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Update as on May 1, 2010

 

After our last post on the Right to Read campaign on April 15th the copyright amendment was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on April 19th. The bad news is that the amendment still contained the same disastrous wording which would effectively prevent NGOs, educational institutions and persons with disabilities from converting reading material including textbooks and reference material into audio, digital formats and other formats that can be used by persons with disabilities to “read” such material. The extremely cumbersome, restrictive and lengthy licensing procedure proposed by the Government for conversion to these formats would mean that students with print disabilities would be deprived of their Right to Education which has now become a fundamental right.

Now for the good news. The BJP and the Left parties have gone on record  <!–[endif]–>that they will oppose the amendment unless the concerns of the visually impaired community are addressed. Members of the National Access Alliance including Sam Taraporevala, Kanchan Pamnani, S.K Rungta, Dipendra Manocha and Ketan Kothari met senior leaders of the BJP including Shri L.K. Advani, Shri Arun Jaitely and Smt. Sushma Swaraj who understood our concerns and were extremely sympathetic. Nirmita Narasimhan from the Centre for Internet and Society <!–[if !supportFootnotes]–> and I met Smt. Brinda Karat who was extremely sympathetic and supportive. Mrs. Karat spent close to an hour understanding the issues involved and fixed up a meeting for us with Shri. Oscar Fernandes, Congress MP and head of the standing committee that will examine the copyright amendment. She also informed us that she has spoken to Mr. Arun Jaitely on this issue and that they would jointly oppose the amendment. Shri Fernandes was also extremely sympathetic and supportive and assured us that we would get an opportunity to be heard when the matter came up for discussion. We also met two members of the standing committee Mr. Biju (CPI (M) MP from Kerala) and Mr. Penumalli Madhu (CPI (M) MP from Andhra Pradesh). Mr. Biju said he would definitely help when this matter comes up for discussion since he believed it is a just cause. Mr. Madhu was even more receptive to the idea and said he would circulate the note which we had given to all the members of the Standing Committee and also write a letter strongly recommending this
case to the Prime Minister and the Standing Committee.

Mr. Javed Abidi, India’s most famous and accomplished disability rights activist, took Nirmita and me to the Prime Minister’s Office where we met Joint Secretary Mr. Sanjay Mitra who promised to put our note to the Prime Minister.

 

Last but not least, over the last 2 weeks this initiative has got some great press coverage from socially conscious journalists from around the country. We now have to prepare for submitting evidence to the standing committee when the hearings start. We understand that this will happen within the next 3 months. Let us keep our fingers crossed. If you would like to contribute to this effort mail me at rahul.cherian@inclusiveplanet.com

Update as on May 1, 2010

 

After our last post on the Right to Read campaign on April 15th the copyright amendment was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on April 19th. The bad news is that the amendment still contained the same disastrous wording which would effectively prevent NGOs, educational institutions and persons with disabilities from converting reading material including textbooks and reference material into audio, digital formats and other formats that can be used by persons with disabilities to “read” such material. The extremely cumbersome, restrictive and lengthy licensing procedure proposed by the Government for conversion to these formats would mean that students with print disabilities would be deprived of their Right to Education which has now become a fundamental right.

Now for the good news. The BJP and the Left parties have gone on the record that they will oppose the amendment unless the concerns of the visually impaired community are addressed. Members of the National Access Alliance including Sam Taraporevala, Kanchan Pamnani, S.K Rungta, Dipendra Manocha and Ketan Kothari met senior leaders of the BJP including Shri L.K. Advani, Shri Arun Jaitely and Smt. Sushma Swaraj who understood our concerns and were extremely sympathetic.  Nirmita Narasimhan from the Centre for Internet and Society and I met Smt. Brinda Karat who extremely sympathetic and supportive. Mrs. Karat spent close to an hour understanding the issues involved and fixed up a meeting for us with Shri. Oscar Fernandes, Congress MP and head of the standing committee that will examine the copyright amendment. She also informed us that she has spoken to Mr. Arun Jaitely on this issue and that they would jointly oppose the amendment. Shri Fernandes was also extremely sympathetic and supportive and assured us that we would get an opportunity to be heard when the matter came up for discussion. We also met two members of the standing committee Mr. Biju (CPI (M) MP from Kerala) and Mr. Penumalli Madhu (CPI (M) MP from Andhra Pradesh). Mr. Biju said he would definitely help when this matter comes up for discussion since he believed it is a just cause. Mr. Madhu was even more receptive to the idea and said he would circulate the note which we had given to all the members of the Standing Committee and also write a letter strongly recommending this
case to the Prime Minister and the Standing Committee.

