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Updated: July 10, 2013 17:02 IST

Far-sighted crusader

Athira M.
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P. Balaraman. Photo: Athira M.
The Hindu
P. Balaraman. Photo: Athira M.

P. Balaraman is a visionary who hopes to empower the visually challenged by introducing them to digital technology.

P. Balaraman is a guiding light for many in the city as he brightens up the lives of the visually challenged by familiarising them with digital technology. Head of a computer education centre-cum-audio library near Kannamoola in the city, Balaraman dreams of making computers a constant companion for the visually challenged.

Digital technology has opened new vistas for the visually challenged across the globe. Many with sight-related difficulties have broken barriers with the aid of assistive technology (AT), which makes computers and Internet accessible to them. Kerala, unfortunately, lags behind when it comes to putting the technology to best use.

But Balaraman, who is visually challenged himself, takes pride in that he personally knows “90 percent of the visually challenged people who use computers in Kerala as they were either my students or the students of my students.”

He adds: “My aim is to empower the visually challenged and this centre is open to those interested in computers and are capable of adapting themselves to the medium. It was the computer that opened a new world for me. Except for a few limitations, any visually challenged person can befriend a computer. We teach all the basic applications with the help of the screen reader programme that reads aloud what is displayed on the monitor. The user can navigate keyboard, operate the desktop, open and use programmes, and browse the web,” says the 44-year-old. This is a joint initiative of Empowerment Centre for the Blind, of which Balaraman is the director, and Disabled Care, another NGO. The initiative has the support of Mahatma, yet another city-based NGO.

One of the most important aspect of the process of learning is reading, he says.

“That is why we have the audio library. We’ve already done eight books, all in Malayalam, since reading material in the local language is very limited. Right now I am looking for ‘readers’ (those who can read out the passages) so that we can add more books to the library.”

A trainer for many governmental and non-governmental institutions, Balaraman, however, was exposed to computers pretty late in his life. But over the years, Balaram taught himself browsing, emailing, Braille printing, sound editing and is now proficient in operating systems such as Windows and Linux.

Computer for education

“Although there was a computer in my house since I was 18, I learnt to use it only when I was 32! Had I known about the technology, things would’ve been different. It pains me a lot that I couldn’t complete my graduation since I missed too many classes and there weren’t Braille scripts or audio texts to aid me then. I don’t want other visually challenged people to miss out any opportunity to study,” says Balaraman, adding: “Even the mobile phone is equipped with the screen reader which helps the user attend calls, type messages and do other applications.”

He has learnt English typewriting and shorthand from Dehradun, but was “imprisoned” in a telephone booth near Museum Police station for 10 years since he couldn’t find a job. Being a chess player, he turned to the computer with the help of his friends to improve his game and that changed his life. “The story of visually challenged Charudatta Jadav, who works with TCS in Mumbai, inspired me. He is a master when it comes to computers and I’ve played chess with him.”

Another aspect which has kept him in good stead is his command over English language, Balaraman asserts. “Though there are plenty of graduates and post graduates in the visually challenged community, they fare badly when it comes to handling English which, in turn, makes it difficult for them to access modern techniques and thereby they lose out on opportunities in the private sector and in other states,” he says.

Even otherwise, Kerala is behind other states when it comes to supporting the visually challenged, he feels. “Companies rarely appoint us; even if they do we don’t have sufficient products to suit our needs. Although technology is advancing day by day, we are still forced to depend on Braille materials that cost a lot. There is also a lack of sufficient Braille printing facilities. Due to this, there aren’t enough study materials and that naturally affects the quality of education. That is the reason why several visually challenged people in the state still follow conventional ways of earning a livelihood, such as candle-making, cane-weaving, making products like soap, selling lottery tickets and so on. Many depend on their family members,” he says.

A beacon of hope for many, Balaraman stresses that positive thinking can take people places. “Next month a friend is taking me to Germany for a visit. I am happy that positive thinking has taken me this far. The journey from the telephone booth to Germany is something to be proud about. This is the message I want to take across.”

Grand master

A FIDE-rated player, Balaraman was the state champion between 2002 and 2008. He has won the South Zone championship, and has played the nationals and the Asian championship.

Braving all odds

Balaraman attributes his optimism to his parents, K.V. Menon and Santhakumari. “I was partially blind till the age of 10. I got hit in the eye while playing cricket with my brother and that took away my vision altogether. My eldest brother Balakrishnan is visually challenged and second brother Balachandran is physically challenged. My mother has been a source of strength for me as she used to read from the sacred texts and books which gave me a new outlook towards life.”Balaraman is married to Prasanna, who is partially blind. They have two children, Sanu and Poornima. Contact Balaraman at 9496204424.

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