Saturday, March 27, 2010

Indian blind people find FOSS important

Orca is gaining massive exceptance amongst indian Blind community

I just returned from Pune, a city in India known for its educational heritage and culture of respecting knowledge.

I conducted a workshop to train Blind computer users on Ubuntu GNU/Linux with Orca.

The Orca screen reader, is by far the most advanced Screen reader in almost all aspects of accessibility for Blind people.

It not just includes the best features from other (proprietory ) screen readers, but has added a few more toppings on the cake.

It is now more than sufficient for all ICT needs except a handful of computing tasks (which most people rarely do any ways).

I arrived in Pune univercity's computer cell for the blind and immediately realised that most computers were running the popular proprietory screen raeder called JAWS.

I was told by Dhananjay Bhole, the HOD that there are hardly any blind students who even want to use Linux.

Dhananjay, who is himself blind has been Using Orca since a year or so and we had been planning this workshop since last few months.

I told him on the day before the workshop that we must ourselfs take initiative to encourage and orient people to stay away from any proprietory technology and use only FOSS.

he immediately replied "no, this might not happen because Jaws is extremly popular and you will not get good response in just 2 days."

Actually I have already led the setup of an IT trainning center for blind In Kerala, a southern sate in India.

The uniqueness of the Insight center in Kerala is that it is the first one to make exclusive use of FOSS, particularly Orca.

Although Dhananjay and his crue knew this fact, but they were not aware of many aspects of orientation of Blind in using FOSS.

This was the exact reason for such a pesimistic view. And from his Point of you, the Head of that lab was right given his limited knowledge about the technology itself and the way to teach it.

Well, just read on and you will know how true and correct was the assessment made by dhananjay.

about the workshop

Anusha as always has been my hand, my brain and my "one man army ".

She has the right attitude and the needed knowledge to manage such workshops.

What's more, she knows wen where and how of promoting FOSS, and she is absolutely perfect in it!

As usual she set about installing Ubuntu on the machines. I had been planning the workshop with Dhananjay in all aspects. During our discussions, he had told me that the machines had just windows and he will need windows to boot up as the first (and *default*) operating system after we dual boot with Ubuntu.

Whether we did it or not is to be revealed later. So just read on.

I know I am creating too much of suspence. Nice way to force people to read the entire blog ha?

Any ways, conclusions are always mentioned at the end so I have not really talked about the outcome so far.

I went about configuring Orca on every machine which Anusha had setup in a very short period of time.

Since our last couple of workshops, we have started to use a USB startup disk to install Ubuntu.

This saves time a bit and we don't need Cd ROMs on every machine.

So the day ended with all the setup done and Orca configured with relatively slow speed, Tutorial messages turned on and the option for speaking shortcut keys turned on as well.

I Also keep the echo by character, word and sentence checked as well.

These settings have proved to be very helpful during my workshops, because participants tend to come with an Idea that Espeak speech Synthesizer is difficult to understand.

This is particularly true with those users who have used JAWS or Window-Eyes before.

So with speech rate set to 40 and all the other settings which I just mentioned, I find it easy to clear out the misconception.

Besides I also set the person to UK english which is even more clear.

Day 1

The day started with Usual inogural talks and introductions. Dr. Nandedkar, a blind PH.D in pharmacy was the chief guest.

He made a few very important points in his inogural talk.

to quote him,

"technology is so crutial in blind person's life that at times I find it more loyal than my wife ".

That was interesting.

Another interesting point was,

"Open source is a major thing for every one and for blind people it is all the more important. We must understand that the freedom to alter and customise software is very very important so that we can have Orca exactly made the way we want".

I was happy that at least he mentioned about factors beyond lisence fees.

Well apart from this, most of his speech was a kind of self introduction of how he got award from the president of India etc.

But the moral of his talk was, "take full advantage of these 2 days and since you have an experienced resource person from the field, you will have all your doubts solved".

I followed it up with my initial "need for free software " talk where I heavily focused on the aspects of free as in freedom and how it directly affects the accessibility of ICTs.

One factor which really appealed the participants was the socio echonomic disadvantage of proprietory Screen readers.

I found meny participants commenting in the feedback saying, "if my employee has to invest 1000 dollers in getting a software for me, then he *will* choose a sighted person of my caliber and not spend that money ".

This is indeed a major observation and its pritty obvious yet not so well recognised by Blind community.

my opening talk was terminated abruptly because there was another program to happen (and our program started late due to some management issue).

Any ways, I had already covered the most important aspects such as how restrictive is the proprietory software and what it means by a community driven project, which is also well funded.

I also raised a few questions such as "if windows is your ICT GOD and JAWS your true friend as many think, then why is it that blind people can't really install Windows without any sighted assistance?"

This obviously initiates a thinking process in the listeners mind.

Another spark to kindle the fire is, "by the way how many Indian languages does any proprietory screen reader support? and are there web sites your proprietory screen reader can't access?"

So finally with an almost complete FOSS talk, we moved on to the lab which we had setup the previous day.