Mr. Javed Abidi, India’s most famous and accomplished disability rights activist, took Nirmita and me to the Prime Minister’s Office where we met Joint Secretary Mr. Sanjay Mitra who promised to put our note to the Prime Minister.

 

Last but not least, over the last 2 weeks this initiative got some great press coverage from socially conscious journalists from around the country. We now have to prepare for submitting evidence to the standing committee when the hearings start. We understand that this will happen within the next 3 months. Let us keep our fingers crossed. If you would like to contribute to this effort mail me at rahul.cherian@inclusiveplanet.com

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It seems that everyone has an opinion on twitter… they love it, hate it, don’t mind it, find it useful, or think it’s a waste of time. But they still have an opinion on it. While I was doing my research I found some very interesting articles like Top 5 ways Smart people use Twitter, why twitter will endure etc. I also found Why I don’t use twitter. You can read all these and make up your mind for yourself. Better yet, sign up and try it out!

But whatever you do, don’t dismiss it out of hand. There is value that twitter provides, if you know how to tap it effectively.
We started actively tweeting from @inclusiveplanet recently and the response has been phenomenal! I don’t want to measure the results based on the number of followers or lists etc. What I will base it on is the solutions that we have discovered, and similar minded people & organizations that we have managed to connect with!

Now coming to the point of the blog post – You can now tweet from Inclusive Planet!

Of course we didn’t debate over the potential use of twitter. Our decision was easy to make – Our planeteers asked for it! J
Many of our members pointed out that they would like to tweet from Inclusive Planet – what they are doing on Inclusive Planet, share with other people something that they saw or read on Inclusive Planet.

This is a pretty exciting move for us. It allows all our members to let the rest of the world know what you they’re upto! Or as one of planeteers, Tomi puts it – “my vocational school blocks Twitter now 😦 Inclusive Planet to the rescue! 😀 #1P”

I suggest you join in on the fun… and don’t forget to use #1P – the official Inclusive Planet hash tag.

Tweet away….

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Apple iPad image 1

I remember this once, we were a big group coming back from a trip and everybody was waiting for an already late aircraft. I was sorting my music folder on my laptop when a friend, poked me and asked if I had iTunes. Usually, I would have a rather snide remark for that kind of question. However, my friend, was not very much into tech and them latest trends, she owned a mac (not that all mac owners are tech impaired) and she was in her late fifties (I guess). I said no. Then I asked her if she wanted to listen to any particular song, I said I could download it for her. She smiled and said, ‘don’t waste money, I can listen to what you have’!

iPad Image 2

This got me thinking and ladies and gentlemen, here’s my train of thought… All my friends have some kind of collection of .mp3 files. Most of these files are the ones they borrowed from their friends. They all also know where to download these files from online… iTunes! Ask them for another such site and they draw a blank… some say napster, rhapsody and then move on to music streaming sites like pandora, 8 track, grooveshark, last.fm, raaga etc. Few knew that you can download tracks from the Windows Media Player, for example.

iPad Image 3

Point. iTunes is where one can buy music online, not .mp3 or ogg vorbis or .wma or .flv file. Music, you are sure will play on your expensive hardware, whose workings you have no clue about or care about. For every geek out there who swears by 320kbps encoded .mp3s, there are hundreds of normal people, who just want to listen to good music and would like a music service that is compatible, virus free and extremely easy to understand and navigate. This was how iPod ‘destroyed’ companies like creative, archos and philips in the late 90s. It wasn’t talking to the guys who were already salivating in on the kind of files or bit-rates the archos media player could handle, It talked to those who wanted to listen to more songs on their CD player. In fact it talked to one’s who liked music. Period.

The First iPod

iPad is talking to people who like portability. Period. It was a deja vu moment for me when I was reading about the press trying to figure out the whole point behind this device, and then comparing it to the Kindle, Nook and some other e-book readers. It was like reading the press clip on the iPod launch all over again. iPad my friends, does not even support the .epub format!

