[accessibleimage] Touch Graphics in Egypt

  • From: Lisa Yayla <fnugg@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: accessibleimage@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Fri, 30 Dec 2005 12:39:40 +0100

Hi article on the state of affairs for visually impaired university students in Egypt and Touch Graphics.


article 1

December 2005

New Visions

From translation software to printers that produce three-dimensional images, blind students are finding ways to access university facilities

By Viviana Mazza

O NE DAY IN 1980, a Cairo University engineering student marched into the office of Ibrahim Farad, chairman of the computer science department, and declared, “I want to learn about computers.”

His name was Mohamed Saad, and the demand isn’t terribly unusual — until you realize that he is completely blind.

Saad had lost his sight the summer before he entered his senior year at the faculty of engineering. Farad gave him access to the computer lab and, with a programmers’ help, Saad learned to type and use the programming language BASIC in just one year. At the time, the university had no software for blind students, but Saad knew that such software was available abroad.

With a one-year scholarship to study in the United States, the young engineer learned how software could be harnessed to help the blind. Farad recounts, “After one year, Mohamed came with a lot of information about using computers for blind people, like listening [to digitized audiobook files], Braille [and] printing books in Braille.”

This is how the Computer Unit for Blind Students was born at the Dokki campus of Cairo University, explains Farad. Fatma Khalifa, the lab’s manager, says her unit serves 270 Cairo University students, but non-university members bring the total number of users up to 500.

National estimates vary greatly, placing the number of blind people in Egypt at between 35,300 and 737,000. However, according to the World Health Organization, there are 2.2 million people with visual impairment of some form (4.4 percent of the population), explains Doaa Mabrouk, co-founder of the Parents Association for Children with Visual Needs. She adds that for every blind person there are three who are visually impaired. Despite that, there are only 2,605 blind students in a total of 138 primary, preparatory and secondary schools, mostly special needs facilities.

There are 1,008 blind and visually-impaired students in universities in Cairo: 395 at Cairo University, 260 at Ain Shams, 350 at Al-Azhar and a mere three at the American University in Cairo. In most universities, they are not accepted in all faculties; at Cairo University, they are mainly in the faculty of arts and very few study English, business administration or commerce, says Mabrouk. In order to learn, they need special facilities.

Ahmed Khater, 36, a blind assistant lecturer in linguistics at Helwan University, says that the history of access technology for the blind in Egypt officially began in 1994, when the government began a project that taught computer skills. Some thirteen IT labs were inaugurated, including centers in universities like Ain Shams, Tanta and Cairo U (where a program had existed since 1980, but with the official recognition came an inscription in marble, some space and new machines, Farad says).

“We started as individuals to read the ‘net and discovered screen readers like JAWS, Windows Eyes and tried to spread this technology to all our centers,” says Khater. In 2000, AUC director of Academic Computer Services Mona Kaddah and the senior analyst programmer Marwa Mansour contacted Khater and asked him for software purchase suggestions.

Since 2001, AUC has had two “adaptive corners” with three computers dedicated to blind people: they use JAWS, a screen reader which “describes the screen” and assigns shortcut keys to access applications such as Microsoft Word and programming languages, allowing users to search the internet and library. There are also Kurzweil, a document reader of any printed document (which has to be scanned first and, after listening, the user can then convert it into an mp3 file); Zoom Text for the visually impaired, which can increase the dimensions of anything appearing onscreen up to 16 times; and a special Braille printer.

Two main schools of thought have emerged regarding learning techniques for the blind. One contends that audio information is the future of Braille-free teaching and the other holds that technology is a means of making Braille better.

Institutions abroad have answered the needs of those who don’t want to learn Braille in various ways. In the UK, the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC) wanted to make images accessible to blind people: a screen reader cannot describe an image in detail.

So, with the New York-based company Touch Graphics, RNC has developed a system called Talking Tactile Technology, based on a laptop-sized, touch-sensitive device connected to a computer via USB. The device combines audio files and tactile diagrams — maps, the human body, an algebra diagram and ideally, anything that can be printed with a normal ink printer on special encapsulated paper.

The areas of the map that need to be raised are printed in black; then, a heat lamp causes the black microcapsules to rupture, thus creating lines and dots. Users can follow not only physical locations, such as the streets of Mohandiseen, but also activate audio information linked to those areas of the map. The RNC is now selling the system around the world, and compiling a library of diagrams and audio files in different languages to be ‘pasted’ with the diagram.

“Instead of describing the map, it is better to know it. It increases my independence,” Khater says.

The lack of Braille books is a problem that plagues students. At university, blind people have the same assignments as sighted students, but they have no reference books in Braille. If they want a book in Braille, blind students have to scan it and print it page by page. When they scan the book, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software converts the printed characters into Braille that can be sent to a Braille printer.

There is only one producer of Braille books in Egypt, the Demonstration Center for the Rehabilitation of the Blind, but it mainly prints Braille books for primary education and minor texts, Khater says. His dream is to have more Braille production facilities, and he is planning to create one at Helwan University, but says it is taking time to find the funding necessary for both the equipment and transcription training.

Khater points out that there is nothing in Arabic that is comparable to the Braille digital libraries and web servers in English, which allow people to download books and magazines as Braille files and read them through small Braille displays or in print format.

The Arabic language’s idiosyncrasies also affect the transformation of text into audio. Mohamed Saladin, 23, is a blind computer instructor at the lab and a recent graduate of Cairo University’s languages faculty. Working part-time as a translator, Saladin puts entire Arabic books, page by page, in his scanner and uses the OCR software to convert them into electronic format. But when the software converts the printed text into electronic text and then into speech that is uttered out loud over the speakers, the software for Arabic does not always ‘understand’ where the short vowels, rarely represented in written Arabic by their proper diacritical marks, should be placed.

In 2000, Kuwait-based Sakhr Software produced the first Arabic screen readers, says Khater, allowing thousands of people who don’t know English to read. With the help of the Rotary Club Giza, Khater says 30 screen readers were purchased and distributed to four universities, four schools and two associations in Egypt. In 2002, Dolphin launched Hal, another Arabic screen reader, and distributed free demos in Egypt, good for one month.

But these screen readers have a 50-60 percent error margin, according to Khater, in addition to being expensive. Saladin says the cheapest English screen reader already costs $1,000; in Arabic it can be $3,000. At Cairo University, where he teaches blind students to use computers, the software available is mainly in English, which many don’t know well. “Many people have not realized yet in Egypt and in the Middle East that today the blind have the ability to do something better than [they could] 30 years ago.”

Khater believes that the only way to make sure blind people have access to technology is to pass a law that protects their rights, something similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). “We need a legal commitment, a law that forces companies to provide blind people with technology in order to give them the opportunity to work.”

Sometimes a great deal of money is spent but not necessarily in the right way. Participants at a recent conference on technology for the blind at AUC articulated this dilemma: special schools are valuable, but they isolate people from society. On the other hand, if you want to include the blind in public schools, you need good trainers and technology in each and every one of them.

And to develop the technology, software companies can certainly take the lead, but Farad observes that at the Computer Science Department of Cairo University, “We can develop the software if we have the research money.” et

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