Bangalore Computer-Based Education for the Visually Impaired

Computers can be a boon to most students – software programs can connect to the curriculum through educational games, allow pupils to easily research information, and overall, enhance traditional methods of learning. But what if the users can’t see the keyboard, mouse or screen? Screen-reading technologies can be prohibitively expensive, and the programs literally may not speak your language.

Barriers such as these can limit the opportunities for visually impaired students to learn and contribute to society. It also illustrates the predicament at Roman and Catherine Lobo School for the Blind (RCLSB) in Bangalore, India – until an enterprising team of 30 IEEE Student Members at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) Karnataka stepped in.

The 30 students, with additional support from the NIT Karnataka IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) affinity group, rose to the challenge, designing and developing educational, enjoyable mathematical games for visually impaired students. After the engineering students obtained a grant of $2,252 from EPICS in IEEE, they customized these applications to Kannada, the local language, as well as English. The IEEE team promoted the spirit of sustainability by also training RCLSB students in an open-source programming language for the visually impaired, so they can develop and maintain their own tools in the future.

NITK professor and IEEE Student Branch Sponsor Dr. David S. Sumam lauds the experience in project management and practical engineering that his students gained by collaborating closely with 30 blind and visually impaired students during frequent visits to RCLSB. “They observed the needs of an actual end user and had to take those needs into account when developing the software,” he explains.

“They learned how to develop a project for a real cause. Students from multiple disciplines worked together to broaden their skills and manage the project together,” says Dr. Sumam. He emphasizes that the aim was to bring down the cost of the software so it could be used in more schools throughout the region.

At the same time, IEEE Student Members conducted a series of workshops for 40 students of KREC English Medium (High) School on Scratch, a programming language for children. The high school students easily learned to develop mini games and programs that teach blind students, through touch, using simple electronic components such as LEDs, switches and buttons. Scratch also includes voice recording, so these games could be developed in the local dialect.

To enhance the objectives of developing technology for the disabled while also promoting science and engineering among high school students, the IEEE team installed Vinux on RCLSB computer systems. Based on Linux, this open-source operating system is designed specifically for the blind and partially sighted, with two screen readers, two screen magnifiers, global font size and color changing abilities, and the ability to support virtually any language.

The immediate impact was profound for more than 200 blind and visually impaired students enrolled in seven educational programs. RCLSB reported improvements in both the rate of learning and retention of lessons. The project also received extensive media coverage, which led to at least five other schools in the region adopting the software.

Enhancing learning technology for the disabled community of Bangalore means they now can become active participants their own education. The project also encourages other disabled communities to adopt technology as an empowering tool rather than a costly and complicated hurdle to overcome.