How would you feel if you see that the visually impaired persons are using smartphones like ordinary people — sending messages, making calls and using the internet? Well, this is not an unusual thing anymore, as modern technology has allowed blind people to live their lives independently by using various tools and devices.

Both, iPhone and Android, feature text-to-speech (TTS) software, and you don’t have to buy a very expensive smartphone for enabling this function. However, Samsung smartphones are considered more accessible because of their homemade UI and Android customization.

Similarly, there’s also a screen reader for the Windows OS, which performs the same functionality as the smartphone screen readers. It supports most of the Windows-based applications, including the Microsoft Office and the Google Chrome.

Life of a visually impaired person in the modern world

No doubt, visually impaired (VI) people are much progressed in the developed countries, as they are playing their productive role in all fields. The modern technology has helped them to compete with the sighted community in all walks of life. Whether there’s a Barber or a Ph.D. doctor, the visually impaired persons are playing their active role in all the disciplines.

Don’t go very far, just have a look across the border; you will find many visually impaired persons with their IT companies and software houses. Similarly, you will find them studying the technical and science subjects.

Meet Aqil Sajjad the only Pakistani blind man in the United States, who has recently completed his Ph.D. in Physics from the Howard University. He thinks that technology has played a vital role in making it possible. Apart from that, he is an excellent beep baseball player — a modified version of the game for blind people.

Similarly, Saqib Sheikh, a blind software engineer, is currently working on the Bing search engine with the Microsoft. Recently, he has developed a smartphone application for the blind people, which allows them to recognize the faces of individuals around them and to judge their mood.

Moreover, a Pakistani student has recently created a smart blind stick to help the blind people.

It doesn’t stop here; there are thousands of visually impaired people who are performing in various spheres of life.

From time to time, development in the technology has helped blind. To mention, the self-driving car for which no driver is needed and works through GPS system, Smart glasses which allow them to identify the nearby objects, various smart applications which help them recognize images/printed text or currency notes, and Braille, which works as a paper and pencil for them.

Status of the visually impaired community in Pakistan

Despite all the advancement, awareness and contrary to what I have mentioned earlier, the visually impaired persons in Pakistan have quite a difficult life.

If we talk about technology, yes, they seem to be fully updated —they can use smartphones and PCs with the help of a screen reader, can walk independently through white canes, etc., but this is not what they desire. They have to face huge technological barriers in their day-to-day activities.

Take the example of the screen reader; it helps them read only the English text, not to mention, there is no Urdu language support available. Although there’s software which supports Urdu, it is still in the testing phase.

Members of the VIs community are of the view that the government is not serious about the development of Urdu screen reader. “Every project requires the high expenditures, and the government doesn’t seem to be convinced for allocating funds,” explains Shahid Memon, the Chairman Pakistan Association of the Blind.

In Pakistan, an average blind person can only dream about gadgets smart glasses since it’s a matter of affordability.  Despite all the hue and cry of tech development by our incumbent government, nobody seems interested in developing an affordable alternative to smart glasses for people like us.

“One of the reasons that Pakistani VIs are left behind in technology is that the government has not made any successful policy to address their issues so far,” says M. Shabbir Awan, a Research Associate in National Defense University Islamabad.

“Right policies provide the ladder for the society’s progress. So far, PWDs in Pakistan have had 1981 ordinance; 2002 National policy; 2006 Action Plan; and, 2008 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) designed to address their issues. But unfortunately, none has succeeded to provide intended benefits to PWDs,” he explained.

In abroad, if a blind person cannot afford any technological device, the NGO’s working their help him/her to get it. But unfortunately, there’s no such practice in Pakistan. “The NGO’s operating in Pakistan are mostly unaware of the latest technology,” commented Shabbir while talking to the MORE Magazine.

The education system for visually impaired persons in Pakistan

What if a blind person wishes to study in Pakistan, how shall it be possible for him/her to get the proper education? Will the society provides the best opportunity to explore the subjects of their choice?

Well, despite lots of social and technological barriers in Pakistan, the visually impaired persons have made tremendous achievements in the educational fields!

Saima Saleem, the first Pakistani blind CSP officer, got the sixth position in the civil service examination all over Pakistan. In spite of hurdles and rejections, she opted for the foreign services and is now serving as the second Secretary on human rights at Pakistan’s permanent mission to the United Nations at Janeva, Switzerland.

Dr. Kamaluddin, a Ph.D. in English language and literature, is now a professor in Forman Christian (FC) College, enlightening students through his vision and knowledge. He completed his education when there were lesser resources available for the Visually Impaired people, and one had to rely mostly on audio recordings or the available Braille material.

Moreover, many distinguished students have played well in their respective subjects of education. They faced enormous difficulties and marked their names in society.

Challenges in the education sector

Well, no doubt that many visually impaired persons are performing excellent in the educational fields, yet there are immense challenges they have to face.

Most of the visually impaired persons are forced to rely on arts subjects. Although there exist some institutions which introduced matriculation in computer science for the visually impaired persons, those are very few in numbers.

Until today, Braille —the six dots coding system, is widely used for education all over the world including Pakistan. Many VI students complete their matriculation through this scheme, as the Board of Intermediate, and Secondary education has also allowed them to take exams in Braille language.

But when these students enter in higher classes, they get stuck due to the books which are not available in the required format.

No one takes the responsibility for bearing the expense to translate books into Braille, and it also becomes the fatigue. Eventually, they have to shift onto the computer, which has no proper Urdu screen reader available either. Hence, they have to rely on the old method of audio recording, if they wish to Pursue the Urdu language in their graduation or Masters/M.Phil. /Ph.D. programs, luck does not favor them.

Very few find a way through the hardships, even if they become the brightest student of the university and get recognized through a gold medal, no one is ready to hire them in the market.

Usually, when a blind goes for an interview, he is never trusted owing to the disability, no matter how skilled the person is.

Is technology the only solution to the problems of visually impaired persons?

Certainly not! There is a need to change the behavior of the society —to make them realize that today a blind person is a regular performer in the community. Society poses some fascinating responses to the visually impaired people. Firstly, it takes them as an isolated community, which has nothing to do with their gatherings and parties.

Secondly, people feel shy to ask a blind person for any help, as they think that these people are themselves helpless. Third, visually impaired people are not considered standard in the society, that’s why they are dealt with as the special individuals who need some attention.

I can only say, instead of showing pity, give them the opportunity. They shall surely prove themselves!