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Indian Express – 30th January, 2011


Source: Indian Express

Thanks to the wide ramp that curves up to the glass facade of the Yahoo! India office in Bagmane Tech Park, CV Raman Nagar, Bangalore, the small flight of stairs that also leads to the front door is hardly used. “Just as you took the elevator to my office on the fifth floor instead of taking the stairs, you’d naturally take the ramp because it’s easier,” says Srinivasu Chakravarthula, at Yahoo! India’s Accessibility Lab, the company’s purple logo in Braille on the wall behind him. Ease of access is an area he is something of an expert in, responsible as he is for making Yahoo! products accessible to everyone, including users with visual and motor disabilities.

Vasu, as he is known, also spreads awareness about the concept of accessibility at conferences and employee induction programmes at Yahoo, besides the blogosphere. It usually starts with explaining why, contrary to popular belief, accessibility is not just for the disabled, but for everyone. Making a website accessible, for example, means making sure it runs on all versions of all browsers—how often have we visited websites that say they are best viewed on IE 6 or above?—and even on phones and portable devices, besides including features like keyboard support, multiple text sizes, alternate text for images and an optional high-contrast colour scheme. While making the website accessible to visually-impaired users, these features also make browsing easy for everyone. “Within six months of launching an accessible site, eBay reported a 40 per cent increase in sale,” Vasu says. Yet, few companies in India—IBM and Microsoft among them—recognise the need for accessibility and a majority of websites, including official government sites, do not have accessibility features.

“In countries like the UK and Australia, accessibility is mandated by the governments because they realise that in a few years, they will have a sizeable population of elderly people,” Vasu says. The idea is now catching up in India, four years after it ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Early last year, the website of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (http://www.socialjustice.nic.in/) became the first government ministry website to become accessible—besides the usual accessibility features, it has links to free screen readers which can read out website content for visually-impaired users. While most government websites are still not accessible—including the RTI website, which directs you to use Internet Explorer with a specified screen resolution to access the map—few such as that of the Ministry of Communications and IT (http://www.mit.gov.in/) and the national portal (http://india.gov.in/) now follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Yahoo!, a leader in accessibility research and a member of W3C, is looking at working with the government on improving accessibility.

It doesn’t take special effort to make a website accessible. “If Web developers use the best coding practices, such as using proper headers and labels, and accessibility tags to enable screen reading and keyboard control, the site will be accessible to anyone from any device—no need to maintain separate text-only versions,” Vasu says, adding, “In a Word file, for example, when we insert a picture, how many of us add a text description to it? It only takes a minute and it will come in handy when the picture fails to load, besides enabling blind users to appreciate the content of the picture by having a screen reader spell it out.” Just like Microsoft Word, Android and iPhone have accessibility features, but most application developers aren’t aware of them. Several popular email and chat clients for mobile phones do not support screen readers.

Accessibility doesn’t just pertain to websites, it extends to all walks of life—making public spaces wheelchair-friendly’ enabling the visually-impaired to read, write and even drive’ and ensuring entertainment is enjoyable by the hearing-impaired. While some movie channels on cable TV play subtitles, Vasu says there is no reason why news channels and saas-bahu shows should not have synchronised captioning. “We underestimate what the disabled can and will do. The EnAble India website was designed by a girl who can move only one of her 10 fingers,” he says.

Economic Times – 7th December, 2010


Source: Economic Times -7th December, 2010 External Website

Note: A few corrections have been made

BANGALORE: The banker wanted another business card as the one Srinivasu Chakravarthula handed had ‘holes’. Unknown to the banker, the card was embossed in Braille that enables the blind to read. The banker’s response presented Srinivasu an opportunity to get to work — educating her about a technology that has made life easier for the disabled.

As accessibility manager at Yahoo! India’s research centre External Website in Bangalore, Srinivasu teaches people about bringing technology closer to the disabled. As far as physical traits go to decide if an employee fits in, the 29-year-old computer science graduate is quite qualified: he is blind.

