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Internet Cafe and Software for the Blind

Posted on February 27, 2007
Filed Under >Bilal Zuberi, Education, Health & Disease, Science and Technology
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Bilal Zuberi

It was a few months ago that I read about the inauguration of the first internet cafe for the blind in Islamabad. I had wanted to write about it earlier but somehow skipped my mind, until the recent discussion on Islamabad allowed me to jog my memory a bit. I do want to share the news, even if a bit belatedly, because it is so uplifting and empowering.

According to a report in The Daily Times, the country’s first-ever Internet café for the visually impaired was inaugurated with the help of generous funding from the World Bank and the Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness (PFFB).

It appears that the software technology that enables such a user experience for the blind was introduced to Pakistan by an ATP regular, Aqil Sajjad. The software used by the internet cafe is called JAWS, and was first introduced by Aqil to Pakistan in 1999. Aqil has since then moved to the US for graduate studies in Physics, but the software is now more widely available to the blind in Pakistan, and making a dramatic difference in their lives.



These software packages are quite expensive but are really remarkable in what they are able to achieve. With their assistance, blind are able to operate the computers without any sighted assistance. It requires no special hardware and can be installed on a standard Windows machine, essentially making Windows accessible to a blind person by providing speech output as a substitute for the information displayed on the monitor for sighted people.

It is awe-inspiring how a software solution has made it possible for the digital world to finally become accessible to the blind. For once, there is a chance that the technological gap between the blind and the sighted may close. I am told that it is not just the simple use of computers that has now become possible with these softwares, but with a few accessory technologies, many other important intellectual tasks have also become much easier for the blind.

For example, the blind were previously dependent on sighted people for access to reading material. However, thanks to the internet and the availability of such software, that is no longer the case. Now one can even find entire coursework from some of the major universities (such as MIT) online, including class lecture notes, homework assignments and examinations.

In addition to this, by using a simple scanner and OCR software, they can now even read books on their own. Scanning books does take a bit of extra time, and the recognition is not 100% perfect (there are some errors), but having this option for reading a book without any sighted assistance is nothing short of a blessing. It might be worthy to mention here the project launched by Google to place a significant number of library books online.

While JAWS and Windows Eyes are good for general use, such as operating Windows, word processing, e-mail, internet surfing, instant messaging etc, doing Math (and in Aqil’s case, also Physics) with them is tricky. For that purpose, special software is now available and carries high recommendations from users.

One such software for Mathematics use is called WinTriangle. According to a Harvard paper from a set of conference proceedings on this topic, a new conversion tool, LaTeX2Tri, makes LaTeX files of physics and mathematics accessible to blind or visually impaired users of WinTriangle. Through a variety of pathways, common file types, such as TeX, Word, and PDF, may be converted to Triangle, the working language of many blind or visually impaired students and researchers. Textbooks, arXiv preprints, class notes, and problem sets are now readily accessible to WinTriangle users, completing the loop of mathematical communication between the blind and sighted communities.

I am inspired, not just by the progress that technology has made to make resources available to more people than before, but also by the committment and personal motivation showed by the blind people in Pakistan. They managed to reach out and find a solution for their needs and are now making it more widely available. However, a majority of our country does not speak, read or write in English, and I am still unaware of such software being available in Urdu. Unless it already exists out there, this presents a great opportunity for Pakistani software industry to contribute to the society.

For those interested, JAWS is published by Freedom Scientific and is available online for download. The price of Jaws is about $1,095 for the professional version and $895 for the standard version. Unregistered versions require a reboot of the computer every 40 minutes. However, a demo version of the program is available free of cost. A similar program called Windows Eyes can be downloaded here. The Mathematics software WItriangle is available here.

16 Comments on “Internet Cafe and Software for the Blind”

  1. Eidee Man says:
    February 27th, 2007 2:14 am

    Good post. I read about Aqil Sajjad in Nature some time back and have spent a lot of time wondering if the Aqil from the blog is the same Aqil. Anyway, now that we’re sure, let me just say that you have done a great service by introducing this software in Pakistan and have made us Pakistanis immensely proud of your academic and other achievements.

    Regarding the software, I wonder if the open-source community has made any contributions in this area?

