The world of words brought to life for the blind
It was a fine morning on June 25, 2013. Ragib Hasan reached his office at the University of Alabama in Birmingham in Alabama and started off the day by checking online news portals. Suddenly, one report caught his attention.
The story portrayed the plight of visually impaired school children in Bangladesh. Even six months into the academic year, they had not received their textbooks due to a lack of Braille printing facilities in the country. To add to their woes, no digital copies of the books were available either.
An assistant professor of Computer and Information Sciences of the university, Hasan was especially touched by what a child said: “... all my friends got books on the first day of school, but other visually impaired children and I didn’t get any even after six months.”
He immediately came up with the plan of finding volunteers to type the books into digital Unicode form and creating audio books. To test his idea, he recorded a chapter from a book using his iPhone, which took only five minutes.
“I was amazed to see how easy it was to create an audio version of the book. The visually impaired children could listen to the books on mobile phones or cheap mp3 players,” says Ragib Hasan, a BUET graduate, who did his PhD in Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign.
Around noon on that very day, he started a Facebook group named BanglaBraille [ http:// www. facebook. com/ groups/ banglabraille] and started inviting people to the group. He requested that everyone start typing up the books or upload image versions of whatever books were available on the website of the National Curriculum and Textbook Board. The response was astounding. Volunteers started pouring in droves immediately. “Within five hours, more than 500 volunteers signed up. And within a few days, we reached more than a thousand, then 2,000,” he remarks.
Now, the group has 3069 volunteers - among whom there are engineers, doctors, teachers, students and corporate employees— mostly young people from home and abroad.
Volunteers start a thread on a particular textbook on the Facebook page, and then they divide the pages among themselves. Each volunteer starts recording the book page by page and shares the audio files using Dropbox, a popular file sharing service, with the project coordinators.
Eventually, the audio and digitized books are assigned to reviewers, who go through the contents and release the books through their website — http:// www. banglabraille. org.
Light of Knowledge
So far, 24 audio and 24 digitised books of Class I to Class IX- X have been released on the site. Anyone can download them free of cost and get the digitised ones printed in Braille.
Ragib notes that a large number of books, which are in the process of being edited, can be made available in phases. Once done with all the books in the school curriculum, BanglaBraille plans to start creating audio versions of books for colleges and universities. Then they would set their eyes on literature classics.
“We are also planning to load audio books in inexpensive mp3 players and then distributing those among visually impaired children for free,” he adds.
Salwa Mostafa, an engineer at Intel Corporation in California, is one of the volunteers who joined the Facebook group immediately after Ragib’s call and offered to generate audio books and coordinate with other volunteers.
“Working on this project makes me feel hopeful that together, when we care, we can make a change for the better,” she says.
Mosharef Hossain Bhuiyan, general secretary of the Bangladesh Visually Impaired Peoples’ Society, notes that there are only seven primary schools for the 50 ,000 visually impaired children in Bangladesh. Besides, only 10 visually impaired students in a district are given the opportunity to study with other students, which often deprives many of the specially-abled from attending school.
Education materials for the visually i mpaired are very costly. For example, printing one Braille book costs around Tk 1,500, he says, adding that BanglaBraille can do a commendable job by making audio materials accessible to those most in need.
Rezaul Karim Siddique, who hosts the Mati O Manush show on the state- run Bangladesh Television, recorded audio books on agricultural education of class VI and VII for BanglaBraille.
“I am just simply amazed. The way the youths are volunteering is a lesson for those who do nothing without funds,” he opines.
Ragib Hasan, who has been involved in the development of Bangla Wikipedia since 2006 and is the founder of the first and largest open online education platform in Bangla— shikkhok. com - observes that he was surprised to see that there were virtually no Bangla audio textbooks.
“We intend to fill that void and let the light of knowledge reach the visually impaired population of our country,” he said.
Students using BanglaBraille, a free crowd-sourced audio book system, are pictured. Response has been ‘astounding.’