Friday, February 08, 2008

Keyboard training for visually impaired students

It’s difficult to concentrate on anything in this noisy cyber café in Hauz Khas. But a group of five visually impaired girls is hard at work. Even the noise fails to drown their enthusiasm as they sit typing on the keyboard.

The keyboard is not Braille enabled but the software is a special one. The girls are browsing with a screen-reader software that transcribes whatever is on the screen into spoken words. “The visually challenged can use a standard computer. They don’t need to buy any thing extra except a screen reader software,” says Rajiv Kumar Sharma, the cyber café’s manager. The cyber café, run by the Centre for visually impaired women, is open to all but it gives computer training only to girls. “Technology basics will help women with a visual impairments to be independent,” says Shalini Khanna, director of the centre.

“Eight to ten students are trained to use the Internet, Word or Excel in the three-month-long certificate courses or they are taught to use PowerPoint, download and install programmes in the six-month-long diploma courses,” says Sharma.

The cyber café, which was opened in 2003 by the National Association for Blind (NAB) and Microsoft, is the only one of its kind in Delhi. “Apart from computer training that is dedicated to visually impaired girls only, the cyber café is open to all,” says Sharma, 30, who too has an eyesight problem. “I use a screen magnification software, which allows me to resize letters or to change the colors,” Sharma explains.

Computer training is one of the many activities initiated by the centre for the 60 girls who live in its hostel. “We try to rehabilitate them by integrating them in higher education or finding them employment,” says Khanna.

“We believe that training has to be customised. Most of the women here are not financially independent even if they have a college degree,” says the centre’s director. The girls at the cyber café agree. Checking her email, thanks to the reader screen software, Phool Mati, 22, says she lost her sight when she was four. Mati, who wants to be a receptionist, is studying English, Hindi and political sciences through correspondence at Delhi University. “I have learnt so many things here like handicraft and theatre,” she says. And now she is learning computers.

But even with the software that enables them to read, the girls are encountering problems. For the software to transcribe words from a website, the website has to have certain features but most don’t have them. “I will give you an image. As a paraplegic, my wheelchair doesn’t help me to go up in a building where there is stairs but no ramp. The visually impaired may know how to use the Internet and have tools like software. But unless the very websites have not been encoded to be read by them, there is no point really,” says Javed Abidi, director of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP).


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