  2. Naveed says:
    February 27th, 2007 5:21 am

    Excellent post Bilal. Good to hear about such ventures. I recently met an Indian entrepreneur that is working on technologies like speech synthesizers for people with trouble accessing traditional computer interfacing methods. In fact they were the ones that built the first speech synthesizer software for Stephen Hawkins. You can access their website at http://www.radiophony.com

    You also made a very relevant point about accessing books. The Radiophony people are also attempting to convert a number of urdu/indian books into a multimedia format for easier access called DAISY.

  3. Sajjad says:
    February 27th, 2007 6:54 am

    Salam

    I have a very good friend of mine He is MSc in History from Quaid-i-Azam uni (in 1997) and he is Disabled blind but he is very good in working on Jaws (from 2001 till date) and I have helped him to setup Jaws with complete backups using Acronis True Image for later restoration of Windows XP…

    From Jaws a real world open for blind people.
    and now I have seen that he uses keyboard even 3 times faster than me ( 10 years of exp on Systems security and administration) …

    and Its good to enjoy watchin DVD ( movies , listining songs with my Best Freind Naveed Usmani ) I love this Jaws technology and now I can see how much My freind Naveed is uptodated and working more effiecently than any other normal person..

    God Bless those who are creating these giant Softwares.

    Sajjad

    MSc In Information Security

    Msc Computer Science

    MSCE NT 4 ,MCSE 2000

    London..

  4. zamanov says:
    February 27th, 2007 12:53 pm

    Bilal thanks for this post.
    Truly commendable work by Aqil Sajjad. Efforts like this should be encouraged as niche markets for Pakistani entrepreneurs instead of trying to mimic the Indian software industry.
    Eidee Man do you have a link to the Nature article you refer to in your post?

  5. Asad says:
    February 27th, 2007 3:34 pm

    A person in USA I came to know via some of my groups uses JAWS and has made his own website. When I read about it, I was impressed.

    It’s too bad that our society looks at people with disabilities as a burden for society. This attitude needs to change and it is good to see such an effort under way.

  6. Aqil Sajjad says:
    February 27th, 2007 4:49 pm

    Thanks for this post Bilal.

    However, I must clarify that my mention as the person who introduced the software to Pakistan is not accurate. I was just one of the first people to use it in Islamabad (simply because I was fortunate enough to have the means to buy it), and naturally, people needing info about screen reading software were often directed to me for their queries. So my name just got mentioned rather undeservingly in that daily times report.

    Anyway, the latest on the internet cafe is that it’s up and running. They are developing some training manuals for Jaws with instructions in Urdu, which is really helpful for those who may not be too comfortable with English. The response has been encouraging, and they are even considering the possibility of holding some training workshops in other cities once in a while.

    Urdu software: yes, this is indeed a huge problem; what I understand with my discussion with some cs people is that it’s going to take a while before we have an urdu speech program. The problem has to do with the way Urdu is written, especially the fact that it does not have vowels. But yes, I do hope that enough resources and effort is put into it.

    Eidee man, the open source community has not had much input in jaws and windows eyes. These are purely commercial programs.
    WinTriangle has been made an open source program, but not much has come of it. So it remains the rather crude program that it has been for the last 3-4 years or so, with a lot of room for improvement.

  7. Naveed says:
    February 27th, 2007 7:17 pm

    I read about a Pakistani research team that had considerable success with an OCR for documents in urdu. They showcased their product in an IT fair (it was either PASHA or KRL I forget). I would assume that the underlying heuristics or models for picking out OCR data from documents in urdu would be quite similar to those needed to generate speech, since you would need to build some sort of language semantics and grammar to recognize the words in the first place. Obviously generating speech and tone would impose other challenges but somebody please correct me if I am wrong regarding the above assumption.

    If that is the case then I’m sure theres a case for writing up a project grant to fund such a project. I have no experience in the field of speech generation but I do know of one faculty member in LUMS, Lahore working in vaguely the same area. If we can manage to come up with a working proposal then we can start it up as a student project.

    Any takers?