At Yahoo!, Srinivasu tests and reviews every product on the accessibility count. He gives feedback on remodeling products and creating an accessibility prototype. He also works with the internet giant’s solution centres in the Asia-Pacific such as Singapore and Beijing to help establish accessibility labs.

So far, Srinivasu has worked on almost a dozen products Yahoo has launched over past one year including the popular messenger service. On an average, he works with at least eight teams giving them inputs and helping them make it easier to be accessed.

“He has filled a big and crucial gap that existed in the company. We had nobody who thought from an accessibility perspective,” says Srinivasu’s boss Sandeep Datar, a director at Yahoo! India R&D.

The accessibility perspective is a big draw with tech companies these days. Almost every big enterprise has espied a business opportunity here. The Apple iPhone, for instance, uses the app Color Identifier, which can identify 16777216 colours, some of them with surreal names such as Atomic Orange, Cosmic, Hippie Green and Opium with the help of a Braille keypad.

Google is also not far behind in assistive computing. An assistive app called Eyes-Free Shell helps a blind person while using touchscreen on a cellphone to correctly detect and dial a number instantly. Google is also experimenting with an assistive search experience that can detect an open a search query with keys rather than mouse actions.

On its part, Yahoo and many other Internet companies have been attempting to make their email solutions and other products friendlier for challenged users. For a visually challenged person, a photo caption will not mean anything unless its read out by what is called ‘screen reader’.

“Accessibility needs to work from the time a product is conceptualized,” says Srinivasu. Inside Yahoo, people do not treat him any differently. Rather, he is known to be quite the brat in office. “Srinivasu sends me a mail and even before it shows sent on his computer, he calls me and asks me to check it,” says Datar.

Knowledge and awareness about assistive technologies is something that Srinivasu developed later in life. He went to a regular school and as a kid and was of the opinion that blind people could not read. Only when his examiner asked him why he didn’t go to a special school, did it occur to him that the disabled do things differently.

“There was a blind school near my friend’s place. But we did not know what people did there. We used to cover our books with their braille paper. That was fascinating,” reminisces Srinivasu. His craze for computers, and technology perhaps, began when he saw a computer at a railway station. ‘Stupid box’, he calls it now, but as an youngster he wanted to know what it did and what he could do with it. It made him wander around and plead institutions to teach him to use it. Most turned him down due to his blindness.

Shramik Vidyapeeth, a government-run organisation, accepted him and he started dabbling with the keyboards. Following which he met an IIT professor who offered him an independent computer to work on but no other assistance.

After moving to Bangalore, he set up the braille press at National Association for the Blind Karnataka Branch External Websiteand also ran a computer learning centre. From there, he went to teach at a school in Bidar district of northern Karnataka. “Wherever I went , I wanted the organization to have a website. So I used to develop it for them,” he says.

In 2005, he began to specialize in accessibility and started working for Net Systems Informatics External Website and its subsidiary, BarrierBreak Technologies External Website. During his stint at Net Systems, he was instrumental in accessibility testing, imparting accessibility training to corporates and creating awareness about accessibility and assistive technologies.

Although he is passionate about accessibilty, Srinivasu cares about the business of it too. “People need to come out of the charitable mode and think of it as a business. The more accessible the websites are, the more people will access them”.


DigitalLEARNING


DigitalLearning

Diverse range of assistive technologies has the potential of bridging the gap and bringing down barriers- which were earlier seen as inevitable for the differently abled population. We explore the world of assistive technologies and find out what it has to offer to the population with special needs

By Sheena Joseph

With the passage of the Right to Education Act, India has taken a historic step in providing education to all its citizens. However, within this population also include Persons with Disabilities (PWDs). Increasingly, there has been a growing concern for the rights of the disabled, which has till now surpassed the attention of policy makers in India. According to the estimates of the World Health Organisation, 70% of the world’s disabled reside in developing countries. The millennium development goals have given high priority to universalisation of primary education by 2015 and also reiterates its commitment towards the provision of an inclusive society with equal opportunities for the disabled.

