Empowering visually impaired people with technology that is accessible

“We are able to use technology just like anybody else. I am using apple phone, with voice commands (voice server) enabled. I move my finger over the screen, the phone reads my fingerprint. I can listen to my emails and text messages, the phone reads out. The phone not only reads the messages, also reads out a contact’s name, dial a number or play a song. I use my three fingers to scroll, slide for next. I feel we should always make use of the tools and resources available around us.” – says Ramya, who is pursuing her PHD, and is visually impaired.

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Early childhood days, once my father suggested that I join either music class or mathematics class. Since my family is more of a music loving family, I chose music class.

It was the 1st day of my music (vocal) class. I was waiting for the guruji Dr. Raju Lahari.

A guy sitting in front of me, comes and asks me, “Do you love classical music?”. Sounding a bit irritated, I replied, “No!”. I instantly realized, I was a bit harsh on him. I saw him holding a white cane in his hand. I went blank and speechless as soon as I realized he was visually impaired, his eyes could not see. I did not know how to speak to a visually impaired person. But once I started conversing with him, we gained comfort and felt we belonged. He was holding a stack of blank pages with raised dots. He was running his fingertips over them quickly. I asked curiously, “Is this the braille? I have heard of it, never seen it before”. He replied gently, “Do you want to touch it..?” and he explained me about the braille. That was the first day I made a profound connection with a visually impaired person.

This incident had a deep impact on me, even today I take out time on some weekends to visit an NGO which is helping people with partial or complete blindness, enabling them to experience life without barriers. When I meet them, I try to learn about their lifestyle, learn how they try to experience the world, which seems to be dark always for them. Once, I decided to celebrate my friend’s birthday at the NGO with blind people, for the sheer pleasure of seeing the joy on their faces.

I showed up at the NGO, in the morning at 9:30 AM. I saw few girls applying eyeliner by themselves. They seemed to apply the eyeliner quite accurately, which amazed me. I felt – “Having the will to do something is important”. I heard them whispering, “Someone has come to meet us”. I waved “hello”, when one of them asked me, “What’s your name akka? Are you a college student?”. I replied “My name is Shweta, and I came to meet you all”. Some of them were talking on the phone. Few of them were studying through a braille book.

I started a conversation with a girl named Ramya, who is pursuing her PHD in Sociology. I asked her few questions about their life and ambitions, about the challenges of living in a fast moving world that sometimes cares less about people with special abilities.

Shweta: What have been your major challenges, living in a fast moving world of expressions?

Ramya: I wish I knew what I look like. I wish I could see my friends and families smile, their faces when something amazing happens. My mother says, the world is very beautiful, but I don’t know how she looks like. I wish I could see how my favorite singer looks like, the person whose music has kept me going in my darkest times. I wish I could see what the photos we take together look like. I wish I could see print, not feel braille.

Shweta: How do you read your emails?

Ramya: We are able to use technology just like anybody else. I am using apple phone, with voice commands (voice server) enabled. I move my finger over the screen, the phone reads my fingerprint. I can listen to my emails and text messages, the phone reads out. The phone not only reads the messages, also reads out a contact’s name, dial a number or play a song. I use my three fingers to scroll, slide for next. I feel we should always make use of the tools and resources available around us.

Shweta: Do you feel technology can help you?

Ramya: We are using all the technology what others are using. We use computers, smartphone, GPS devices etc. There are lots of assistive technologies like the Braille notetakers, screen readers Braille e-book reader. I hope magnifying software will quickly transform our life in typical workplaces into an accessible workplace. Many of us can bring our own device to work.

Shweta: What help do you anticipate from us?

Ramya: We wish to see companies hiring and accommodating blind employees too. We can work in a call center or we can work as a money collector. We want you to talk to your employer about how to make a blind co-worker feel comfortable and included in workplace activities.

Being physically impaired is never a barrier, the desire to grow beyond limits and boundaries is important.

Make connection with visually impaired people just as you would do with any of your friends, family or anyone. Ask about their interests and likes instead of just speaking about their disability or problems. You might be surprised to know what both of you have in common.

-Shweta Kumari