  8. Aqil Sajjad says:
    February 28th, 2007 10:57 am

    Naveed:
    I am not a programmer, so may even be wrong about this, but I think the issues in generating speech are different from those in OCR.
    For speech, we use rules for pronounciation, whereas for scanning, we need rules for recognizing the characters without worrying about how they are pronounced.

    If I am not mistaken, the major problem in urdu text to speech is due to the fact that it does not have any vowells. For example, consider the Urdu word ‘kub.’ It’s written as kaaf bay. Now, without zer, zabar or pesh, you can not know by default how to pronounce it. So you not only have to create some rules for the alphabets, but also need a large dictionary.
    Interestingly enough, if I write ‘kub’ in roman urdu, jaws is able to pronounce it properly. That is because of the vowell u in the middle.

  9. Naveed says:
    February 28th, 2007 12:58 pm

    Aqil,

    I did a little background research and here is what I came up with.

    A Text-to-Speech Synthesizer can be broken down into two broad categories i.e. Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Speech Synthesis (SS). NLP deals with parsing the text and building up a ‘language’ database. The models used here are the same ones used in an OCR and grammar correction software i.e. hidden markov models. The ‘phonetic’ layer of the language is then overlayed onto this ‘language’ representation. This part faces the problem that you mentioned regarding urdu not having any vowels.

    The search also revealed the research group making headway in this area. Its called the Center for Research in Urdu Language Processing (CRULP) and is at the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences (NUCES) in Lahore.

    It looks like they had made some real progress in the area. I’m pasting the links below. These guys definitely deserve recognition.

    Homepage:
    http://www.crulp.org/

    Urdu Localization Project: http://www.crulp.org/ulp/

    Relevant research paper:
    http://www.crulp.org/ulp/download/LTS%20for%20Urdu%20TTS.PDF

  10. February 28th, 2007 5:55 pm

    keep up the good work.

  11. March 2nd, 2007 9:38 am

    Just got this brief from a friend. I read Dr. Salma Maqbool’s bio and was very impressed with her work for the blind. May her soul rest in peace:

    (Dr. Salma Maqbool) was the chairperson of Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness at the time of the inauguration of this internet café. She passed away just last month – you can read more about it (if you are interested) at:
    http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?menu=c10400&no=336420&rel_no=1

    http://www.thenews.com.pk/daily_detail.asp?id=38675

  12. March 3rd, 2007 11:46 am

    Naveed: Thanks for this useful information. I will try to find people in Lahore that you mention. Maybe they have non-technical bottlenecks that some of us can help solve, such as finding some funding sources.

  13. mazhar butt says:
    March 4th, 2007 4:48 am

    Can somebody tell me (and the public at large ) the name of a single Pakistani Inventor of any machine ? I asked this question to many but none could answer, not even the Kasauti-fame guy or even the editors of leading newspapers here in Pakistan !

  14. Fareed says:
    March 4th, 2007 12:36 pm

    This is a good step certainly. Technology can hep us cross these hurdlesand allow people to reach their full potential.

  15. Aqil Sajjad says:
    March 7th, 2007 4:31 pm

    I first posted this under another topic but thought it probably belongs more here.

    One issue of course is that Jaws and windows eyes are not perfect. Sighted people often design webpages and software that is not necessarily fully accessible through a screen reader.

    Fortunately, a lot of good work has been done in the area of webpage accessibility. The “web standards project” is working for some standards for making web technologies accessible for all:
    http://www.webstandards.org

    the following on-line tool allows you to enter the URL and get a report on its accessibility:
    http://dev.wave.webaim.org/index.jsp

    Their home page also has some accessibility guidelines for webpage developers:
    http://www.webaim.org/

  16. Saaqib Mahmood says:
    August 13th, 2007 10:24 am

    I ma with a Master’s degree in Mathematics (from the University of Peshawar, Pakistan) and with low vision (visual acuity less than 3/60); I am working as Lecturer in Mathematics at Government Degree College, Oghi, District Mansehra, NWFP, Pakistan.
    I am interested in the Math software for the blind, WinTriangle: Who has it been developed by? Where can I get it and how? The website of the company behind the development of this software will certainly be of use.
    Last, but not least, I would be glad to offer my services for the advancement of the blind and visually impaired in the areas of Mathematics and Computer Science.

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