Guiding Principles of the UN Convention on the Rights for Persons with Disabilities

There are eight guiding principles that underlie the Convention and each one of its specific articles:

  • Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons
  • Non-discrimination
  • Full and effective participation and inclusion in society
  • Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity
  • Equality of opportunity
  • Accessibility
  • Equality between men and women

Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities

However, major efforts still have to made in India for the promotion of education for the disabled. It is estimated that only two per cent of the 70 million disabled persons have proper access to education in India. Children with special needs are excluded from mainstream schooling because of a variety of reasons. This may include lack of proper awareness about the needs of the disabled, absence of relevant infrastructure and dearth of training for teachers. Advancements in technology have brought in several means through which education of children with disabilities can be promoted. These have included assistive technologies, diverse learning platforms, ubiquitous web, digital libraries and resources. It becomes mandatory therefore that stakeholders in the education sector are fully equipped to harness the power of technologies in this field.

“Assistive technology solutions can range from the simple to the complex, but they all have one thing in common ? they assist people with a wide range of disabilities and impairments to overcome their limitations and achieve greater independence” Shilpi Kapoor

Assistive technologies for an inclusive society

“Assistive technology solutions can range from the simple to the complex, but they all have one thing in common ? they assist people with a wide range of disabilities and impairments to overcome their limitations and achieve greater independence.” Shilpi Kapoor, managing director, BarrierBreak Technologies

There are 70 million people with disabilities in India and still on the rise. Technology can be the enabler in the lives of persons with disabilities. It can impact their lives in education, employment, and social life. Any aid, device, gadget or tool that helps someone with a disability or a handicap overcome the barriers caused by their disability or handicap can be called assistive technology. These are technologies that help the blind to perform activities that typically require ‘seeing’, the deaf to do things that would typically require them to ‘hear’ and the non-verbal to accomplish tasks that would typically need ‘speech’.

The 2001 census report of India for the first time incorporated disability in its count and listed a massive 4.3 million differently-abled children in the age group of 6-14 years in India, majority of whom are deprived of education. Assistive technologies can play an important role in addressing issues of accessibility and support an inclusive society

Several technology companies have been trying to develop products that can help the disabled use computers comfortably and effectively. They provide assistive technology for all disabilities such as mobility, visual, hearing and learning impairment.

A person with mobility impairment can use technology with adaptive keyboard featuring keys that are four times bigger or mouse alternatives such as the Trackball Mouse to operate a computer.

A person with cognitive or learning impairment who has difficulties reading, writing and spelling or has Dyslexia can use literacy software solutions. It includes Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and converts scan printed pages into electronic text, the digital talking book player allows the user to read and listen to content through a combination of text, audio and images. A hearing impaired person can use the hearing aid compatible and large key phone for assistance.

For Aswin Chandrasekaran, CEO, Invention Labs, assistive technologies have helped the disabled persons integrate better with society and, as a consequence, have promoted a more inclusive society. When the barriers posed by a disability are overcome and are no longer perceived as barriers or handicaps, the person with disability can and does become a meaningful contributor to her/his community and the society benefits as a whole due to their contributions.

Srinivasu Chakravarthula, accessibility manager at Yahoo! Software Development (India) Pvt Ltd elaborates that people who have difficulty with their hands and can’t use a regular mouse will use something like Track ball, Switch or Head mounted mouse. “Assistive technologies allow for greater independence by enabling people to perform tasks that they earlier couldn’t carry out or even had great difficulty completing. This is done by providing enhancements to or changed methods of interacting with the technology needed to accomplish such a task.” Assistive technologies are of immense help to people with disabilities to lead an independent life, he adds.

Assistive technologies for education among disabled children

Education can be made much more effective and accessible to persons with disability by including assistive technology products and services into the system. Text books used by students can be converted to digital talking books and be made available for the print impaired (people with learning and visual impairment). Computer aids such as screen readers, adaptive keyboards and desktop magnifiers can have a major impact in the education of persons with disability.

The primary problem that needs to be addressed, says Kapoor, is the limited access to technology for people with disabilities. In education and day-today life, assistive technology is not available to the persons with disabilities. This hampers them in their education and growth.

