Nov 01, 2016

Tech ninja B R Alamelu beats blindness to be an admired academic

Visually impaired DU professor B R Alamelu uses technology to overcome her disability and navigate through life.

BYRamarko Sengupta

B R Alamelu is not a newbie tech fangirl. Her passion for technology is more than two decades old. It helped her navigate through life with relative ease: helping her with studies in school and college, helping her interact with others, helping her move around, helping her access information, helping her pursue her love of books… What is normal for you and me is special for Alamelu. For, she is blind. From birth. Almost 100% visually impaired with a minimal perception of light and darkness.
If Alamelu, 33, has done well in her career as an academic — she heads the English department at one of Delhi University (DU)’s most prestigious colleges, Indraprastha (IP) College for Women — despite her visual impairment, she has much to thank assistive technology for it.
It’s fascinating to watch Alamelu go about her work — reading (listening) and writing on her laptop with the help of advanced assistive softwares. When I walked into her house — she greeted me at the door — at the IP College staff quarters one of these Saturdays, she was listening to some text being read out by the computer. The speech was playing out so fast that it was incoherent to me. She had to slow the speed down several notches for me to understand what was being read out. She has also mastered the keyboard and types away at top speed.
An alumnus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi — she did her MA, M.Phil and PhD from there in the 2000s — Alamelu got her degrees without anybody’s help, thanks to determination and more than a little help from technology. “I wrote both my MPhil dissertation (on gender in diaspora) and PhD thesis (on diasporic Indian women’s writings) — everything from bibliography to the footnotes and endnotes — all by myself,” she says.

An unhealthy dependence

Traditionally, visually impaired people are heavily dependent on ‘human readers’, who help with their studies and work. The root of this difficult situation, says Dipendra Manocha, President of the National Association of Blind (NAB), is “the study material is not available in accessible format”. Each time an assignment is given, blind students have to look for human assistance to read the books, which is doubly difficult for those with limited resources, he says.
Manocha, blind since birth, did his MPhil in Hindustani classical and was attempting his PhD when he gave it up in 1993. He talks about his frustration then. “I had to submit an a chapter of my dissertation and so I was sitting in the library with all the books, waiting for the reader to arrive. The reader never came and I missed the deadline. That hit me very bad; it highlighted the lack of independence of reading and writing.” Just about a dozen years separate Manocha and Alamelu’s doctoral attempts, but the role of technology delivered vastly different outcomes.
Alamelu is not only academically self-reliant but also physically so. She is mobile on her own and doesn’t need help from anyone or any devices to get around. For areas she’s familiar with, she doesn’t even need a stick. She only uses one when she’s in unfamiliar territory.

It’s not only privilege or prerogative that gets someone where Alamelu has reached, it also requires zealousness for life, living and learning

Her disability has never stopped her from indulging in the little pleasures of life. She recounts her time as a student in Chennai, where did her BA in literature from Queen Mary’s College: “One of my most enduring memories of those days are evening walks in the gentle breeze at the beach.” She took the opportunity to interrogate every nook and corner of Chennai, and travelled by city buses and local trains like everyone else. Her love for new places and adventures persists, and, since then, she has travelled widely in the country all by herself.
No mean feat for someone with a disability such as hers. Of the 15 million blind people in India — the country is home to the largest number of blind in the world with the global figure standing at about 39 million — only a handful get through life with the ease that she does or reach the level of accomplishment that she has. A lot of that has to do with access, or, rather, the lack of it. But, while Alamelu attributes her success to her “privilege” of access (she talks about it in detail later in this story), the fact is that her life is exemplary. It’s not only privilege or prerogative that gets someone where she has reached, it also requires a certain zealousness for life, living and learning.
Alamelu is lucky to have a partner who has a shared understanding of her disability as well as her love for life. Her husband, Annavaram, whom she met in JNU, is also 100% visually impaired. Like Alamelu, he too is an academic; he teaches at the department of sociology, Hyderabad Central University.

e-Melu, the geek

Alamelu’s friends and colleagues fondly call her Melu, which has metamorphosed into e-Melu for she uses technology so avidly. Once during staffroom banter, a colleague jokingly referred to her as e-Melu, punning on her name and her deftness fielding emails — many of which come from India’s largest mailing list for the visually impaired, called Access India, meant for sharing and discussing tech-related hacks for the community. “There are hundreds of mails exchanged everyday, and many have handy tips,” says Alamelu.

