Financial Times

Computer training for visually handicapped

By Dilshani Samaraweera

The Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC) this week launched a computer training course for the visually handicapped, supported by the Ministry of Labour and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The EFC’s small 7-computer training unit, funded by the ILO, will be one of the few places in Sri Lanka teaching computer skills to the visually handicapped.

“So far this type of training is only available at blindness organisations and a few other places. But there is a need to mainstream such facilities, to allow blind and partially blind people to integrate better with society,” said an Instructor in Accessible Technologies at the Colombo University, A.B.Weerawardena. Mr. Weerawardena himself is blind but has obtained a degree in Social Sciences from the University of Kelaniya and now instructs about 28 blind students at the Colombo University, on computer use.
He points out that the technology is now available, for free, to allow blind people to use computers and work in corporate settings.

“A blind person can touch type, but will not be able to see what is written on the screen. But now there is something called ‘Screen Access Technology’ that allows blind people to use computers. These software are available for free, on shareware platforms. These are special software that read out what is typed. It reads the text, icons, short cuts and when there is a graphic it says graphic, or reads out the graphic label. So a blind person can very easily use the computer,” explained Mr. Weerawardena.

At this point however, very few places offer training facilities for the visually handicapped. Even Colombo University, while offering a 1-year certificate course in computer training for the visually handicapped, has still not got an Internet connection for these classes. In total, only about 65 visually handicapped people are currently studying inside universities in Sri Lanka. But this figure is a seen as a major improvement compared to a few years ago.

But there is a growing demand for such facilities. Already the EFC’s computer classes are full-up with 42 applicants. Classes are due to start in August. The participants say they will use the knowledge to improve their work.

“This type of training will reduce the large gap between the blind and the sighted. The technology is available now, and we must use it,” said P.D. Nihal, a student at the EFC training course. Mr. Nihal is blind from birth but has obtained his law degree and has been a teacher for about 10 years, at the Janajaya Vidyalaya, Moratuwa.

“Access to this kind of technology can help in a big way to educate the blind. Because with this, even a blind person can read books, check a word in the dictionary, or go to the Internet and read the news and other new things. So now I also want to get my own computer and an Internet connection,” said Mr. Nihal.

“I joined the course because I feel this training will help me do my job better. If I can use the computer I don’t need anyone else’s help to write documents and do computer related things,” said R. Abeysekera. Ms. Abeysekara is the Chairperson of the Women’s Section of the National Federation of the Visually Handicapped.

“After the course, I will be interested in doing a job. I think I can do this because I will know how to use a computer and I will be able to do an office job,” said Ms R. Soma another visually handicapped student.
The EFC says persons interested in following the course can contact the EFC to participate.

However, the EFC’s facilities are very limited and located only in Colombo. So businesses and the national education authorities are encouraged to help to make such facilities more accessible.

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