I started to demonstrate the Orca preferences and how one can modify the settings to the liking.

I made a mention that one can even change the keyboard shortcuts in orca.

I then went on to walk through the Applications menu in Ubuntu.

there were 3 immediate remarks which the participants made and almost every one agreed.

Dinesh Thole, one of my favorites remarked, " the speech is so very understandable and infact more clear".

Secondly, a few participants who were already JAWS users, commented that they found commands almost similar.

and an important observation was made by a few others that the Menus in Ubuntu are very well organised.

I then showed them the basic text editer (gedit) and told them to type a few lines of text and navigate around.

This way they not just checked with adjusting Orca preferences but could also use Applications menu and also get used to the Orca navigation keyboard commands.

Post lunch I took up some more advanced tasks such as using the word processor.

I made it a point to show them how similar is the set of shortcuts for selecting and formatting text between Microsoft Office and Open Office.

All the participants ended up practicing office softwares in the later part of the day.

But the main surprise for me came in the last session.

I did the demo of Hindi speech with Espeak and to my utter disbelief, participants just loved the way it sounded!

"this is not so bad at all!" said Anuja, a Blind girl who is doing journalism from a college in Mumbai.

Of course some students pointed out that a few words are not that correctly pronounced, but that did not seem to bother them a lot.

So, I took them to Hindi wikipedia and also showed them Hindi google.

I had to stop the session at that point because Internet was to be covered in details the next day.

We took a quick feedback, and for those of you who are waiting impatiently to know about that dual boot issue, here's what happened.

Anusha took over the feedback session and asked, "do you all feel comfortable using Ubuntu? will you like to use it often?" to which all the participants answered yes.

she then asked if we should change the boot options to show Windows by default so that you can use it for most part of the day?

"noooo!" came a resounding reply and struck those who had asked us to do it by all means.

It was clear from the feedback that The participants had become fairly comfortable using Ubuntu. They said that although they will need windows for a few days untill they get totally used to and confident with Ubuntu, they will only use the proprietory OS to solve any problems.

day 2

The Second and last day was mainly for internet related softwares.

We started by demonstrating firefox with Orca.

The Trick I used here was very simple yet effective.

I opened FF and started asking questions to the participants regarding the keyboard commands they use on Windows with IE or FF and JAWS.

Soon the trick started to show its effect.

"sir, press u for moving to the next link." said Dinesh who was already happy to know that the headings and visited links are navigated in exactly the same way he did using JAWS.

I made them tell me all other commands such as alt + d for the address bar and CTRL + enter for completing the www and .com before and after a URL respectively.

they were so happy to know that even 1 to 6 would exactly do the same heading navigation as JAWS does.

I gave enough time for practicals. By now participants had not just Excepted Orca, but started to enjoy it.

What's more, I found Anuja, the would-be journalist was oepning hindi web sites and trying to read news etc.

At this point the Lunch was due and I decided to let them play a bit more with internet.

They all were glad to know that twitter and face book were accessible using Orca.

Post lunch I again used a typical padagogy of asking people about how they chat.

"we use google talk for chatting on google, Yahoo messenger for yahoo and msn messenger for msn ".

I asked them what if they get an "all-in-one" messenger for chatting?

And I could impress them with pidgin.

As if that was not enough, I also showed them how to use IRC and get instant help.

This as always happens, raised the confidence level of participants.

When you show them IRC channels, they tend to feel more secured and relaxed about the potential problems they are going to face during the learning curve.

The day ended with a short overview of the Ubuntu installer which is accessible with Orca.

conclusion brought happy surprises

We did the final feedback session with Mr. Sonavane, a senior faculty in Pune Univercity as the chief guest.

the conclusion after the student's feedback was that we will now have to setup more machines with Ubuntu.

"I am going to contribute to the development of ORCA!" said Dinesh Thole who was doing his Batchler of Computer Applications (BCA) from Pune.

Another interesting comment from Sangapal was, "linux is so systematic. I find it more comfortable than windows".

Anuja added that Hindi was what she came looking for and orca with espeak is giving a fairly good output.

All participants (25) to be presise, raised the concern that they nither have a pdf reader nor a software that does scann and OCR.

This is an important and a serious concern which has to be solved pritty soon.

I asked all the participants if they are really thinking to make Orca their screen reader of choice.

Every one told me that within a month, they see themselves only using Orca.

Dhananjay who had told me "they will not change in 2 days " was proved to be totally wrong.

But the best part of his personality is that he happyly excepted his misjudgement and told me that now he will take up the responsibility of following this up and continue trainning more students based on the pattern I had shown him in the 2 days.

Now we are planning advanced workshops and the Dhananjay is creating a FOSS based computer trainning course.

It can be expected that hundreds of students in and around Pune will now start using Orca and will raise their chances of employment.

I am starting a similar project here in my home city Mumbai as well.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent. Keep up the great work. With the Hindi not sounding right, be sure to contact the Espeak developer and get it corrected. He is very quick at replying and fixing issues.