TTS: Internet for the visually challenged

  • MAB provides training courses to help bring individuals suffering from visual impairment back to normal life. Photo courtesy: MySinchew

  • TTS converts text to speech to facilitate the understanding of web content by visually challenged individuals. Photo courtesy: MySinchew

  • George Thomas: MAB provides a broad range of services to help the blind people in Malaysia. Photo courtesy: MySinchew

Are visually challenged individuals destined to live in permanent darkness and be kept away from the information world outside?

To most people, the loss of vision is synonymous with the severance of the umbilical cord that connects a person to the outside world.

But that is not always true.

Those robbed of eyesight can still get hooked up to the endless opportunities of the wired world. And the key lies with the Text-To-Speech (TTS) system, which offers the whole exciting world of information to the unfortunate people suffering from reduced vision.

TTS is an application that converts text on a webpage to synthesised speech so that people unable to read the text owing to their visual impairment could understand the web content with their hearing ability.

Over the years, the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB) have been working very hard to provide training in this aspect for blind people.

MySinchew recently visited the MAB head office at Brickfields, KL, to gain a better insight into this marvellous technology.

MAB's ICT manager Encik Silatul Rahim bin Dahman told MySinchew that developed countries had made it compulsory through legislation for web content operators to conform to a set of design guidelines called the Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) in order to facilitate the "reading" of their content with the help of TTS technology.

For instance, every image on the web page must be tagged with an alternative text so that visually challenged web users could "listen" to the text read out to them by the speech synthesiser. Otherwise, what they might hear could just be jumbled up vocals that do not make sense to them.

Rahim said the MAB had approached the Malaysian government on a number of occasions to plead for the legislation to get local web content operators to conform to WCAG.

He pointed out that TTS was not only applicable to personal computers, it could also be applied to mobile phones.

However, he said the TTS application only worked with mobile phones running on the Symbian operating system, such as Nokia phones.

Due to their visual disability, the blind people need it more to conduct online transactions with government departments and banking institutions through the Internet than physically intact persons.

As such, Rahim said government departments and private service providers must put in some effort to ensure that their web designs were up to WCAG requirements, especially where filling of forms is concerned.

Rahim was the first blind Malaysian to have received TTS training in the United States. He made his first trip to the States in 1988 after Form Five, and another trip in 2007 for training in Philadelphia and Boston respectively.

He helped set up a training centre in Penang upon his return to the country in 1993, while the centre at Brickfields began its operation in 2005. Another training centre was recently set up in Kuching, Sarawak, this July.

There are currently two instructors at the Brickfields facility, Rahim and Fadzlin.

Normally it takes a learner about five days to pick up the fundamental skills of surfing the net with TTS. There are some 30 computers at the centre open for visually handicapped individuals to use.

Other than providing training courses for local blind people, MAB also offers courses for people from other regional countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia.

MAB insists that all visually handicapped individuals must be given equal access to information.

George Thomas, the Executive Director of the MAB, told MySinchew that all blind people in this country are required by the law to register with the Social Welfare Department and receive a special ID card issued by the department called "Kad Kenaldiri Orang Kurang Upaya." Holders of these special ID cards will be entitled to special discounts or free services offered by government hospitals, MAS, KTMB, LRT, RapidKL, Transnasional and other service providers.

There are currently 20,500 blind people registered with the Social Welfare Department, of whom some 2,000 people or about 10% have received TTS training from the MAB.

Thomas said visually challenged people surf the Internet mainly for news and latest happenings, but they also visit the sites of banks, government departments as well as networking sites.

In addition to IT training, MAB also provides a broad range of other services to help the blind people, including rehabilitation, recreational facilities, pre-school programmes, vocational training (woodwork, massage, reflexology, computer programming, etc.) as well as disaster relief.

The association also boasts a resource centre complete with Braille publications, talking books and CDs.

Thomas admitted that only about 20% of MAB's expenses had been financed by the government, 20% to 30% raised through the public sale of products made by the blind people themselves, while the remaining 50% was from public donations.

Your generous donations will brighten up the lives of these unfortunate people. Donation form can be downloaded from the MAB site: http://mab.org.my/. (Special report by DOMINIC LOH/MySinchew)

MySinchew 2009.12.17