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Empowering visually impaired through tech

  • Published at 06:29 pm January 10th, 2018
  • Last updated at 06:41 pm January 10th, 2018
Empowering visually impaired through tech
“I have been visually impaired since my birth. Almost everyone, including the members of my family, lost hope on me. I, however, always had some sort of aspiration that I wouldn’t remain useless at home, that I would work hard and become empowered,” Rahman said enthusiastically while talking about his triumph over a world that had shut its eyes to him. His is the kind of story that inspires all those who hear of it. The computer training Rahman received under a join collaboration project of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) division of the government and Center for Services and Information of Disability (CSID), transformed his ‘half-hearted’ anticipation into full-blown confidence.

The training for the visually impaired

In 2015, Rahman went to a job fair organised at the ICT Division building in Agargaon. That job fair was organised for the people with different sort of disabilities like him. “I gave interviews at two stalls, and got a job at one of the companies as the computer operator there later.” Rahman now earns Tk20,000 and most importantly he now learns to materialise dream. “I hope that I will earn more and can support my family more,” said Rahman. The computer training programme that Rana and many other visually impaired people like him attended, is being organised since 2010. At the beginning of the CSID, the facilitating agency of the programme used to get fund from the UK based NGO Sightsavers and other assistance like them, providing training personnel and venue from the ICT Division of the government. Later in 2012, the Sightsavers stopped funding the project. Since then, the programme is being run with all sort of assistance, including financial assistance from the ICT Division. Iftekhar Ahmed, Programme Director of CSID said that in their programme, the visually impaired persons are taught basic computer operation as well as general troubleshooting for a period of three months. Special computer software and brail computer training manuals have been brought in from different countries to instruct them on different operations of Microsoft Office. Ahmed said a special assistive technology known as Screen Reader, has been used in the training. Screen Reader is a software application that attempts to identify and interpret what is being displayed on the computer screen. ‘This interpretation is then represented to the user with text-to-speech, sound icons, or a Braille output,” he said. Screen Reader is basically an audio interface. Rather than displaying web content visually for users in a “window” or screen on the monitor, Screen Reader converts text into synthesised speech so that the users can listen to the content. Ahmed further explained, “Screen Reader doesn’t read web content quite like human beings do. Sometimes the voice sounds somewhat robotic and monotone. In addition, experienced users often like to speed up the reading rate to 300 words per minute or more, which is more than the inexperienced listener can easily understand.” In fact, when many people hear a Screen Reader for the first time, at the normal rate of about 180 words per minute, they complain that it reads too quickly. “It takes time to get used to Screen Reader, but the interesting thing is that, once users get used to it, they can race through content at a speed that can amaze sighted individuals,” he said. The CSID official further said that there are various screen reading software, including the NVDA, which is an open sourced Dolphin Pen, a comparatively low-cost flash drive that’s portable and can make any computers accessible to people with no or low vision, and JAWS software, which has to be purchased.

Changing lives

“So far, this project of CSID has helped a total of 36 people with visual disabilities to get employed in the IT sectors” he said. Rifat Shapar Khan, former Programme Manager with Sightsavers, who has been working with visually impaired people for years, said around 7.6 million people in Bangladesh are visually impaired and approximately 1.1 million are blind. “Blindness in Bangladesh is also a social problem. Blind people are excluded from employment and are a burden to their family,” she said. Rifat said they are thousands of sightless or visually impaired people who possess desirable skills but have difficulty in finding work, or at least the work that commensurate with their skills. “Through this type of programme, initiatives are taken to provide the right kind of jobs to the blind people.”Dr Md Mehedi Hasan, Deputy Secretary of the ICT division said, blind and partially sighted people can do many of the jobs that sighted people do. “They might do them a little differently - using technology and specialist equipment - or need some help from colleagues or a support worker, but a wide range of careers are open to people with sight loss, especially in the IT sector.”