Beyond braille

Technology has made it possible for people with visual impairment access texts, images and avail assistance through apps. 
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

HYDERABAD: Among the many ways smartphones have changed the world, their impact on how the visually-impaired access the world is pronounced. Technology has made it possible for people with visual impairment access texts, images and avail assistance through apps. On World Braille Day, we take a look at the assistive technologies that are making the world a bit more inclusive.

Raghavendra Satish Peri, a senior accessibility consultant at Deque Software, says: “One of the popular digital tools is the screen reader. It converts text to speech. These software programmes have specific keystrokes designed for them. There are certain commands that enable us to read headlines, body of the text and other components. The only elements we cannot access are images without alternative texts. That is why, from an accessibility point of view, it is necessary to include alt texts for all images in the internet. There are varieties of screen readers. For Windows, the ones mostly used are JAWS and NVDA.  

The former one is a commercial product, while the latter one is open-source. Apple products come with their own screen readers called VoiceOver. Android’s screen reader is called TalkBack. There are several accessibility features built in these programmes to assist persons with visual impairment access the text. There are magnifiers which help people with low vision. Some tools help invert colours of texts so that people with colour blindness can access them.” 

L Uma Shankar Veeravalli, a student from University of Hyderabad, speaks about the smartphone features and apps that help him in everyday tasks. “There are apps like Envision AI and Kibo which can scan hand-written texts and read them out. An app called ‘Be My Eyes’ helps persons with visual impairment connect with sighted volunteers for assistance. For example, if I am unable to figure out a CAPTCHA code, I can video call a volunteer to help me with that. Also, virtual assistants like Google Assistant or Siri help us gain more control on accessibility. Amazon Alexa and Google Home too help do the same.”

Kalpagiri Sreenu, who is the national convenor of the Special Educators’ Forum - India, says that electronic books have opened up the world for people with visual impairment. “Since many persons with low vision have a print disability, or the inability to read standard print, they can benefit from reading electronic books that include large print or having text-to-speech read for them. There are services that provide electronic accessible books for free. The device camera that is built into a cell phone or tablet can be used as assistive technology, and is frequently used to quickly magnify things, especially items such as restaurant menus, signs, and short documents.”

Giving examples of platforms that offer books that can be accessed by people with print disabilities, Uma says: “Bookshare gives you free access to books on showing your disability certificate. It provides books in DAISY, EPUB, BRF, MP3 and Microsoft Word document formats. An Indian site called Sugamya Pustakalaya too has books which persons with print disabilities can access. Again, there are apps which enable you access these websites. Dolphin Easy Reader is one of them. Besides these, one can listen to audio books on Audible and Storytel. Librivox is a site where you can listen to books for free. Besides electronic books, there are Braille displays too that can translate text into Braille in real time. But they have some drawbacks. Firstly, they are expensive. Secondly, one sentence of printed text converts to at least four sentences in Braille. Even the high-end devices can display only half line in Braille, which means that you have to refresh the device again and again to keep the text coming.”

Latest Tech 
The latest offering in tech space are Envision Glasses, which are dubbed AI for the eye. They help everyday life more accessible to people with visual impairment by reading out papers, changing the colour or size of texts and other ways. However, with models costing around `25 lakh, they remain out of reach for a majority of people with visual impairment.

— Kakoli Mukherjee

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