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.

The Daily Star

Stu­dents us­ing BanglaBraille, a free crowd-sourced au­dio book sys­tem, are pic­tured. Re­sponse has been ‘as­tound­ing.’

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