Have you ever browsed the internet, our most basic need today - while blindfolded? You would say “what's the use”. For a visually impaired person, the crucible of information that is the internet is far out of reach.
Most of the information we consume is based on visual cues. From signboards on roads to “captcha” on webpages, to webpages themselves, the world is set up around sighted people. The number of people who are visually impaired is in the millions, 250 million to be exact. The world seems very hostile to their intelligence.
Wanting to make the path easier for visually impaired (VI) people is the non-profit initiative, Hear2Read, which uses Text to Speech (TTS) software that converts visual content into audio and “reads” website content from browsers on smartphones, tablets and computers. The man behind this empowering initiative is Suresh Bazaj, a silicon valley entrepreneur who started Hear2Read in 2013.
Back in Varanasi, where Suresh grew up, his family had supported a blind school, where he came to know about the inferior quality of education received by blind students. Most of them come from poor backgrounds where parent do not know how to raise a blind child. In the US, he met visually-impaired people whose quality of life was way better than their Indian counterparts. This made him realize that visually impaired people in India lacked a full education and, therefore, lacked the opportunities to do well in life. “Most parents in India, put visually impaired child in a back room. They are ashamed as they do not know how to raise a blind child.” This lesson hung on to Suresh, and when he had the chance to do something about it, he put together his skills and knowledge to develop a technology-based solution that will help millions of visually impaired children get same education and employment as people with normal sight.
Suresh partnered with Prof. Alan Black and Dr. Alok Parlikar at Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Language Technologies Institute (LTI) to give life to the idea. He recruited a world class team of researchers, developers, linguists and volunteers to provide user feedback. The first Hear2Read App was released in August 2016 for Tamil. It is now available for Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. The team is now working on Assamese, Odia and Malayalam.
Hear2Read leadership team members are Suresh, Shyam Krishna (Linguist, Android & Linux developer), Tim White (Web site, Windows & Browser plug-in developer) and Ashoka Fellow Dipendra Manocha.
After completing his Masters at CMU in 2015, Shyam Krishna returned to Mysore and decided to put his computing skills to work to help people with visual impairment. Along the way, he became a linguist too – an essential skill to develop Text-To-Speech (TTS) software.
Tim White is a veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Suresh met in 1995 when they worked together on software to manage a Mobile Network infrastructure. Both retired about the same time in 2013. Tim has been an integral part of Hear2Read team since 2014.
Blind since childhood, Dipendra Manocha has used technology to build a communications and training infrastructure that enables the disabled to put their abilities to work alongside other citizens in mainstream society.
“It’s not that every visually impaired student is exceptional, but they have the same distribution of smart, intelligent people. The problem is the limitations of braille books . While most of the students do receive braille book, the books are either outdated or are not available in regional language plus they do not offer a holistic view of the subject. This puts them way back on the quality scales of education” says Suresh.
Only about 10% of blind children in India get any type of formal education. The rest are either too poor or do not have access to institutions that can teach VI children.
Hear2Read Apps can be used on any Android device or Windows PC. They are free to downloadfrom Google Play store or Hear2Read web site for Windows PC.
For Android devices, it uses Talkback screen reader (for VI users) to read aloud eBooks, web sites, Word documents, text or HTML files, SMS texts, Facebook postings, WhatsApp messages etc. It speaks Indian language text displayed on the screen as selected by the user.
On Windows PCs, it works with the NVDA (Non Visual Desktop Access) screen reader.
These Videos demonstrate use of TTS software by VI users:
The TTS app, as helpful as it is, is not quite reaching out to the extent that Suresh hoped it would. The number of people using TTS in India is only about 50,000. Compared with the actualnumber of visually impaired people, it is a very small.
Suresh has joined forces with the "See a Million" (#SAM) initiative launched by the Daisy Forum of India (DFI) with the goal of Transforming one million Persons with Visual Impairment into active citizens and change agents.