Rural Knowledge Centers of Sri Lanka

Digital Inclusion: Equality of Opportunity to the Visually Handicapped through ICT

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The ICT Agency through its e-Society Programme intends to create digital talking books specific to the local curriculum for use by visually handicapped students.

A significant attribute of advanced societies is the concern they show towards those with disabilities. The Government of Sri Lanka (disabled population 247,711 - 2001 census) is taking steps to ensure parity with the tabling of disabilities access legislation in Parliament. Until this is a reality however, people with disabilities in Sri Lanka have to overcome significant hurdles to have a quality of life equivalent to that of a person without such. This inequality is clearly reflected in the numbers of students obtaining secondary education: of the visually handicapped children who start schooling only 24% make it up to the GCE Ordinary Level Examination and a mere 4% make it to the Advanced Level.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) can play a major part in enabling people with visual impairments. With advanced technologies like digital talking books and screen readers (software that can read aloud almost anything on a computer screen including websites), the opportunities available to those who are visually impaired have dramatically increased.

The Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) through its e-Society Development Programme is seeking to ensure that the vast developments taking place in the field of ICT reach the rural and disadvantaged communities of our Country thereby improving the quality of their daily lives. The e-Society Fund which is a key component of this programme provides a means by which local organizations can step in with ICT applications to improve the lives of vulnerable groups including those who are affected by disability. At the conclusion of the first round, His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa presented awards to five selected organizations one of which was to Daisy Lanka Foundation (DLF), an initiative headed by Professor D.P.M. Weerakkody, the Head of the Department of Classical Languages, University of Peradeniya. Professor Weerakkody, visually handicapped himself, is very keen to ensure that others like him enjoy the benefits of ICT. Their aim is to create DAISY format digital talking books there by facilitating access to a much wide range of reading material.

The DAISY format is an internationally accepted digital audio format that allows page and chapter navigation. Along with the ability to store multiple books on a single CD-ROM, the format is a significant advance over audio cassettes, the technology currently used to disseminate texts to visually impaired students. Unfortunately visually impaired students in Sri Lanka are severely handicapped by the inadequacy of educational text books available to them. The traditional Braille text books are very limited owing to the fact that it requires several months of hard work to transcribe a full text of an ink print edition to braille. The long process usually involves a phrase-by-phrase dictation by a sighted reader to a blind Braille writer, who copies down the words on a manual Braille-Writer. Once the Braille text is completed, it is reproduced page by page. Not only is it time consuming and tedious, the process exposes the people involved in it to an extreme degree of heat that causes discomfort and eventually results in health problems.

The ICT Agency through its award to the DLF intends to create digital audio books specific to the local curriculum for use by students. This includes textbooks for grades 6-11 and specific textbooks used in university courses. Once created, they will be disseminated through the various schools for the blind around the country and a postal library that will be maintained by the DLF. A side benefit of this collection of local language talking books would be that those with low vision, such as the elderly, or those who are illiterate could also have access to these texts through the ICTA's NenaSala network.

The vision of the ICTA's e-Sri Lanka umbrella programme is to bring the benefits of information and communication technologies to every citizen. With this grant, the ICTA is attempting to ensure that people with visual disabilities, too, have equality of opportunity to reach their full potential and participate in our e-society.