The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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SOS for speaking SMS to help the blind

New Delhi, Jan. 8: Vikram Dalmiya is an entrepreneur who uses his mobile phone extensively. But he can’t use the short messaging service (SMS) — the most popular value-added service for the beep brigade. The reason: SMS does not speak.

Pranav Lal is an MBA but cannot visit the libraries because the books he wants to read do not speak. Atul Ranjan Sahaya is a senior computer programmer with Tata Iron and Steel Company but cannot operate an ATM because it does not speak.

All three are visually challenged and though they have climbed up the hard way, they are apprehensive of falling on the wrong side of the digital divide because the government is myopic about fostering an environment that will allow the disabled to stay abreast with the rapid advances in the area of information and communications technology.

“Your mobile will squeak and beep whenever an SMS comes but will not tell you anything,” says Lal, a senior executive with a career promotion company in Delhi.

“I have to travel out of Calcutta three days in a week and whenever I am out, it is an STD call that I have to make or receive even to convey a simple two-line instructions,” says Dalmiya, who has a plastic manufacturing unit in Calcutta, which supplies tube light and street light covers to Philips India.

“This is also because I cannot see who is calling even though I have caller-line identification. If I could hear the number that has called my phone or an SMS that can speak, it would be of tremendous advantage to me whether I am in Calcutta or outside,” he adds.

This is a new opportunity for the mobile handset manufacturers and the service providers.

According to Dipendra Manocha, head of NAB Intel technology training Lab, National Association for Blind: “The technology and software are available but the operators in India have not even thought about it. Voice mail is costlier than SMS. The ATMs, like lifts which tells you the number of the floor, can be upgraded by software that will speak to the user.

“This sort of problem exists because the manufacturers neither follow the international standards for both software and hardware nor bring in those products that abide by the standards.”

A team of blind people from various walks of life has come to Delhi and drafted a list of recommendations to the ministries of communications, social welfare, human resources development and finance that says information and communications technology should not create another digital divide.

They have suggested measures that would sensitise the industry, the government and all those concerned to include the needs of the physically challenged while developing a product, software or making a policy.

The team has suggested that the government can provide tax concessions to those manufacturers who invest in such special products and develop software. The venture capitalist can be roped in to fund special projects.

“The use of information and communication may be an option for others but for us, it is the only way out. I would be able to use an ATM if it could tell me what to do next, instead of feeling for the keys on it. It does not need any additional investment, but just an upgrade of software. While manufacturing the necessary aspects can be taken care off,” said Sahaya.

“The government is trumpeting the initiatives it has taken to promote electronic governance. But we will have to still depend on others since the software that it has put up on the Net does not give us access. The government and manufacturers have to develop adaptive technologies.”

The IIT Kharagpur, Webel and NAB have joined hands to develop text-to-speech software, currently at a beta stage, that is expected to help the blind to type on the keyboard while the computer will read out whatever is being typed. The team is also mulling on software that will enable the blind to surf the Internet. Currently, the software that enables the blind to hear the text that appears on the screen costs about Rs 50,000.

But nothing will emerge until the policymakers stop groping in the dark and find the real solutions to real problems.

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