Here’s what I would put next to the iPad.  Your college textbook, your office notepad, your netbook (is the cheapest Apple mobile computing device if you discount the iPhone, same netbook processing power too), your laptop, your phone to an extent. Sony PSP, Nintendo gameboy, the entertainment console on the economy class, your next expensive christmas gift, the Robert Ludlum you were thinking of picking up at the airport bookstore, even the Xboxes and the PS3s!

iPad Image 4

iPad is catering to a generation of people who are either tech averse or are just getting to understand tech, and are looking for an idiot proof device that is light, legible, feature rich and easy to use. They don’t care about the e-ink and 40 day battery lives. They don’t care if they can lend a book for ten days and about the millions of books available for download. They don’t care if it can cut, copy, paste or whether it has a 12 megapixel camera. Runs on linux (most are afraid of it if you ask me, ‘where are my documents?’, ‘this has no start button?’), Windows, Ubuntu, Moblin, Android….

They do care however, if the device lets you send text messages to friends, play high quality movies for ten hours straight and a bigger screen to watch them in, stream from youtube and update you about what’s happening on your social network, edit notes, play a game with friends wirelessly, store and play their favorite music, look lot, lot nicer than the cheap netbook bound in cheap plastic, lot more real estate on your economy class tray table and no more crazy ways of holding the laptop to watch a movie, have ‘turn by turn’ GPS assisted navigation, make calls, browse blazingly fast on the internet, have apps that tell them about juicy celebrity scandals, paint, draw, make presentations and best of all, have the same aspirational values as that of the iPhone, not to mention the user interface. This device is for people who don’t know or care about the options already available in the market. Estimates put the Kindle sales at about a couple of million devices, iPad is looking at a market atleast ten times that, in my opinion.

iPad Image 5

iPad is a much bigger problem for the visually impaired than the Kindle. The latter at least has a physical keypad. I see the iPad replacing a lot of mobile computing devices, primarily the ones we use for leisure. iPad will have a far greater acceptance in the student community than any other e-reader, might soon replace bulky textbooks with the kind of rich interactive content, the Kindle can only dream of. Unlike the Kindle which had to pitch to the universities, I see students opting in for an iPad, and making it ubiquitous enough for universities to look at a default formats for iPad consumption and participation in classrooms. Unlike the bulky tablet PCs we have, I see people using this device on their shop floors. Unlike the tiny gameboys kids play with during lunchtime, I see a more immersive team based social network games happening in the cafeteria on them spanking new iPads.

Jobs doing the iPad Demo

iPad is Apple’s answer to the netbook and more. It now is, in all probability, the default christmas gift for your loved one. Hope it does not become synonymous with e-book readers and netbooks, the way iPod is to portable media players.

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Braille without borders

Khaleej Times Wknd. – Cover Story
15 January 2010

Jethu Abraham reports on how a young team of like-minded individuals got together to address a problem the whole world was blind to.

For Gidi Ahronovich, his visual impairment is not the only thing he has to battle. From social discrimination to dealing with curious queries on how his ‘love life’ would end up, to drawing swords up against the telephone giant Orange in his country, for only having a “drawing of an envelope on the phone screen” to announce the arrival of a new message instead of the usual voice alerts, Ahronovich’s story is not a blind man’s sob story but that of a winner in life.His tone is cynical and touches a strong chord that is both raw and real, making him a perfect voice to be featured in the day’s choice of blog posts under the heading ‘What you see is what you get’ on inclusiveplanet.com.

It is voices such as these that the founders of inclusiveplanet.com hope will resonate globally, strong enough to send the message across: the visually impaired can neither be ignored nor their prowess undermined.

For the rest of us, the sequence is quite simple. Boot the computer, log onto the net, google a while, silence a doubt, answer a query, chat with a friend, send a tweet and so on. Imagine the same scenario with all the same facilities, the know-how and the yearning — but no vision. Presently, the online world can be likened to pushing a blind person into another dark world, when he wants to know and learn, but does not have accessible content online to get “information at his fingertips” like all of us do.

Here begins the story of inclusiveplanet.com.

Rahul Cherian and Reuben Jacob from India identified an online content deficiency for the blind, and were toying with idea of a website dedicated to the blind — where the visually impaired around the world would be able to sharing accessible content as well as be part of a social networking platform. They were soon joined by like-minded members Sachin Malhan, Simon Jacob, 
Janani Barath, Kumar Ray, Sridhar Rajagopalan, Anant Gopal and Ujjvala Ballal joined the duo and inclusiveplanet.com was born.

