articles I read on the Internet I can talk normally about what is happening in the world of movies and television too,” smiles Arti.

Yet, JAWS is not for everyone. It costs $1,000, nearly Rs 50,000. This is an impossible sum for most of the blind in India. JAWS is the product of Freedom Scientific, an American company. Ninety percent of Freedom Scientific employees are blind. So JAWS has been designed and written by the blind for the blind.

Arti is a dealer for JAWS in India. She has a neat business model going. She teaches computing to the blind at her Voice Vision Computer Training Institute and then sells them JAWS. However, almost all her students cannot afford JAWS right away. For them, she has a simple solution: “Use demo copies to practise and land jobs. Then save enough to buy the software.”

As of now Arti has taught 23 blind or visually impaired students at her institute. Of these three have done an advanced course in Web designing. Arti plans to offer programming courses soon. Feedback from her students is very inspiring.

Mohammad Ahtesham is one of the more successful students. Besides surfing and using email, he has become a regular in online chat rooms, something that even Arti is still nervous about. Ahtesham is a purchase officer in an advertising agency. His email to Arti says it all…

“With respect to your question as to how the course has helped me; I would say that it has enabled me to stand at par with my colleagues at work and there is nothing that they know and I don’t. Sometimes my colleagues seek suggestions from me regarding problems in the system. I use the Internet intensively for developing new products for my company since I look after product and vendor development.

“Talking about personal life, I can say that I have gained a lot more knowledge from online learning and made a few friends through email and chatting. I can spend my entire weekend surfing the Web.”

Ahtesham’s bio adds: ‘I led our team of experts to develop a comprehensive software package especially customised for Tanzeem (the ad agency).’

Benshir Arokia Raja is a physiotherapist and suffers from retina pigmentation. For him computing and Internet is the only option to study further. “Now I should be able to use a CD that suggests treatment when I input the symptoms. Also I will be able to store medical records of patients,” he explains.

Benshir cannot yet afford a PC or Net connectivity or JAWS. Yet he finished his course with Arti in the hope of better career prospects. He plans to practise at a friend’s place till he can have his own system.

The going was tough for him, like it is for any blind person who encounters a PC: “I found some difficulty in visualising parts of the screen. Elements like combo boxes, radio buttons and menu bars are not easy to imagine. Then there is the concept of ‘default’ in computers. These are difficult to grasp for the visually impaired.”

For Benshir, the real test came when he had to grapple with the idea of a menu bar. If the menu bar lists categories of commands like a restaurant menu lists food, why is it like a bar? And why do other menus drop down from it! Arti explains that the concept of a menu bar is difficult for most students to visualise. Benshir eventually licked this little problem: “Arti madam told me that menu bar is like a clothesline and the dropdown menus are shirts hanging down from it. It is very essential to have a one-on-one attention from the teacher when a blind is learning to use the computer.”

Now the greatest thrill for Benshir is his ability to comprehend the conversation of his colleagues when they use words like ‘reboot’, ‘dot com’ and ‘software’.

Nikita Vaid is another hyper intelligent student of Arti. She studies in the 11th standard and has a passion for classical singing. Like Arti, she has business ambitions and would like to enter manufacturing. Nikita hopes to help her Dad’s enterprise when she is ready.

The day Rediff Guide to the Net met Nikita she was about to give her computer exams. “I think this will be a big achievement for me. And I hope to guide my blind friends.” Nikita is so taken up by computers and the Internet that she now hopes to study Web designing and programming too.

She is excited she may be able to send email to cousins by herself and in privacy. She believes “there is no point in chatting with people whose identity you are not sure of”. But she wants to begin chatting shortly and “motivate my teacher (Arti) to begin chatting too”.

Her biggest downer on the Net is when she receives an e-greeting and cannot tell what it looks like and cannot read the copy which is a part of the image. Also graphics-heavy home pages stump her.

Nikita had maximum trouble trying to visualise fonts and formatting. She always thought of them as ink on paper with colour and shades. Only when Arti used her forefinger to draw the shapes of letters on her arm did Nikita realise the difference between a regular letter and its italicised form.

Nikita thinks her newfound computing skills are going to make her more independent and “like everyone else I too will sit at the comp”. Then with a more serious note she concludes: “A computer file is not like Braille. Anyone can write a computer file and I can read it.”

Meanwhile, Arti hopes to build a “three-or-four-story building with classes on each floor teaching the blind more than just basket weaving and candle making”.

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