February 06, 2006

Sightless in Bombay

It took me some time before I could locate S Cinema in Andheri East, along the A-K road. I was told that the cinema no longer exists and that I was not supposed to look for a building bearing 'S'. "Ask any rickshawwallah for directions. If he is an old hand around this part of town he'll take you to where S cinema once stood," a colleague told me. I looked at my watch. I was on time. Something told me that V R and F B were the kind who kept time and expected others to do the same.
They are visually impaired. V has no eye sight whereas F has some though it is of little use in carrying out his work. I met them at an IT company where they’ve been employed with over the last two and half years. They work on project assignments together, split responsibilities, and assist each other in completing their tasks. Each day at 1 pm, F leads the way to the office canteen, and V follows, holding F’s hand at the elbow. They lunch together and draw strength and companionship in the shared problems that are unique to their condition.

V lives alone in Mumbai. His father passed away last year (2005). His mother and brothers are based in Aurangabad. “It’s been a long time away from my family,” he told me. “Ulhasnagar had no facilities for the blind so V M School for the Blind at T became my home eventually. My interaction with my family reduced as a result though I would visit them sometimes, and they me, particularly my elder brother would come all the way to T to see me. Then they left for Aurangabad where I believe my father had some ancestral property. Gradually the distance grew. But I do visit Aurangabad every four months.”

V is a Sindhi. His family fled the carnage of non-muslims in Pakistan in the aftermath of partition, settling in Ulhasnagar, the ‘refugee city’. His father was a teenager at the time. To a question about what his mother feels on his securing employment with an IT company, the very kind of question nobody would bother asking people with normal eyesight, in turn highlighting the state of employment opportunities for blind people and the general perception toward them, he said, “She is not educated, but knows that I do something in computers, and that I earn and can take care of myself even when living alone. That itself is enough to make her very happy. I visit them every 3-4 months.”

V lives in Jogeshwari at the M.N.B home for the blind. “They give me food. I share a room with four others,” he said. “Except for the days on which my computer programming classes are scheduled at GTL in Wadala, I take the bus to my hostel in Jogeshwari, else I travel to Wadala after office hours, and attend the classes before making my way home to Jogeshwari.” When I ask him how he manages the traveling alone, not without its own uncertainties, he smiles before replying, “I’ve my white stick.”

“I’ve been directed onto the wrong bus on more than one occasion,” he said. “Sometimes the person at the bus stop whom I’ve requested to alert me when my bus arrives, forgets to tell me that he is leaving after his bus arrives, and I don’t come to know of it, and wait there thinking he is still around and will alert me when my bus arrives. But somehow I reach home. I do.”

In the time I spent with them at the company where they work, there were never once any hint of despondency. If anything, they were eager to be given tasks, and at one point even letting on, albeit very politely, that it would help if Project Managers were to explore their capabilities further, setting them challenges that conventional wisdom would hesitate at first thought. Preeti, a Senior Manager with the company, believes this to be a problem and would like to see project allocations account for possibilities beyond the conventional ones assigned to them. Parag, Program Manager, is open to the idea. The work V and F carried out on one of the projects he handled has changed his perception.

Parag made a telling comment when discussing their abilities and skills in the testing domain. He said, “I find them way ahead of testers with normal eyesight. V and F are much better than the others when it comes to certain aspects in functional testing. I can tell you this 100%.” He describes them as very focused. “This helps in delivering good results. As it is Web Interfaces are de rigueur in projects across domains, so why not employ them extensively on such projects because there are considerable testing requirements and much of it involves functionality testing.” The broad scope of any Functional Testing involves testing the system from a logical aspect, covering all the business flows as the business users would see it. Checking for the inter-dependencies and inter-linkages of one scenario with the other is another important event that we test for here. Also, checking for the validity and the sanctity of data and their relationships is confirmed during this process.

Web Accessibility issues are in the forefront today. Designers believe that in confirming to Accessibility guidelines, it’s not just simply accessibility to disabled people but would also benefit everyone. Accessibility issues typically affect those with disabilities that prevent them from seeing, hearing, and moving, or using tools that interface with information. Disabled readers have access to devices and assistive technologies such as screen magnifiers, screen readers (JAWS) among others. The extent to which these technologies offered independence to the visually impaired can be gauged by how they view them. T Balsara, without eye sight herself, referred to JAWS during a conversation as “we use the computer because of great friend JAWS.” The technologies are no longer merely technologies. They have helped extend employment possibilities for the visually impaired.

An e-learning company contacted V for help with functional testing of their e-learning courses developed in line with web accessibility requirements. V got 6-7 visually impaired people he knew from his days with Victoria Memorial School for the Blind and those he met up with on Access India (a yahoo mailing list set up to provide an opportunity for the visually impaired persons in India to share experiences, questions, and suggestions related to the use of computer technology) to test these courses. Barun Y, from the Senior Specialist Group with the e-learning company, is working to develop these courses, vouched for their effectiveness. “We asked them to go through 3 different courses without any help. These courses were either in Html or Flash. Our aim was to test the templates we created and whether those can be understood by them and our conveying what we intend to. These templates also included interactivities. They did well,” he said.

Barun believes that “We (normal eyesight) can see the screen and they (the visually impaired) have to visualize the screen with whatever they hear. As a sighted user we assume a few things because we can see. They don’t.” Parag shares the same opinion as does Preeti. She says, “I find their ability to focus without distractions amazing.”

Lack of distractions is one thing, but to be equipped with a certain minimum training in computers to improve their employability in IT companies is quite another thing. I ask Parag what he would look for in employing a visually impaired person. He said, “I expect them to have a basic training in computers before I can consider taking them onboard. They are not expected to know advanced programming. Profiles involving graphic design and related skills are out of bounds. Basic computer training is essential before they can be considered for a job in the IT industry, and aptitude, and attitude.”

He lists ‘proactive’ among the qualities that are mandatory, and believes that a proactive employee will take initiative in trying to sort out problems they encounter in the course of their work. “Other skills expected of them are: Basic computer awareness, proficiency in JAWS or any other similar screen reading software, knowledge of applications like MS Word and MS Excel, and certain tools. Training in tools (e.g. Code Review) such as those used in logging in defects uncovered during testing and passing them on to development teams is mandatory. Together, this constitutes adequate proficiency in computers to help them carry out the following tasks after providing them with supportive training specific to particular tool usage.”

V and F completed their graduation (BA) before enrolling for Basic Computer courses. V went one step ahead, enrolling for an advanced course teaching programming. When he took me to his desk to show me how JAWS works the first time I met him, I looked at the black screen while his fingers raced on the keyboard. I’m accustomed to monitors taking their own sweet time to power up, so I waited. It was only when V began explaining what he was doing and I could see nothing on the screen did I wake up to the fact that he does not need the screen to do his work. I asked him to power up the monitor so I could see the screen. He did. And I sat on for the JAWS lesson.


Aaron said...

This was very interesting ! You have a very well written blog.

Anil P said...

To Aaron: Thank you. It's a pleasure to know that :) Do visit again.