Technology supports visually impaired language learners in India

(An edited version of this piece was first published in the April 2020 edition of Praxis Englisch, a magazine for Germans learning English.)

Learning materials for Indians who want to pick up a new language often assume that their target audience can easily access textual, auditory and visual resources. What happens in the bargain is that sighted learners are served but visually impaired learners are left out. Choices about curriculum design may not come from an intention to discriminate but they invariably reflect a wider societal tendency to render invisible the needs of the most marginalized.

In India, people with disabilities face serious infrastructural challenges because ensuring accessibility is not a major area of concern for policymakers. Training themselves to be resilient in such a scenario, visually challenged learners use technology to sharpen their language skills. I went to college and university with friends who taught me about the benefits of using screenreading software in educational settings where reading and writing skills are prioritized over listening and speaking skills.

JAWS (Job Access With Speech) for Windows is a widely popular software programme that empowers visually impaired learners in India to access learning materials online. This screen reader allows them to read the text displayed on a computer screen using a speech synthesizer. They can increase or decrease the speed based on their comfort level, pace of reading, and language proficiency.

When they encounter a new word or wish to check the spelling of one they are familiar with, they can choose to read one letter at a time. All these features are enabled through the use of keystrokes rather than mouse clicks; therefore, it is crucial for these learners to improve their typing skills. JAWS for Windows is a software that is updated regularly, and users are notified when new versions are released.

It can be somewhat monotonous to hear the same voice mechanically reading out each text. Audio books are a lot more fun for language learners, especially because they are often recorded by professional actors or voice over artistes. They give listeners a more nuanced experience of pronunciation, tone and emotion, which are all significant aspects of language use. Until audio books become more commonplace, screen reading software continues to a real boon for visually impaired learners in India.

Writer, educator and researcher

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