The long awaited software for visually impaired people of Nepal is finally among us. ‘Dristibachak’, a speech output software based in Nepali unicode font allows visually impaired people to navigate the computer screen with their official lingua franca. The software was officially demonstrated in Kathmandu among different professionals and intellectuals with little or no sight under a formal ceremony supported by Nepal Association of the Blind.
This breakthrough in technological advancement has sophisticated new energy, anticipation and aspiration amongst the sight-impaired people. This advanced speech output software is developed in any of the languages for the visually impaired computer users and reads the texts that appear on the computer screens and allows person to function in a equal-footing like others unfolding several doors of opportunities ahead for them.
The Computer and Information Technology (CIT) is a powerful tool in this modern era in empowering every individual including the blind and partially sighted. A synthesized voice copying the human voice to read the computer screen or magnifying to a large print or producing hard-copy output into Braille- are the parts of CIT which has helped visually impaired people to carry out daily tasks and access to free flow of information. Such innovation has helped countless visually impaired people around the world in breaking barriers and putting them in the mainstream of society in addition to eliminating negative view point towards disability. It has enhanced their visibility, creativity, and productivity leading ultimately to a dignified life. Thus, it is true that “Technology has revolutionized daily life for all of us, but it has had particularly dramatic benefits for people who are blind or visually impaired.”
Visual impairment is also considered a communication/information disability. However, through CIT one can ‘feel,’ to some extent, as ‘normal’ as anyone in the society. The evolution of such technology to help turn into day to day life the knowledge for the people with visual disability in English and other popular languages such as French and Spanish has been a reality since the 1980s. It first came in the developed countries and later gradually spread out across developing countries. Teaching and learning computer technology for the people with loss of vision in Nepal was started in 1991 with a borrowed computer set from Mercantile Computer Supplier by an effort of the dedicated volunteers particularly Shashikala Singh, Bidhya Baidhya and Sita Gywali who imparted such knowledge and skills from the Overbrook School for the Blind-International Program, United States of America.
It is imperative for both government and non-governmental sectors to prioritize investment in CIT so that every individual with visual impairment as well as people with other types of disabilities can access to this ‘very basic necessity,’ sooner or later. It should be mandatory for The Ministry of Science and Technology to expand various technologies to help differently-abled people to win their disability.
This initiation was symbolic as computer technology in Nepal itself was in ‘primitive’ stage. Through this training, people shrouded in the darkness could use computer in equal footing as their sighted peers. This was almost like a miracle for the general public as well as policy-makers and parents of the blind in the country.
Overbrook School for the Blind-International Program with its unwavering co-operation and assistance to support and promote the magnificent computer power for the visually impaired persons offered training to a number of individuals- school teachers including visually impaired students in the US in the nineties. In Nepal it is working by providing equipment, securing valuable fund and supporting for establishing training center in Kathmandu and thus making difference in the lives of some fortunate visually impaired through the power of computer. This helped gradually diversify the resources in the sector and realize the need of CIT. This endeavor has given an opportunity to a significant number of the visually impaired people to enjoy CIT in Nepal.
There are a couple of organizations rendering computer training targeting this population in Kathmandu and Pokhara in an on and off basis presently. People with visual disabilities who are fortunate enough to graduate from a school or college have been able to compete successfully for jobs in variety of sectors such as schools, colleges, civil service, non-government organizations (NGOs) and in business sectors. This shows that people, despite the disabilities, are capable of being independent through technology if opportunities are given. Surely this is a positive change. But those with access to such technology are still in the minority.
The speech output software in English had limited accessibility. The ‘Drishtibachak’ will increase accessibility as its speech output software is made accessible in Nepali Unicode font based in Debanagari script. The ‘Drishtibachak’ is a result of years of test and trials by Civil Engineer, Mr. Him Gautam, who himself is partially sighted for past five years. His condition led him to develop such software. His effort has paved the way to compose documents, navigate the computer screen including accessing emails and browsing webpages in Nepali lingua franka with the installation of ´ Drishtibachak´ in a PC, though areas of improvement are there. One can now read newspapers, magazines and other relevant documents/information developed either in Nepali or English in addition to being able to access face book and computer chat through the websites. This is a milestone development for visually impaired people. Previously it was nearly impossible for them to read anything in hard-copies. Interestingly, even uneducated or little educated visual impaired are able to listen to the web based news designed in Nepali Unicode font. The rapid designing of Nepali websites in our own language these days has also added competitiveness and relevancy to the importance of Drishtibachak.
Visually impaired people make up 400,000 of the total population across the country who are struggling through social exclusion, chronic poverty and unemployment under the cloud of uncertain future. It is great that many young children and adolescents among them are receiving education under the initiatives of both government and non-governmental sectors. This population is an important asset of the country. By providing access to technology and information, one can bring the best out of them to make them productive human resource. At the same time one must not forget the need for livelihood training and employment to secure the present and future of this population. The computer is a highly essential ingredient which unlocks doors for opportunities among the people who are visually challenged. However, a negligible number of them are able to afford a computer.
It is imperative for both government and non-governmental sectors to prioritize investment in CIT so that every individual with visual impairment as well as people with other types of disabilities can access to this ‘very basic necessity,’ sooner or later. It should be mandatory for The Ministry of Science and Technology to expand various technologies to help people with any sort of disability to win their disability. Nepal Telecom is dramatically expanding its internet facility throughout the country and other few private companies are supplementing in this mission to connect people with internet. Undoubtedly, it is a welcome move. But this marginalized population must come under first and foremost priority of the major players and they should provide internet service at an affordable rate or for free for the sight-impaired people. It is the corporate social responsibility of those organizations to help the disabled people to fight their disabilities.