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When computers talk

Computers can be used to bring light into the world of the visually impaired. But even available resources — and at least one remarkable solution — do not get enough support, writes VILEEN SHAH.

A GROUP of youngsters surfing through the Internet accidentally clicked a wrong mouse button. To their surprise, the computer started speaking the text on the screen. Everyone was stunned! It was Jenny's computer so all questions were directed to her.

"How come your computer is talking?"

"It's my brother's computer."

"But you said that your brother is blind!"

"Yes, his computer has a screen reader."

"What is screen reader?"

"A screen reader is a type of software that reads what appears on the computer screen and presents it in a human voice. My brother operates the computer with the help of a screen reader like any normal person."

"But I don't see any Braille keyboard!"

"That's a myth! Blind persons don't need a Braille keyboard to operate computers. They know the locations of each key on a regular keyboard and can operate with the same speed as us."

In the computer world, we don't talk about magic but certainly when computers talk, it creates magic for the blind. Speech output software presents everything that appears on a computer screen in a human voice. It opens up a world of knowledge accessible through visual content for the blind.

A line of difference needs to be drawn here between speech input and speech output. Speech input software listens to your voice, identifies the spoken words and types them in. Speech output software reads words on the screen and speaks in a human voice.

How this happens is certainly a mystery for many laymen. A speech synthesizer performs the entire process of reading electronic impulses typed in or otherwise. The process of converting electronic impulses into voice is commonly known as "Text-to-speech". Using this technology, blind persons can read, type, edit, modify, cut, copy, paste and print documents of any size; receive, read and send e-mail, visit websites, surf the Internet, pull documents and run printouts.

In fact, attempts to produce artificial human voice were made as early as 1793. Wolfgang von Kempelen, a researcher from Vienna, prepared the first acoustic-mechanical speech machine. More remarkable progress in this direction, however, was made with the advent of electronics. In the 1950s, scientists succeeded in making a model of the acoustics of human vocal tracts and resonant frequencies. But a major breakthrough was achieved with the development of computer technology in 1970s. Although talking computers appeared in the market in 1970s, realisation that this amazing technology could be a blessing for the blind came later. The commercial use of speech technology began in 1988 with Job Access With Speech (JAWS) appearing in the market to unravel computer mysteries for the blind. Around 1990s, a software called Open Book Unbound also included a Windows-based speech software enabling blind to read certain print materials. By 1997, the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, had caught up with these technological developments, by launching its Multilingual Editor to enable the blind in India to use computers with speech and Braille options in the Indian languages. Using JAWS, Window Eyes, Multilingual Editor or similar software, blind persons are now able to operate computers like their sighted peers.

This new development should demolish numerous misconceptions about disabled persons in general, and the blind in particular. Computer literacy has become a window to new job opportunities so far denied to people with visual impairment. The contributions made by Henter Joyce Company (Now a part of Freedom Scientific), GW Micro, and IIT, Chennai, to the development of speech software and to make it more human-like as well as user-friendly are noteworthy. Among different speech software in the market, JAWS is most popular in the United States and many other parts of the world. JAWS for Windows XP Professional costs $1095 and JAWS for home is $895 as against Window Eyes for home which costs $795. In the Indian context, these prices are exorbitant. Only a few institutions for the blind in India can afford these speech output software packages. For individual users, these prices are beyond reach. In India, we have laws such as the Persons With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection Of Rights And Full Participation) Act, 1995 and also a Ministry of Social Justice And Empowerment but there is a big gulf between laws and implementation. Organisations of and for the blind do not keep pace with developing technology.

In the U.S. projects pertaining to research and development of technology are undertaken with or without grants from the government by private enterprises and/or institutes for the blind. Corporate grants are available for the development of new technology for the disabled. Hence private enterprises are engaged in the development of adaptive technology. Organisations of and for the blind in the U.S. are divided, as should be the case in India, into two major categories: providers and consumers. While providers are engaged in making available services, including training on computers, consumers' groups are active in asserting their equal right to education and employment along with access to adaptive technology. On the other hand, both consumers' groups and providers for the blind in India have shown little initiative to develop and make available speech software and other assistive devices for the blind. An inauguration of cyber cafes for the blind in Mumbai and New Delhi caught the attention of the media, but few are aware that there is a dearth of training facilities. The publicity for such initiatives missed the primary need for training the visually impaired to use computers.

There are around four million blind persons in India. To cater to their educational and training needs, there are just 400 institutions. Most are under-funded, poorly organised, lack initiative and a progressive outlook. Most administrators are satisfied with providing basic education and obsolete industrial training. It has been 15 years since talking computers appeared in the market but in India we seem to be waiting for a miracle. It is unconvincing to say that we do not have resources — finance or know-how — to provide modern solutions. If realisation of needs has been poor, there has been an unpardonable failure to recognise that at least one remarkable solution has emerged in India. Professor Kalyanakrishnan and his students in IIT, Chennai have developed an indigenous product called Multilingual Editor that makes computers talk not only in English but also in native languages. This software is good for both the speech output and for Braille display. And Vidya Vriksha, a Chennai-based non-profit associate of IIT, has provided impressive proof of its utility by providing free training to over 200 users.

But that is not the end of the story. The Multilingual Editor is available free of cost to all users — individuals, associations, institutions, schools and training centres. Amazingly, since its inception in 1997, only 200 persons have so far taken advantage of this software. With proper support from the Government and national bodies, this free software could have reached millions of individuals all over the country. Also, India could have saved thousands of dollars paid for costly speech software purchased from other countries.

If properly utilised, we have resources, skills, knowledge and motivation to provide national solutions to problems such as education and employment of the disabled but unfortunately, genuine efforts made by groups such as IIT, Chennai and Vidya Vrikshah are lost in an ocean of inaction and inacceptance. Our computer masters have ability and agility to take leadership of the software world including those for the blind and other disabled, but most of them have not cared to bring light to the world of darkness. The message is loud and clear. Computers will talk in a meaningful way in India only when there a serious approach to national problems through national solutions.

Vidya Vriksha can be contacted at 3, Triveni Amman Street, R.K. Nagar, Chennai - 600028. Ph: 044-24937926.

The writer is a Professor of Social Science, Harold Washington College, Chicago.

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