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How ICTs can be accessible for us all?

By Naoko Asano Enomoto


Nowadays, touch screen technology has been rapidly applied into tablets and smartphones.  Steve Jobs took pride in his beautiful screen of the iPhone. However, this fine looking and mirror surface like screen can be a barrier for those who are visually impaired. This time, we, ICTs for BOP bloggers are exploring the efforts to connect people to people regardless of people’s condition, say for example if your friend is not fully-sighted.

Brailletouch: the eye-free way of messaging

BBC reports that a new application helps visually impaired people to send text using touchscreen mobile device, regardless of whether the operating system of your phone is iOS or Android. Although even now eye-free technology such as apple’s Voiceover, which help people to access iOS devices based on spoken guidance, has already been in use, but experts says it is “too slow to be used effectively”.

The new technology is called “Brailletouch” because it is based on the Braille writing system. Brailletouch adapts a system that is controlled with six fingers and, most importantly, users do not need to move hands while they are texting. The inventor says “it’s not like the Qwerty keyboard where you move up and down. That’s why this thing works– we can get away with only six keys”

You can see how “Brailletouch” works from here.

Mr. Romero, one of the members of the Georgia Tech, points out that there is a growing concern among the visually impaired community that the recent market preference for touchscreen makes them “truly blind”. Now a lot of touch screen devices surround us such as copying machines to machines at the gym that use touch screens for settings and controls. Therefore, Mr. Romero wants to ensure this “eye-free kit” becomes widespread. He explains “Brailletouch” can also be useful for fully sighted people who want to text with being free from focusing on screen while they’re typing they can be looking at something else.

What is needed for “ICTs for all”?

What I appreciate in BBC’s article is that Mr. Romero considers Brailletouch not only for the blind but also for everyone. Because if the application or software only targets  for the people with disabilities or special needs, we  may marginalize them as “disabled” from a deficit perspective. For example, if the number of users for these software, applications and hardware are limited, the product will likely be high cost, which may limit the accessibility. Moreover, the frequency of software updates may suffer from the small market, compared with products for the majority—that is, the benefit from technological advancement would be limited to some extent by lower demand. In addition, as we can see in One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) case, inventing products based on non-profit models may face the issue of sustainability, because compared with for-profit products, developing not-for-profit products are more likely to face financial problems, and may force the developers to hard work with low payment. Therefore, the idea from Mr. Romero and the Georgia Tech is crucial as it tries go to beyond the boundaries of rigid categories like full-sighted or visually impaired.  Of course it is true that different people have different needs, so it is almost impossible to invent applications or software that works for everyone. However, this does not necessarily mean that working for universal access for ICTs is meaningless.

And, more importantly, affecting change in ICTs development should not be coming from top-down or one-sided groups. It is not clear whether or not the team of the Georgia Tech includes visually impaired members or consultants, but I believe that to make ICTs be more inclusive, reflecting with multiple voices of various stakeholders is essential. While I was writing this article, I came across one effort for this.  Let me share that story in closing..

Collaborative approach to make new technology more inclusive and responding

The research group of Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology (RCAST) under the University of Tokyo developed a screen reader, which can read Devanagari (Nepali language). This is based on the existing screen reader, which was developed by Professor Paul Blenkhorn of University of Manchester. The Nepali language reader named “Thunder” was developed in collaboration with Nepal Association for the Welfare of the Blind (NAWB) and over 70 people from NAWB, including visually impaired people participated in the development process. Moreover, considering the high illiteracy rate among the poor in Nepal, Thunder can expand access to information for those people.  Of course, Thunder may face the problem of funding and how to deal with frequent Windows updates (Thunder is Windows dependent application). I am not sure I can call the process as “participatory” but people and NAWB and RCAST have tackled issues together to make their Thunder more inclusive and responsive.

Dear readers– Due to the limitation of space, my argument here has to be cut a little bit short. If you are interested in learning more about ICTs for disabilities, the links may be useful.


World Bank’s targeted ICT interventions were limited: evaluator in THE HINDU on Aug.11, 2011,

App helps blind to send text messages in BBC on Feb.20, 2012

The first step to Himalaya: Thunder, Devanagari Screen reader was developed in the collaboration with Nepali Blinds (in Japanese) in RCAST report, Home page of RCAST




m-Learning: How Broad is the Janala (Window) in Bangladesh?

