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Tech for the blind: How app developers can help end the ‘disturbing touchscreen trend’

by Prasad Krishna last modified Oct 10, 2016 12:46 PM
At their introduction, touchscreens was so refreshing and how we had rushed to get those touch devices. Meanwhile, there was a separate world that came crashing down with the advent of touch enabled phones. Just like me, I’m sure not many may have thought how touchscreens almost ended the messaging ability of visually impaired. Now, with services moving from phone calls to online (services and apps), it’s getting more difficult.
Tech for the blind: How app developers can help end the ‘disturbing touchscreen trend’

Nirmita Narasimhan

The article by Naina Khedekar was published in First Post on October 10, 2016.


We met Nirmita Narasimhan, a Policy Director at The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in Bengaluru, who has been instrumental in putting in place policies such as the copyright to benefit visually impaired. Nirmita is visually impaired herself, but that didn’t stop her from completing her law from Delhi University, and alongside she also completed her MA, M.Phil and PHD. While she is not writing policies or engaged in her passion for classical singing, she is busy playing a full time mom to two sons. But, it wasn’t easy, as back in 1995, when she was planning to pursue higher studies there weren’t many digital resources, and the ones like JAWS carried an outrageous price tag of $1000!

Lack of digital resources and struggle to study

Nirmita grew up in Delhi and it was at the age of nine that she started developing the vision problem. Her vision kept deteriorating and as a student in a mainstream school, she struggled with studies. Her parents had to read out everything to her; and there was also a stage when she used to enlarge everything and photocopy it. But, she finished her 10th and 12th grades with the help of a writer, and without any resources for electronics or digital books.

She then went on to learn German. However, soon realised that a translator cannot be dependent on someone else to read and look at the dictionary at all times. “You can’t have a career as a translator or interpreter if you need someone who knows German to constantly sit beside you and read to you all the time,” she explained. So, that put an end to her German sojourn.

She then decided to study law, and says, probably was one of the only students to have passed without reading a single book from the library. She relied on notes and had to choose 5-6 questions as each answer needed a lot of reading. She completed law from Delhi University and simultaneously pursued per passion for music.

It was after that reality dawned when no one was ready to offer her a job. After knocking all doors, from top firms to single advocates, she found it very difficult. She then started working for a blind advocate, but it wasn’t real work and she wasn’t getting paid for it. She later moved to Bengaluru, and after some research work with a law firm, she joined CIS.

“CIS was a turning point. So, all the problems that I faced are the ones I want to fix, she said.

Introduction to software that could read out to users

It was in her final year of studies around 2001, when a neighbour pointed out an article that spoke about a new software that reads out to users at the National association for the blind. Nirmita said the software was called Kurzweil 1000 wherein you could scan your books and it could read out to you. But books had to be of really good quality and the software cost Rs 50,000. After a long debate and financial crisis, she decided to go with it, as that was the only way to move ahead.

She was excited with the free CD that was bundled called Literature 3.O that had 2000 books and kept her awake nights reading these books. Later, she also started using JAWS.

‘Disturbing’ trend of touch phones

It was around 2013, when the rest of the world was planning which touch smartphone to buy, it was a disturbing trend with mobile phones at least when blind and low visually persons are concerned. “Keyboards were gone. We got touch phones and it was a nightmare. There was nothing to feel. I am not comfortable text messaging even today. There is a screen reader on Android called Talkback, which is very good, but it works above a certain version, and all devices above that are touch phones. Moreover, it isn’t quite enough when you are outdoors and the voice input just doesn’t work,” she said.

Blackberry had a QWERTY but screen reader was not that great and the iPhone wasn’t affordable, she adds. “Everyone was rushing to the market to buy second hand keyboard phones, but they didn’t support good reading technologies.

Affordable software for blind, and support from leading OS makers

Easy availability, price and customer support have been a hindrance when it comes to software to assist blind. And the next agenda for Nirmita is building just that.

In 2012, they got funding for a project to develop text to speech in Indian language and work at enhancing a screen reader dubbed non visual desktop access (NVDA). “It’s an open source project, a good solution that is scalable. People cannot afford JAWS and that will make it difficult for them to ever start using screen readers,” she added.

Moreover, support for languages is another problem. JAWS only supports English and Hindi, and is a closed system with lack of India support.

It was also a struggle earlier as the project is for a social cause and not a full-fledged company, and required special skill set as the open source works with Windows. “After a long time, we now have a team in IIT Delhi and there has been some work and improvement. Many of us have begun shifting to NVDA, and under hat project we have started undertaking training so that we can teach others. 10- 15 organisations run these training and we supports numerous regional languages including Hindi, Marathi, Konkani, Gujarati and more. So, still need refinement, but at least there’s something, she adds.

“Now, we need to scale it, improve and train more people. The software can work on Android smartphones, irrespective of the display,” she said.

While there is an app for everything, and many standalone apps have been built for the visually impaired, Nirmita calls in for universal app design. A principle that every time a product is built, designed or developed, it can be done in a way considering the blind. Yes, why a separate app, when developers can add support for the blind. Nirmita talks about the hindrances when trying to book a taxi from Ola and the inability to place orders from BigBasket. A set of standard rules could help iron out the creases. In govt procurement bills, accessibility should be made mandatory.

Google and Apple OSes lead in the market, and if these OS makers add a mandate on how the same app should also assist the blind, a lot can change. “What is specially made is useful, but if what is made in an accessible manner then there won’t be two worlds,” she adds.

Copyright policy and other initiatives

The copyright policy may mean nothing to many of us, but for people with disability it was a big turning point. Some years ago the law said you cannot convert a book into any other format for people with disability, unless you get the permission of the publisher. So, if one lakh books were published in India, only minuscule 500-600 books were converted into braille or audio formats and these were usually text books.

“We started campaigning that we have a right to read. We should be able to pick and convert any book we want. Whatever people are reading and talking in news we should be able to access it and children should get access to all such books, “she said.

Nirmita explains how this isn’t a difficult task anymore, thanks to technology. It is simpler to convert and access these books. Yes, the problem of expensive technology still exists, but she along with a tech team has also begun working on that with new affordable software that could make it affordable for all. After struggling for almost 3-4 years, it was in 2012 that the new law was passed, allowing anyone with reading disabilities to convert any book into a format that helps them.

Meanwhile, she is also working on how all websites should be accessible by all including the blind. With the emergence of e-governance, it is important for everyone to follow a standard that will help this happen. Explaining further, she said that there are standards for digital accessibility called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and it came up with guidelines for Indian govt websites and a part of those dealt with accessibility. They have divided it into advisory and mandatory. And, accessibility comes under mandatory.

Another initiative involved was teaming up with Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) |”Whenever you pay a telephone bill, a part of it goes to USOF and they are supposed to use it for communities underserved and in rural areas. We teamed up to assist visually impaired, and a pilot scheme was launched, “she explained further. However, it was a chase for the project and the output wasn’t as they had expected.

Though copyright has solved the problem, we are still converting our own books, she added. There hasn’t been help. Opening an online digital library, wherein every time a publisher publishes a book, they can give a digital format that can help blind, which can then be shared with others.

People in villages still use Braille. There also need to be training to teach them. And, the primary way to reach in rural areas with resource centres associated with organisations. Technology has made many things simpler, and a few standards could definitely help bridge the gap.

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