Chennai

How Help the Blind Foundation is bridging the digital divide

File photo used for representational purpose   | Photo Credit: Prashant Waydande

G. Vinitha is waiting eagerly for a courier person to ring the doorbell of her house in interior Vellore. She knows there is a gift on the way: It is a laptop from Help the Blind Foundation, a non governmental organisation focussed on offering university education to the visually impaired. Vinitha is one of the beneficiaries of the Foundation’s latest initiatives.

“The Foundation had taken a count of students who do not have a laptop and I gave my name and am expecting to get a laptop soon,” says Vinitha, a final year student of BA English at Queen Mary’s College, who has found a new corner to study from.

All these months, she was attending her lessons from her phone. Once the laptop arrives, Vinitha has many other plans.

“I want to find a job after I complete my graduation; and computer skills are essential for that. In the pre-COVID days, I had the benefit of receiving practical lessons on how to use a computer. For the last six to seven months, I am out of touch and want to practise again,” says Vinitha. She has two siblings and feels they would also stand to benefit from having this gadget at home.

HTBF has been bridging the digital divide by arranging for laptops and smartphones for their student beneficiaries. The Foundation has around 500 students from 17 colleges in Indian cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Coimbatore, Varnasi, Indore and Bangalore enrolled with them.

Since mid-March, the Foundation has been offering employability classes, five days a week, in English and Computer Science. Previously, these classes were offered on the campus after college hours.

Since the lockdown began, enthusiasm for their classes has also increased, teacher-volunteers point out.

As most of the students are from small towns, the challenge before the Foundation was providing them with digital devices. To start with a simple mobile phone was enough as a majority of the classes are voice-based.

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In August, a smartphone was delivered at S. Priyadarshini’s home in Krishnagiri. Until then she did not have one. “I was in my Chennai hostel until August, and so managed classes with a conference facility that 20 of us attended together. Now that I am home and college has also begun online classes I could not do so without a phone,” says the BA student, describing its features and how she can record lessons.

For those who could not afford a phone, they provided the recharge option so that they could borrow their neighbour’s phone.

“Some had smartphones but they did not have the means to recharge it regularly so we started recharging them for them. Every month ₹200 is recharged on their phone,” says Nataraj Sankaran, a trustee.

The number of students who are extended this recharging assistance has also increased. “We started by recharging 50 students’ phones; now we have 170 students who seek this help,” he says.

With the support of corporates, smartphones were procured.

“Another challenge we faced was that some parents were reluctant to allow their children to attend classes as they feared technology would be misused, so we had to counsel them,” says Sankaran.

To address network-related issues, the Foundation asked students to move to the hostel and started supporting them (this is after lockdown restrictions were eased). “As hostels are close to colleges, network is not much of an issue,” he says.

“Once colleges reopened, students started complaining that they could not attend online classes as they were being conducted on Zoom or Google Meet. Most of the government-sponsored laptops were not supporting this technology.” Now, the Foundation is helping them procure laptops.

He says they have many corporates ready to give desktops but what they need is laptops because they are more comfortable to work on.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 3:15:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/how-help-the-blind-foundation-is-bridging-the-digital-divide/article32705481.ece

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