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.”
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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