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Photos: Old PCs help Africa's blind

Refurbished PCs and clever use of USB keys are revolutionising the lives of visually impaired people in Kenya
By Andrew Donoghue, Contributor on
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Following our participation in Computer Aid's cycle challenge in Kenya, ZDNet UK took some time to check out other projects being run by the organisation, which takes old PCs from businesses and refurbishes them for use in the developing world.

One organisation that Computer Aid is currently partnering with is the Kenyan Union of the Blind (KUB). Executive officer Martin Kieti, himself partially sighted, explained the challenges faced by blind children and students in Kenya and how IT can provide much-needed access to information.

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The KUB is working alongside existing partner Sightsavers and Computer Aid to improve the education and rehabilitation of blind Kenyans. KUB has about 70 percent coverage of the country so far, in around 45 branches.

In the past, most of the access to information has been through Braille books and paper, according to Martin Kieti. "This is quite cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming," he said. "Bringing Braille into the hands of someone in the village has been a challenge. One ream of paper costs about $100 and one Braille machine costs about $5,000." The process of putting a book into Braille is also challenging — it can take up to two or three months to convert a textbook, for example.

But with the rise of ICT, the charity has increasingly been looking at alternative formats that make use of technology. Audio tape was used for a while but the format is starting to disappear, even in Africa. Now CDs and DVDs are increasingly being used as an alternative to Braille. The charity is now in discussion with publishers about getting access to raw texts of books, including government textbooks, for conversion into digital formats.

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Other technologies that the KUB is exploring include ways to enable visually impaired people to access any computer they want. Traditionally, only machines with screen-reading software pre-installed were open to blind or visually impaired users. However, the charity recently partnered with Dolphin Computer Access, which has manufactured a USB key — the Dolphin Pen — that contains screen-reading and voice-enabled applications to turn any PC into an accessible machine. "You simply plug in the pen and all your settings are there after a few seconds. It boots from the pen and, when you are finished, you simply unplug it and walk away," says Kieti.

 

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The access software pre-loaded on the Dolphin Pen includes magnification, speech and Braille applications. The pen is available commercially for about £100, but Sightsavers has negotiated with Dolphin to create a cheaper, cut-down version of the pen for use in Africa.

One of the most important aspects of the partnership between KUB and Computer Aid is a drive to increase donations of laptops for use by blind teachers. Because of a commitment by the Kenyan government of guaranteed employment for anyone who completes a teaching degree, education has become one of the few careers open to blind people in a country that does little else to support them. However, for blind teachers to keep pace with their sighted colleagues, they often have to pay for a sighted assistant out of their own meagre wages. Also, simple activities such as marking students' work and getting access to the latest textbooks in Braille is enormously costly. However, a lot of these problems can be circumvented if the teacher has their own laptop pre-loaded with accessibility software. Devices such as the Dolphin Pen are great for some situations, but cannot address all the information-intensive needs of a teacher. 

Readers can contact Computer Aid if their business has any laptops available for donation.

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