Assistive Technology – A Savior For Persons With Deafblindness During The Pandemic
This is not a meditation class, but bear with me. Slowly drown the noises around you. Breathe in… breath out. Now slowly close your eyes. If you did both, there is no way you would be reading this. It is a different story for those who can’t read and listen to this.
Before I start about the importance of technology in the lives of people like me, let me introduce myself. My name is Shrutilata Singh. I am a Specialist- Network Support at the only organization in India that works for people with deafblindness. I am a woman with progressive deafblindness. It means that I am losing vision and hearing slowly, day by day. I am sure by now your brain signals are firing all over the place. All the permutations and combinations of how a person with depleting senses gets by in this world. How does she communicate? Ah! Just show her the gesture she will- She is blind! Okay, we can tell her- She can’t hear! Your brain is desperately looking for an answer to a puzzle whose pieces don’t match with each other.
Technology- A Saving Grace
Yes, there are cases of total deafblindness, but you can’t forget the people who fall into the spectrum of hearing and vision loss- the ones in between. It is the story of all of us, how we as people with deafblindness communicate under the guidance of technology.
Technology has connected the dots and reached out to us. Though it gets difficult to obtain information and talk on the phone for people like me, we have come a long way with technology and now even those who cannot see or hear can use computers and smart phones with the right accessibility tools.
It took a while for technology to reach me. When I was in school, I had to ask someone in my family to call a friend for me and talk to them if I needed to ask or convey something to them. I used to pray that if only text messages could be zoomed in, I will be able to read and communicate on my own. My prayer was answered. I was in my second year of graduation and a family friend showed me how her Samsung phone had this accessibility tool of zooming text by pressing the pitch button and I couldn’t wait to have my own phone. That was a time when telecom industry was giving 200 messages free per day.
I didn’t have to be dependent on anyone to relay messages and find information- I was texting! To understand my dependency- here is a list of things off the top of my head that I still need assistance in:
- To cross roads.
- To put thread in needle.
- Going grocery shopping.
- Travelling to a friend’s house.
- Any bank related work.
- While cooking, I need to ask someone at times to check and let me know if it’s fried or cooked or not.
- Checking clothes for any stains.
- If I am home and have craving for any snacks, I need to ask parents to buy it for me as I cannot go out on my own.
- I need to ask people to tell me the dialogue or narrate whatever is going on the television.
- I need to ask people to check a video and explain it to me.
- Need assistance to know the price written on a price tag.
- Need assistance to know which rupee note or coin it is.
Dependence on these small things are lot more frustrating than anything else.
How I completed my education with deafblindness
Receiving an education was hard with progressive deafblindness. Apart from not being able to socialize with other students, I couldn’t hear teachers in class and couldn’t see the writings on the board. All I could do was sit idle and day dream. I usually slept in class. Not because it was boring, but because I couldn’t hear or see anything; the judgement of whether it was boring or not would come later. I was often caught sleeping and there was no excuse. School was a struggle, but I try not to be hard on myself now as I was not aware about my disability. I managed to finish schooling, but later I needed to get all my books in large print so I could read. Now even large prints don’t help and so technology is bridging the gap. I can read books using a digital magnifier or can take a picture using my smart phone and zoom in.
Technology not so long ago v/s now
My first smartphone had a text zoom in option and now I can zoom not just the text but almost everything except the keyboard. So, instead of typing, I use “Google Voice Typing” where I can dictate the message and it will transcribe for me. Isn’t that wonderful? Of course it is not without its errors, but the access it gives to be independent and communicate is a great feeling.
These are not the only things I use. I operate a computer and a laptop by using the zoom option and connect with everyone on my own. Technology now has more accessibility e.g. I can increase my cursor size and change its color so that I can easily locate it. It’s a great time saver.
Managing money and shopping for daily need items have become easy for people like us, all thanks to technology. I no longer need to depend on others to get what I need or to tell me which currency note it is. I can independently shop and pay online. I can use the Live Transcribe app when I go to a shop and communicate with the shopkeeper.
Shrutilata Singh in front of a computer.
My work requires me to attend many meetings, conferences and webinars. Everything has been happening online since the pandemic, but it did not stop me. Recently I attended a masterclass workshop on “Role of Digital Platform and Technology in Ensuring Better Inclusion.” Chapal Khasnabis, Head of Access to Assistive Device and Technology and Medicine in WHO, puts it “Accessibility is as important as medicine or vaccine.” Only one in ten people have access to assistive technology and many companies are trying to work on accessibility and reach out to the remaining 90%. Hector Minto from Microsoft shared, “Big companies view accessibility as a responsibility.” While Vicky Austin, Co-founder, CEO of Global innovation Hub expressed that this pandemic actually made some positive change and made us all demand more accessibility.
While I share about this new learning, let me tell you how I accessed the information solely through technology with no one interpreting in sign language for me. An automatic captioning software called Otter was used during the workshop through which I could read and understand whatever was going on. I am a slow reader and I need to put in a lot of effort to be able to access all information.
Technology has a long way to go, but as long as it keeps people with disabilities, especially deafblindness in mind in their innovations, they can break down barriers and include communities that couldn’t before.
Written by Sonia Gervasis as shared by Shrutilata Singh.
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