Alamelu uses an iPhone 6s, which has iOS features like VoiceOver that help visually impaired users navigate their phone. It allows them to dictate speech, which is then converted to words; it also reads out emails and texts

Alamelu is ardent reader, a bookworm in some senses. Her work as an academic too involves copious amounts of reading. She tries to pick up all the recent publications on diaspora studies, her area of research. When asked about her favourite authors, she says: “Reading is an intimately personal act; it facilitates an intense conversation between the text and its reader. So, liking one particular book or an author forever is not really possible. Each book I read is unique in itself.”
She reads with the help of two screen reading softwares — Job Access with Speech (JAWS) by Freedom Scientific Solutions, and Kurzweil 1000 by Kurzweil Education, a division of Cambium Learning Solutions, both US-based companies. (The first Kurzweil reading machine was developed in the 1970s by Dr Raymond Kurzweil, better known today as the co-founder of Singularity University.)
While JAWS is a computer screen reader for Microsoft Windows that reads out whatever appears on the screen, Kurzweil 1000 makes printed or electronic text accessible to people with visual impairment, reading it aloud in natural-sounding voices. She also uses optical character recognition (OCR) software, which helps convert images of printed text into machine-encoded text. “You can create bookmarks, make notes and comments, just about everything, JAWS and Kurzweil have all the required commands,” she says.
There are multiple screen reading softwares in the market. For instance, nonvisual desktop access (NVDA), which has an in-built Hindi functionality and is free. But, Alamelu is most comfortable with JAWS despite it being very expensive — priced at nearly Rs 63,000. There are new and much cheaper devices like AAMI to help the visually impaired read better but they are yet to go mainstream among the blind.
Alamelu’s other gadget of choice is the iPhone 6s, in which she uses iOS features like VoiceOver to navigate her phone. The phone allows her to dictate speech, which is then converted to words; it also reads out emails, texts etc.

Early breaks

Alamelu, who hails from a small village 14km from Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, is the youngest of three siblings (she has a brother and a sister). Her parents and siblings “were like a rock” and helped her to a great extent in coping with her disability. Alamelu means ‘woman seated on a lotus’ in Tamil and is also the name of Lord Venkatesh Perumal’s first wife, who had squint eyes. “My mother named me after her with the belief that I would get vision.”
Her initiation into technology started as early as the fifth grade — at Little Flower School, a special institution for the visually impaired in Chennai — and through high school, she was familiarised with computers in weekly classes. By Class IX, she had a fair knowledge of computers and a significant amount of keyboard control. “My school adopted screen reading technology as soon as it came in the market. I chose computer science as one of my core subjects in Plus Two. I’m talking of a time when we used floppy disks for storage,” she says, smiling.

Alamelu means ‘woman seated on a lotus’ in Tamil and is the name of Lord Venkatesh Perumal’s first wife, who had squint eyes. Her mother named her Alamelu with the belief that she would get vision

In fact, it was early days even for JAWS — she started with using a very basic Version 3.5 in school. Just for perspective, she currently uses JAWS Version 17, in which she says there isn’t much that is inaccessible.
Since her school was in another city, she had to stay in the hostel. Initially, her family was worried about how Alamelu would cope with living away from home but that was perhaps the best decision they made for her. The time she spent in hostel had a crucial role in shaping her and making her independent.
She recalls how her friends marvelled at her self-reliance and self-confidence when she started travelling to and from Chennai alone. “My peer group admired my resolve so much that they even started emulating my style of dressing and my way of speaking,” recalls Alamelu. Asked about her own inspiration, she talks about Sheena Iyengar, inaugural ST Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School, who, too, is visually impaired. “People like her have proved to the world that the loss of one of your senses doesn’t mean the loss of your entire personhood.”

