Reality bites on computer Brailles for blinds in India

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According to some reports, just 5% of the millions of blind children in India get an education. And for these brave few it's an uphill struggle. Recently, the University Grants Commission, the apex regulatory body for university education in the country, paved the way for visually-impaired students to be given the option of using a computer to write answers during exams. UGC's stance follows a similar instruction from the Central Board of Education (CBSC) allowing candidates from Delhi to use PCs or typewriters during exams.

Till recently, the visually-impaired needed to depend on scribes or writers for examinations, a system that is fraught with problems. A switch to computers, however, will do little to change the plight of the visually-impaired, unless institutions back this up with some progressive support. Examinations are in fact just one part of what is a daily struggle for the visually-impaired. Take the most basic need any student has- books. There is no accessibility of reading and study material in India. In the absence of these, visually-impaired students are left to the mercy of others or spend hours scanning page after page of text books to be loaded on to computers so that screen-reading software (which allows the blind and visually-impaired to access information on their PCs either by voice or through Braille or both) can be used. The National Association in Delhi for the Blind is trying to change what is a cruel reality for the visually-impaired by using its in-house mini-computerised Braille press to publish textbooks and literature of general interest. All year round, the organisation gets special requests from school and college students for transcriptions. Already, NAB has covered substantial college-level material in subjects like history, political science, English and BEd. With the help of Media Lab Asia it hopes to provide material in 12 other subjects identified as being popular choices for visually-impaired students within the next three years. These include Hindi, Sanskrit, sociology, philosophy, law and social work.

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NAB Delhi has been working with the Delhi University, under which it believes 200 visually-impaired students study to bring about just such a change. It hopes that by 2007 they will have the training in place to transition DU's students to computer-based exams. Apart from training, another problem that some foresee in using technology to give visually-impaired students greater academic indep- endence is infrastructure. The other problem that could emerge, is if colleges are asked to provide computers themselves.

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