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Access guaranteed

Making the internet accessible to the visually challenged is simpler than you think

Photo: P.V Sivakumar

Breaking barriers Rakesh works with the help of the screen reader as Sriram Bharatam looks on

Did you know that the humble typewriter, the computer keyboard and the keys on your mobile phone are friendly to the visually challenged? Take a look at the raised projections on the letters F and J on your keyboard. By placing your index fingers on these letters, you can type without looking at the keys. Number 5 on your phone has a similar projection that helps you dial the numbers with ease. Sriram Bharatam, CEO and Founder, Iridium Interactive, reminds us, “The typewriter was originally meant to help the visually challenged.” Remember Amitabh Bachchan pushing Rani Mukherjee to speed up her typing skills to pass her examinations in “Black”?

Visually challenged software engineers are part of the workforce at Sriram’s firm — Iridium Interactive, which works towards making web pages accessible. Accessibility is more than making a website compatible to users grappling with bandwidth restrictions. It’s about making the pages friendly to the blind.

We spot Rakesh Paladugula, one of the visually challenged software engineers in the firm, trying to book railway tickets online. Aided with screen-reader software that reads out the contents of web pages, Rakesh usually works at a pace that makes his other colleagues work harder. “I was diagnosed with Retina Pigmentosa as a child and lost my eyesight during my graduation,” he recalls. Trained by Enable India, a Bangalore-based NGO, Rakesh fine-tuned his skill sets. At Iridium, he conducts training sessions during the weekends. The firm has more professionals like him taking on varied tasks — from conducting training sessions to interacting with the US clientele.

“We hire trained challenged people as a HR strategy. They work twice as much as the regular employees do. They are eager to acquire new skill sets. This motivates the regular staff,” says Sriram. Each visually challenged person, when recruited, is trained for an hour or two to find their way in the office. Then, they are on their own. “We have inclusion programmes that help normal people learn to deal with their challenged counterparts. The moment you see a blind person, you tend to be too helpful. But trained people need no help. It’s amazing how they find their way across floors easily,” says Sriram.

Apart from the screen reader software, Sriram shows us how the websites can be reader-friendly to those with partial blindness. Two icons placed on the right upper corner can help increase and decrease the font size. Navigating through the webpage and working on a computer is simple thanks to the existing keyboard shortcuts.

Currently working on making more portals accessible, Sriram is the brain behind the world’s first internet fund raising model — www.causeaneffect.org — which he started soon after the floods in Orissa. Within 45 days, the portal helped raise Rs. 6 crore towards relief fund. Sriram plans to create an accessibility lab in the near future. “It is good to see these youngsters take up more responsibilities. We had a visually challenged software engineer who joined IBM after seven years of work,” he signs off.

SANGEETHA DEVI DUNDOO

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