The world of computers has always fascinated S. Vatsala, a Tamil literature student from Queen Mary's College. “But the accented audio, the rapid demonstrations and the visually-oriented training made it very difficult for me to perform simple operations,” she says.
But at the ongoing computer training at IIT-Madras, she rapidly types a Tamil poem, and then mails it to her friend as an attachment, all this with her monitor switched off.
Many visually challenged students like Vatsala are discovering a new-found love for computers as the consortium on ‘Speech synthesis in Indian languages,' progresses. The 45-day training is being organised by the Department of Information Technology, New Delhi, using software applications developed by a team of engineers at IIT-M, apart from the regular ones.
The trainer of the class, U. Mahendran, who has visual disability, has finished his Masters in English from Madras Christian College recently. “Most other training centres focus on visuals, theory and clicking of the mouse, whereas we work only with audio instructions and keyboard short cuts,” he says. While most existing software packages for persons with disability, including JAWS, are available only with English or Hindi audio, a few have used English sounds to produce Tamil words.
“However, while using them, most trainees from rural areas cannot understand anything because it is Tamil with a heavy foreign accent. This integrated software reads the screen and has audio that is understandable,” says Hema A. Murthy, Professor, Department of Computer Science & Engineering, IIT-M, who is heading the consortium.
Braille computers have been done away with and the customised software no longer requires the trainees to map English typewriter keys with Tamil sounds. “This is the first time we are using free software integrated with our own software, and it helps because licensed software cost over Rs.20,000, and they cannot be customised,” adds Ms.Hema.
Engineering the software, a process that took almost two years, brought about many revelations for the engineers involved in the project – Anila Susan Kurian and Raghava Krishnan K – who quit their jobs in software firms two years ago to work on research projects in the IITs. “Having visually challenged persons working on the design helped us a lot. Existing software would just read the screens, and not the basic options of Menu, Start and Desktop. We realised that to help the trainees navigate better, we need audio instructions for everything,” says Ms.Anila.
“The best thing has been the participation of ten girls. Till last year, we used to get only male participants, because many organisations do not wish to take the responsibility of escorting the girls,” says Ms.Hema. “Jobs in teaching are limited, and with the existing pool of opportunities in the software industry, it is very important that the visually challenged get used to computers the right way, says Radha Viswanathan, volunteer with Darshini, an organisation that identified the participants of the programme.