Many schools in India are not even aware of available assistive technologies, and thus the use of these technologies is minimal in schools across the country. Also, one needs to work on training the special educators so that they are aware of the technology and how it can benefit the students. Children are taught many skills, concepts and activities as part of their education, and some of these may be difficult to accomplish for disabled children. Assistive technologies can help in ensuring that the medium of instruction can be sufficiently modified to help disabled children overcome these challenges that are part of their education. These technologies will empower children to actively participate in their classrooms and ensure that they are provided a well-rounded education.

Talking about the work of Inventions Lab in this regard, Chandrasekaran adds, “The experience of Inventions Lab has been limited to schools that are working with children with developmental disabilities. From what we have observed, assistive technologies can play a vital role in the education of children with special needs as well.”

“Assistive technology is very useful in the education sector; may it be for visually impaired, mobility impaired or students with learning disabilities”, says Chakravarthula. A visually impaired person, who can’t read a physical book, can scan the same and read it using a computer with the help of screen reader such as Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA). They are able to attempt their examinations using the computer, instead of depending on a scribe to write for them and this will in fact, improve their output quality too. A mobility impaired student, who can not write using a pen can use voice recognition software on the computer. A learning disabled person, who can not read text can learn with the help of graphics, available through computer based AAC devices, like the Aavaz from Invention Labs.

ICT tools for tracking education of intellectually challenged children

Assistive technology offers effective solutions for independent learning to intellectually challenged or learning disabled children. It can address various kinds of learning disability. Assistive technology has made considerable progress in helping intellectually challenged children become independent in classrooms and other day to day activities. “A child who finds it difficult to write words can use word prediction software to write efficiently”, says Kapoor.

The clevy keyboard that features attractive playful colors for vowels, consonants, numbers and function keys can help students with learning disabilities. Specific softwares also have the power of inbuilt speech output facility which enables children using computers to write, read, view and check text alongside a human sounding voice. The use of ICT based integrated assessment tools for tracking the education and rehabilitation of intellectually challenged children also depends a lot on the disability.

Explaining the diversity of assistive technologies Chakravarthula adds, “Today there are companies all across the world which are doing research on highly intuitive and advanced assistive technologies. We hear about advances like mind mapping, study skills, symbol based and touch-typing software. However, it is their adaptation and inclusion in different spheres of life that is more of a challenge.”

Society in general needs to accept and implement these solutions keeping the various segments of society in mind. Like many tasks that have benefited with the right kind of ICT tool, ICT based integrated assessment tools, if they are designed well, can be very helpful in tracking the education and rehabilitation of intellectually challenged children.

Revolutionary technologies for the disabled

“Just like a person with a mild visual impairment can use spectacles to correct his or her vision, we envision a world where non-verbal persons have access to a portable solution like AVAZ to help them speak”, say Chandrasekaran.

Each disability requires different kinds of technologies and there are many such technologies which are being developed that will revolutionize the world of persons with disabilities and create a more inclusive society. Invention Labs is working on one such technology for non-verbal persons AVAZ is the product which is India’s first portable speech synthesizer and enables non-verbal persons to convey virtually any thought in their mind by providing them an ‘artificial voice’.

“India is still a sleeping giant and is slowly waking up to concepts like assistive technologies and creating a truly inclusive society. If you look around, many of our government offices are not disabled friendly. The same is the case for public utility services like transport” Srinivasu Chakravarthula

The principles of universal design is being followed by Inventions Labs so as to enable non-verbal persons with different kinds of disabilities to use the device. For example, the lack of motor control skills prevents persons with Cerebral Palsy, many of whom are non-verbal, from using traditional means of communication like writing or typing. AVAZ can easily be adapted for use by such persons with the help of commercially available access switches, many of which are compatible with the device.

BarrierBreak Technologies has launched the Signntalk website (www.signntalk.org) in India, the first of its kind, to enable the hearing impaired community to communicate with the hearing world using sign language. Signntalk acts as a bridge to connect the hearing impaired with the hearing world.

