It’s interesting to observe Alok Kaushik at work. You can see him typing on a keyboard but there’s no screen. There’s no mouse either. Kaushik, a senior application developer with an e-commerce platform in the UK who works with complex software, is blind. So he has no use for a screen or a mouse.
And he can code just as fast — and well — as the next guy who can see. Coming to his aid is assistive software called “screen reader” that converts written text into speech. That, essentially, has changed his world.
Thousands of miles away from Delhi, Pranav Lal, a cybersecurity expert with Vodafone, Idea, can code fluently in computer languages like Python, Java, C and C++. He, too, like Kaushik, is blind. “I started by writing simple programs to help me with my school work,” Lal (40) said. Today, he can write complex code and has developed a computer app — a speech recognition software — for the visually impaired.
Lal is an avid photographer and has adapted vOICe — an AI tool that offers the blind the experience of live camera views through image-to-sound renderings — for the Linux operating system.
The images here are converted into sound by scanning them from left to right. It associates elevation to pitch and brightness to loudness. “I ‘saw’ the black hole using this,” Lal said.
“Who would have thought that the visually impaired could do coding,” said Arman Ali, executive director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People. “But with technology, especially screen readers and artificial intelligence, the visually impaired are being integrated into the mainstream workforce and are not limited to desk and accounting jobs anymore.”
JAW (Job Access with Speech) and NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) are two popular screen readers while AI tools such as Microsoft’s See AI enables people to “experience” people, texts and objects.
“Technology is still limited to a fraction of India’s blind population,” Ali said. “We have to make it accessible and for that we need the government to look at disability as a development issue and not a welfare issue.” He added that the government should make it mandatory for all websites to be accessible with a screen reader.
Mohammad Afzal, 36, who lost his eyesight when he was just 14, said programming for the blind these days “is no rocket science”. Employed as a counsellor with Saksham, an NGO that works with the visually impaired, he is busy teaching himself to code. “I want to get a degree in cybersecurity,” he said. Afzal added that he uses apps such as Ola, Swiggy, Google Maps, Twitter with ease on his smartphone using screen reader.
To an untrained ear, the screen reader text sounds like a robot reading out the hurried disclaimer at the end of an insurance TV commercial, but the speed can be adjusted and so can the characters that you want the reader to pick up. English is normally spoken at a speed of 120-150 words per minute. The screen reader can read up to 450 words per minute.
Dinesh Kaushal, a NVDA development manager was told that he couldn’t study math after Class 9 because he was blind. Kaushal believes that students with visual impairment should be encouraged to study math and English, so they too get a chance to make a career in fields such as engineering and finance.
“I missed out most of the curriculum from Classes 6 to 8 due to the lack of braille textbooks,” said Kaushal, who went back to studying mid-school math using audio books provided by the National Association of Blind. Today, he’s a successful programmer with impressive credentials, like developing the first open source screen reader.
While technology has made great strides in opening up the world for the blind, some blips exist. For example, the coders complained that many websites are screen reader-incompatible.