The team had four sub-purposes in mind. “We wanted to make the site readable (by sharing content), visitable (by ensuring that it was user-friendly), matchable (by turning it into a dating or a matrimonial platform for visually impaired people globally) and a carer’s platform (that would pertain to the caretakers or parents of these people),” says Simon Jacob, head of marketing, Inclusive Planet.

The overall idea was “to have a website designed exclusively for the 300 million-strong global print-impaired community, so as to enable them to connect with each other and share accessible content, including books, notes, articles, blogs, audio recordings and so on, and furthermore, to build conversations around this content.”

They had to create a site which would be user-friendly for a blind person sans the frills that are normally part of other websites. The blind use a screen reading software called Jaws which enables them to read through content. Once the computer boots, a blind person can use the Windows key on the keyboard and select the Jaws software which would in turn, start reading out (in a text-to-speech style) the different folders in the computer. What we see, they would hear. Those using the software would be able to use the up and down keys to scroll content. If the page has lots of links, then different shortcuts can be used to access those links.

Jacob describes the core difference between accessible websites for the blind and other websites, in terms of the appropriation of content with the logical headers. Usual websites would boast flashy headers and other site designs which are of no use to a blind person, since he hears the text and does not see it — a signal reason why most websites are not accessible for the blind. While advanced blind web users would probably know their way around, for the new user, he says, there aren’t a lot of sites that function according to the web accessibility guidelines of having to be made, keeping the visually impaired in mind as well.

Inclusive Planet launched on August 24 last year. A month before that, a test launch was done with students from two blind institutions — from who the team got a lot of feedback. Earlier, the team had also consulted prominent personalities, senior technologists and bankers in India for their advice. “Everyone liked the concept and we, in turn, wrote to the younger people we knew, and started spreading awareness about the site,” remembers Jacob.

The mailing list from Access India, a community site for the blind, was used to get in touch with other mailing groups, communities and, finally, users across the globe.

Within a matter of months, Inclusive Planet was ready to go. In the first week of the launch, there were around 200 members. Towards the end of October, options such as adding friends, status messages, requesting a friend were all incorporated into the site. The concept of feeds were also enabled which became a hit almost instantly.

Companies such as Yahoo and IBM have already laid the foundation towards this initiative, and more companies are waking up to the need of making their websites user-friendly for the blind as well.

It was through one of these web communities in Yahoo called Blind City that the moderator for the group, Wael Zakereya from Egypt, got to hear about Inclusive Planet. “I found the concept to be quite amazing and I immediately corresponded with Reuben, Simon and Rahul,” says Zakereya.

Zakereya, who was born blind, had a penchant for all computer related studies from a very young age and his interests soon led him to develop his programming skills and carve a career in web development in the year 2003.

“In 1998, I had already started training blind people and soon became a member of the faculty of computer science in Cairo University. Later on, I joined CAPMAS — which is the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, where I started developing ideas and also trained people to access content in the English language, Braille and via the screen reader,” he adds.

For the Inclusive Planet team, Zakereya was, as Jacob puts it, “an evangelist” as he proposed an idea that was not thought of by the team before — translate the website content into Arabic.

“Even while training blind people in the Arab world, I realised the significance of having websites that catered specifically to those individuals who would only speak Arabic. Besides, we don’t translate, we localise, which means that we translate keeping the cultural perspective in mind,” adds Zakereya.

Zakereya’s wife, also visually impaired, was working alongside him at the Cairo University, where they met. Today, the couple, who have a young son, are well-updated on all web facilities available for the blind.

Another user, Parham Doustdar, a visually-impaired computer programming student from Iran, got an email informing him about Inclusive Planet. “It was thrilling, to say the least, as I now had the chance to share the books I had found, and ask for those I haven’t. When I discovered the beta features and design, I was impressed. I am a web-developer myself, and I know how much dedication needs to be put into something like this, to get it to take root and grow,” he says. “None of the websites I have ever visited lets you share fictional books, study books and university texts, let alone in an accessible form, for free. This is a huge help for my fictional spare-time 
reading, and a huge help for my studies, because here in the university, I have no books available, I have no texts available, and the problems the blind are facing in their universities or even in their high schools (when they decide to study something that is not human science like me — I studied math) are terrible.”