By Fatima Tuz Zahra

Young woman using Janala to learn English. Source:

According to the World Bank, Mobile (m)-learning has gone “mainstream” in the field of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the last few years. It is interesting to see how m-learning has captured its market in Bangladesh at the moment when mobiles as hand-held devices for communication is an integral part of the ICT scenario in the country. Subsequently, BBC World Service Trust’s (BBC WST) latest initiative in Bangladesh called English in Action featuring BBC Janala was launched in 2009 with funding from DFID and UK Aid. The BBC World Service Trust (BBC WST) through Janala aims to “educate” 25 million people by 2017 through a television, drama, a game show, and mobile phone-based English lessons.

A snapshot of BBC Janala webpage

Janala’s three-minute mobile English lessons are reported to be “accessible to those living on less than two dollars a day” as its cost is equivalent to the price of a cup of tea, a regular drink for the average Bangladeshi. That lagging behind India and Sri Lanka in English affects the smooth operation of trade and commerce is frequently used as a strong argument for motivating Bangladeshis to learn English. A recent impact research reveals that 8.5 million Bangladeshis are users of English learned through BBC Janala, which uses TV, mobile and newspaper to reach a large section of the population who come from a low socio-economic background. BBC claims that the project has already reached 26 million Bangladeshis, which was the ultimate goal of the project as outlined by the BBC WST. The producer of the content disseminated through mobile messages in Janala Ken Banks, is also an innovator, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. His work led to the development of FrontlineSMS, “an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system” which is devised to empower individuals and organization at the grass-root level.

In a developing country like Bangladesh most people – including individuals from low-income background – use cell phones for daily communication; the country is a haven for a booming mobile industry. Also, the colonial history of Bangladesh and the pressure to meet the Education For All (EFA) Goals make Bangladesh one of the best markets for English teaching and learning industry, which in turn facilitated the establishment of BBC Janala. The scope of m-learning in such a densely populated country is therefore soaring because of high mobile phone usage, the international pressure for literacy, and the market economy. The successful expansion of the initiative in Bangladesh proves that the country was indeed a suitable ground for the use of mobile for learning to communicate in English (the language used in mobile phones).

BBC: Media for cultural domination. Source:

However, BBC Janala operation is an example of the reinforcement of the existing World system where the relationship between the developed and developing nations is not that of two equal and interdependent entities. BBC Janala may be called a success because of already reaching out to a large population with the noble aim to teach the 25 million Bangladeshis learn English, the global language. However that BBC Janala likens English learning in Bangladesh to literacy is problematic. It claims to “educate” the citizens of Bangladesh by teaching them English! In this case, the unequal relationship between the country in the periphery  (Bangladesh) with the country at the core (UK) is reinforced by exporting Western ideas of literacy to Bangladesh from the core (the UK). This in turn facilitates the Westerners’ cause to be a dominant power in Bangladesh ( a new market untrammeled by m-learning). English learning through Janala in Bangladesh can be seen as a way to expand BBC’s market in the name of catering the Bangladeshi citizens with literacy learning and establish the hegemony of English/English culture in Bangladesh.

The lesson that needs to be learned from such an m-learning initiative is the applicability of using mobiles to learn new skills. Homegrown initiatives to use mobile phones to spread literacy in mother tongue can be equally or more innovative than BBC Janala to reach the grass-root level. Most importantly, Deshi content developers should be given preferences for programs that service their community as their aligned interest in the positive outcome would be a resource to sustain the project. The policy makers in my country, Bangladesh, thus can find a cost-efficient way to utilize the mobile phones without having to sacrifice their cup of tea.

I would like to know what our readers think about such a Janala of our own!


English in Action: Mobile Learning in Bangladesh in National Geographic Emerging Explorer on March 29, 2011:

Mobile learning in developing countries in 2012: What’s Happening? in World Bank Blog on ICT in Education on January 31, 2012:

Biography of Mr David PROSSER, World Innovation Summit for Education Qatar:

Explorers Bios. Ken Banks in National Geographic:

FrontlineSMS: Using Mobile Technology to Promote Positive Social Change:

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