Literacy software solutions are also useful for those who have difficulties reading, writing and spelling or have Dyslexia. By harnessing the power of the inbuilt speech output facility, computer users can write, read, view and check text alongside a human sounding voice. High tech readers can be used by a visually impaired person to read any kind of printed material.

Role of government in promoting use of assistive technologies

Acording to Chakravarthula, “India is still a sleeping giant and is slowly waking up to concepts like assistive technologies and creating a truly inclusive society. If you look around, many of our government offices are not disabled friendly. The same is the case for public utility services like transport.” Overall, the use of assistive technologies for the promotion of the rights of the disabled requires greater support and encouragement from the government. As Kapoor puts it, “There has not been much initiative from the government in promoting the use of assistive technologies among persons with disabilities. Provisions have been made under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan stating that the needs of children with disabilities should be fully addressed in the mainstream education and that all children must get the opportunity to go to their neighbourhood schools. However, not much has been done in making these products available to the students or the educational institutes.”

Building awareness in is one of the areas which requires special attention. The government, NGOs, and corporates had not even heard of web accessibility. It is only through advocacy and awareness building initiatives that the Government of India released the ‘Guidelines for Indian Government Websites’. The impact of this has been felt by every disabled citizen of India, since every person can access government resources.

The requirement for provision of aids and appliances to the disabled came into focus after the enactment of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, which came into force in 1996. There are some initiatives which have just started like distribution of assistive devices by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Additionally, Delhi University is going to set up the Disability Cell. Chandrasekaran highlights some of the positive initiatives of the government in this field. “The Government of India has implemented many innovative schemes to help persons with disabilities to have access to relevant assistive technologies. For example, the ADIP scheme provides these products at subsidized rates to persons with disabilities who may not be able to afford it.”

IT promises a better tomorrow for the blind

By Staff Reporter, The Hindu
Source:
Date:20/04/2004 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/2004/04/20/stories/2004042013760300.htm

KOCHI, APRIL 19. Information technology (IT) holds out a promise of a better tomorrow for the visually challenged, enabling them to have equal opportunities in the crowded job markets. This message was sounded at an IT workshop organised by the Society for Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged (SRVC) here, as part of its two-week course on personality development and communicative English for the blind.

Chakravartula Srinivasu, Project Director, Shree Manik Prabhu Shiksha Samithy, an NGO working for the disadvantaged in Bidar, Karnataka, inaugurated the workshop.
Speaking about various IT tools available for the vision impaired, Mr. Srinivasu said that an advanced screen reading software called SAFA (screen access for all) would be released soon. This software, developed jointly by the IIT, Kharagpur, and the National Association for the Blind, would be capable of handling both Hindi and English, he said.

Unlike JAWS, a specialised software which enables a visually challenged person to work on a PC with audio assistance, Windows Eyes and other screen readers, SAFA would be priced low enough to fit the Indian wallets, he said.

He introduced the audience to software packages like Kurzweil and Open Book which allow a visually challenged person to read printed matter in English like newspapers, magazines, textbooks or even novels. This package would be a great help for sightless students who have to depend on others for reading texts and reference books, he said.

R. Sudhir, an engineer who lost his vision in his mid-thirties, focused on areas such as applications of IT in everyday life and the employment. He spoke about how Net banking, e-libraries and shopping portals made life easier for the visually challenged for whom mobility was a key criterion. He also mentioned how IT, in the form of dictation software and electronic book reading machines, came to the aid of visually challenged persons who were not computer-savvy.

K. Sriram, a top-ranking alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, and a senior analyst with Infosys Technologies, gave a long list of names of top achievers in fields like engineering, medicine, technical writing, business management and accountancy, who had used IT tools to outdo their sighted peers.
His examples were so inspiring that when he concluded his speech on how the sky was the limit for the brave and computer-savvy among the blind, a female member of the audience asked whether the blind could also pilot aircraft. Amidst laughter, the resource persons replied: “Why not, when even sighted pilots are depending on auto-pilots and Instrument Landing Systems to navigate their machines?”

© Copyright 2000 – 2004 The Hindu

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