Doustdar also identifies the core reason as to why there is little or no content available online for the visually impaired. “In my opinion, our problems are not because there is a dearth of websites designed for the blind by the blind; our problems are those websites designed by the sighted, who usually look for an easy way out and use Flash for their applications, or want to use a flashy HTML element (checkbox, button, etc) instead of the standard HTML element. So, when we happen to visit their website, there is but one solution left for us — press the ‘Back’ button. Of course, I am not saying all websites are like that. In fact, many websites are more or less accessible. However, the more unique a website is, in terms of interface, and the less the person designing it knows about these designing guidelines, the more problems it will pose for the visually impaired,” he states.

Doustdar soon made it a point to spread the word about the existence of the website to all those people he knew, who could speak English and wanted to share content.

Back in India, the Inclusive Planet team started expanding the website and a new section called Channels was launched recently which enables sighted as well as blind people to post content — free of cost.

Hungarian-born, US-based student Thomas Geczy, feels that that Channels “has really expanded my bandwidth as I can now collaborate with like-minded individuals on various topics, such as computers and culture. It has allowed the creation of a new initiative which I’m working on with the website called ‘The Accessible Class Notes Project’, where students can upload their class notes and resources to assist others in getting the right notes for their classes, as well as talk with other students around the world and discuss class-related issues and topics.”The fact that the site is “almost completely a community-driven initiative” is not what excites Geczy the most; it’s the countless number of thank-you notes that he receives when people download his notes that make him “very, very happy”.

Meanwhile, the Inclusive Planet team also conducted a ‘Right to Read’ campaign in Loyola College in Chennai, India, in a bid to reach out to more visually impaired people and was what attracted Abdul, a young management student from Pune, to the website. Abdul, who lost his sight when a basketball hit him in the eyes, now has a channel of his own on the site called ‘Budding Managers’. He uses the site extensively “for its social networking opportunities.”

“A lot of users stumbled upon our website and posted messages like “I had no idea the website existed”. For anyone who wishes to help us, our message is: spread the word,” says Jacob. Today, the website boasts of around 2,200 members from 77 countries. Immediate plans include rolling out the website in other languages such as Arabic, which Jacob hopes should happen “later on in the month”. The site already offers a translation in the Spanish and Turkish languages.

What about long-term plans? “The vision for us is clear,” points out Jacob. “To make the site a viable model for visually impaired people. We want Inclusive Planet to become a platform where visually impaired people can earn money on their own and sustain themselves.”

jethu@khaleejtimes.com

Voices:

Stefan Slucki: Hullo, I am 52 years old and totally blind since I was 18— Glaucoma and two detached retinas. I am a Minister of the Gospel and a part- time Braille teacher. My wife is fully sighted and and presently we live in Adelaide, South Australia. I am involved in various blindness issues via Blind Citizens, Australia. I enjoy viewing sport — cricket and Australian-Rules football; I like to listen to the radio and enjoy soul music from the 60s and 70s ;I like reading both Braille and audio books.

Gopalakrishnan:I am Gopalakrishnan, working in the National Institute for the Visually Handicapped Regional Centre, Chennai, India. I have completed M.A., M.Ed., M.Phil. in Education and have a Postgraduation Diploma in Special Education, a Postgraduation Diploma in Public Relations, a Postgraduation Diploma in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations and a Diploma in Telephone Operation. I believe that sky is the limit for every visually impaired achiever. I am very much interested in the use of the latest technological devices. I am a member of various organisations for the visually impaired and my other interests are: reading Braille books and magazines, listening to audio books, music, and radio, surfing the internet, attending conferences/workshops on education, technology, disability and so on.

Xolisa:Hi, I’m Xolisa Yekani and I have a BA degree in Media studies from the University of Limpopo in South Africa. I’m temporarily working for SABC as a Current affairs producer/News researcher. I’m a simple person who likes music and sharing divergent constructive ideas with others. I’m also very keen to learn more on computer stuff as it is one of the best methods for blind people to access information.

Huong:My full name is Dao Thu Huong. I’m a Vietnamese blind student majoring in English. I wish to become an English teacher in the future. At the moment, I’m so worried about my graduation paper because I will graduate soon next June. I’m very happy to keep in touch with you on this forum. I hope to talk to you all! If you have any experience of doing research and writing graduation paper, could you please share with me! May you have good health, good luck, happiness and success in your life!

Yoshi: I am Yoshi from Japan. To me, Inclusive Planet is this cosy gathering spot for bookworms, a table for the hottest discussions around the globe, or a coffee-house to meet a new friend and has immense potential. Thank you, team, for sowing a wonderful seed in the soil of the Internet world.

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