The “privilege” of access

Alamelu’s comfort and skill at using technology to manoeuvre through life is beyond impressive, and she attributes this to her early initiation to gadgets and technology. “The exposure to technology paved the way for my confident usage of accessibility softwares during my higher education and later in life,” she says.
Her independence in using the softwares and accessing material by herself has stood her in good stead. Manocha, the NAB President, says study material for the blind is rarely varied. “Everybody gets recordings done from a reader. Duplication of work keeps happening,” he says, adding there had been little addition to the material for many years.
She quickly adds that she considers herself “privileged” for the fact that she had such access. “Not everybody is as lucky. Only a handful of visually impaired people get the opportunities and access to technology I got early in life,” she says, while pointing out that it is difficult to “pick up” technology and put it to use when you’re older — more so for the disabled. She rues the fact that government schools for the visually impaired in India don’t equip students with computer skills, which could make life a lot easier for them.

“The exposure to technology paved the way for my confident usage of accessibility softwares during my higher education and later in life” — Alamelu   

It was not always a smooth run, she adds, referring to her undergraduate years at Queen Mary’s College, which was not even equipped with computers, leave alone assistive technology. It was a rude shock after school where she used computers. “My reading was restricted largely to class books and a few other texts during this time. Besides, I had to take the help of readers and make notes in class in braille. In the evenings, I had to travel long distances by train to readers’ houses to get them to read out the course and other text.”
Now, however, accessibility, especially in higher educational institutions, has improved a lot for the disabled. She feels this is in large part due to the implementation of a scheme called Higher Education for Persons with Special Needs (HEPSN) by the University Grant Commission (UGC) over the last few years, which has led to establishment of enabling units for the differently abled in most colleges under DU; Hyderabad Central University; English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad; IIT Madras; TISS, Mumbai; and JNU, Delhi.
Before that, very few colleges had such units. JNU was one of them. The premier university has had an enabling unit — called the Helen Keller unit — in its central library for the visually impaired since the mid 2000s. “The latest (then) screen reading softwares were installed in the JNU library. So, once I started my MA course, I revived all the computer skills that I learnt earlier,” she says, crediting that stint for laying the foundation of her career in academics. “The enabling unit at the library was open till 11:45pm; now it’s open round the clock.”
But, the problem of access exists at various levels. For instance, while the government is increasingly engaging with citizens through apps such as MyGov and the Swachh Bharat, for millions of Indians with disabilities, the convenience offered by these apps is almost negligible. FactorDaily tested 18 government apps, and most are not fully accessible to the disabled.

When technology means self-reliance

Technology can help make the disabled self-reliant, Alamelu insists. “It reduces dependence on others, and you can write and communicate in your own voice.” In her current role as the head of the English department at Indraprastha College, Alamelu performs all her duties independently and confidently, with very little help from others. “Being technologically abled also helps me maintain social relationships.”
Contrast this with the lives of others who are blind. Manocha talks about the occasions he has felt like “an educated illiterate because I couldn’t read and write myself.” He talks about his experience at a bank when his signatures were not accepted and he had to give a thumb impression.
Alamelu says she still comes across people who treat her with scepticism and “it hurts”. “Some of my former teachers are still unable to believe that I can manage everything on my own. They ask me whether I take the help of people to get around my work responsibilities. This attitude, which comes with ignorance and lack of awareness, pains me a lot,” she says.

Alamelu hopes to see a day when she will be able to “read” books in Tamil, with the help of assistive technology. It’s just not the same having others read (them) out to you, she says

Teaching faculty do not expect the students to write themselves, says Manocha. “Pressure and motivation is just not there. People who use writers are rewarded and are able to get away with not doing things,” he says, pointing out to the irony of India not training its blind students to use computers and be independent.
Spirited as she is, Alamelu says she is sure this narrow outlook will change with time. She hopes to see a day when she will be able to “read” books in Tamil, with the help of assistive technology. “It’s just not the same having others read (them) out to you.” Alamelu’s mother tongue is Telugu but she has a big affinity to Tamil, her second language in school and college.
Efficient OCR (text-to-speech) is not yet available for regional languages except Hindi and Marathi. But Alamelu can take heart in the fact that OCR for Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam are in the initial stages of their development.

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Ramarko Sengupta is a writer of FactorDaily.