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A Vision of Universal Access The Blind Innovate For Information Technology

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the United Nations Chronicle, Issue 4, 2003.

A group of blind volunteers in Ethiopia are working hard to transfer adaptive technology to their developing nation. The idea was first proposed by Tamru E. Belay, a blind Ethiopian-born Canadian and qualified adaptive technologist, who recently returned to his home country where he is busy promoting and coordinating the implementation of adaptive technology for the benefit of his visually disabled and impaired compatriots.

To realize my dream, and in collaboration with other committed blind colleagues, I established a non-governmental organization (NGO), Adaptive Technology Centre for the Blind (ATCB), which became officially operational on June 26, 2000, after nearly two years of strenuous and demanding bureaucratic process and the fulfilment of other prerequisites. The priority projects of ATCB include computer usage and adaptive technology training, braille embossing, dissemination of timely information on the prevention and control of HIV/AIDS, among others, as well as studies on speech software and computer braille in the major national languages of Ethiopia.

In an age of rapidly increasing technology, computers would greatly increase the ability of the blind to store and retrieve information. Accessing screen readers, Windows operating systems, manipulation of multimedia, scanning documents, and communicating via the internet and computerized braille transcription are but a few of what the ATCB computer training section is offering. The new approach and skills will allow the blind to compete on a level equal with other people and dramatically increase their ability to get and keep jobs, thus enabling them to provide financially for themselves and their families. In addition, it would increase their interaction with others and enable them to become productive and self-sufficient members of society.

It is common knowledge among the blind community, and concerned NGO's and institutions, that reading materials in braille are in short supply in Ethiopia.

Braille also has other major constraints, one of which has to do with the old brand and manual nature of the equipment used to produce it. As a result, blind schoolchildren, senior students and professionals remain at a disadvantage; for one thing, they are unable to apply modern braille technology in school or at work. Even worse, braille users continue to work and study without direct access to a great deal of information.

The lack of a sufficient number and variety of braille textbooks and reference materials results in blind students depending on sighted assistance to access these sources. The situation is no different with blind professionals who have completed higher education and work in government or other organizations. The scarcity of braille facilities and supplies is a drawback in accomplishing their tasks; they usually have someone--a volunteer or hired assistant--read out to them vital reference materials. Similarly, blind people in Ethiopia have never had the opportunity to read locally produced braille publications. Undeniably, these constraints have a damaging effect on the quality of their academic and job performance, and limit their exposure to general information and current developments.

Modern embossing makes it possible to print and provide braille books and documents with high speed and efficiency. Besides saving time and labour, embossers are equipped with graphic programmes that enable them to emboss tactile pictures from ink-editions, and they work effectively with the necessary software to reproduce braille formats of ink-print material, laid out on table.

So far, braille materials mostly omit the graphic content of ink-print sources, resulting in the blind not benefiting as much from reading. On the other hand, tactile graphics enable braille readers to visualize objects and thereby form clear mental images of the real world, which is believed to be of special educational importance to visually impaired children attending regular and integrated schools.

ATCB considers it vital to meet the requirements of the Ethiopian blind community for a regular supply of high-standard braille. It has launched the publication in braille of a periodical, entitled "Pioneer", to disseminate information about HIV/AIDS, which will reach readers in various parts of the country through ATCB clubs. To make it more interesting, the Centre intends to edit it in a manner that would entertain as well as teach readers.

Within a few years of its creation, ATCB has laid down a solid ground for productive activities in many areas of direct relevance to the life of the local blind community. Its primary objective is to facilitate the increased and rapid accessibility of braille computing technology to blind people across Ethiopia, who have to contend with their own share of immense and diverse socio-economic problems. These include limited opportunities for education and employment, insufficient rehabilitative training, the absence of services such as disability and social security funds, and the lack of access to information and communication technologies. The root cause for the various and multiple hardships encountered by the blind and visually impaired lies in the age-old and wrong social attitudes by institutions and the general public about blindness.

ATCB targets not only children, students and professionals, but also the unemployed and school dropouts who are blind or visually impaired. It endeavours to enable these beneficiaries to achieve success in their fields of activity, academic or otherwise, through the application of information and communication technology (ICT) skills, enhanced by means of adaptive technology. People who benefit from the Centre's services are expected to assist in the promotion of its vision and goals by, among other things, playing an advocacy role to increase the awareness of employers, authorities, policy makers, financiers and the public.

The Centre has a wing called Empowering Blind Women of ATCB (EBWA). Women constitute a significant proportion of the blind and visually impaired community in Ethiopia and are the victims of marginalization on account of their disability and gender-related discrimination. Hence, any ICT project for the blind that does not target and involve women can hardly address the needs and problems of the entire non-visual population. With this realization, ATCB has from the start focused on women's participation in important phases of project implementation. Women with impaired vision and who are blind have contributed greatly towards the establishment and smooth operation of the Centre--as founders, policy and decision makers, service providers, volunteers, employees and active promoters of technology in various advocacy roles.

Needless to say, women with varying degrees of blindness make up a major part of the groups who benefit from the services rendered. Accordingly, a dozen blind women were among the limited number of computer trainees who have graduated so far from the Centre. Resources permitting, there are plans to redouble their involvement in project implementation and access to opportunities in ICT and the use of other forms of adaptive technology.

Besides affecting their performance, however, the prevailing situation has had a damaging effect on the rights of the blind to education and employment. It has become more difficult for blind graduates to find gainful employment or to secure equal opportunities for promotions once they find a job. Worse still, they are denied access to fields of their choice in higher education due to the lack of means of access to information. Employers and educational institutions try to justify their actions by reasoning that the blind heavily depend on assistants, which entails additional expenses.

While this is the case in Ethiopia, the situation is no different in most parts of Africa. Evidence from correspondence, internet surveys and different workshops held in Africa testify to the fact that the problem is shared by most nations of the continent. As such, this calls for the adoption of alternative approaches geared towards information technology adapted for blind beneficiaries.

In conclusion, the vision of ATCB definitely would help in the creation of employment opportunities for blind people who have acquired adaptive technology know-how and skills. Through the acquisition of braille computing skills, their sense of security would increase and they would have easier access to information on current affairs and health and family issues, such as HIV/AIDS. They would be liberated from over-dependence on others to perform routine tasks such as reading, writing and processing information, and in this way they would be more confident and competitive.

It is therefore the strong desire of ATCB to work together with United Nations (UN) agencies and other international organizations on furthering the cooperation proposed by the Centre. We also hope that such joint endeavours will contribute to the image and values of the UN in Africa. Thus, ATCB requires the encouragement and support of its international friends to ensure that these ventures of long-term significance are successfully undertaken.

For more information on Adaptive Technology, please visit: http://www3.sympatico.ca/tamru

Tamru E. Belay works for the Adaptive Technology Centre for the Blind (ATCB), dedicated to training Ethiopian students and professionals in the use of computers and braille.

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