Monday, September 14, 2009

Signs of the changing times

Source Link - Signs of the changing times

A Bachelor's programme in sign language has been introduced by Indira Gandhi National Open University (Ignou). A four-year programme, it entails
a one year foundation course that imparts English language and sign language skills. Students who have completed class X are eligible for the programme.

"As far as learning needs of the hearing impaired are concerned, there is a lack of awareness. This is reflected in the dearth of quality course materials and infrastructural paucity in our country," says PR Ramanujam, director, Staff Training and Research Institute of Distance Education (STRIDE), Ignou. "Even policy statements of the government regarding education for the hearing impaired fall short of addressing their 'specific' needs. However, the foremost challenge is the lack of trained teachers."

The first graduate programme for the hearing impaired in India, it also hopes to address the challenge of unemployment. According to a recent estimate, only 5% of the hearing impaired children attend schools in India.

"This course has been developed in collaboration with the International Centre for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies (iSLanDS) at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in the UK. This partnership will help us leverage their relatively more sophisticated teaching methodologies and course materials for the benefit of our students through exchange programs. We are being able to understand how specific technologies can assist and augment learning for hearing impaired students. This understanding is also useful for developing new learning assistive technologies and replenishing our computer labs for the benefit of students," he explains.

Ram Das, a history student from St Stephen's College, who is visually impaired, used around 150 audio-cassettes in class X and 250 in class XII for his studies. But then, he points out that it was cumbersome when it came to searching subjects and chapters. But now, with the 'Audio Book Reader' (ABR) recently launched by Samadrishti, Kshamata Vikas Evam Anusandhan Mandal (Saksham), an NGO, things are likely to be better.

The ABR is a pocket size device that reads the audio tracks stored in a Multimedia Memory Card (MMC) with random access to any subject, book or chapter. With a storage capacity of 60 hours in 2 GB capacity memory card, it provides the facility of putting the entire curriculum in a pocket, in a specified language, as per the need. It can be operated through a voice menu and embossed buttons and has a rechargeable battery backup of eight hours. Another advantage is that ABR can also be used as a group-hearing device by attachment of external amplispeakers or audio distributor.

As a pilot project launched earlier this year in Nagpur, the device is being used by over 70 visually impaired people, in the first phase. The ABR comes at a price. It costs Rs 4,000 for individual use and Rs 5,000 for a classroom setup. For a library setup, with 10 headphones and audio distributor, it costs Rs 6,000.

Shirish Darwhekar, special project director, Saksham, says: "In the absence of Braille, visually impaired students are forced to depend on either e-books or audiocassettes and CDs. This means that someone reads out the content of the books and records their voice in a cassette or a CD, which is a tedious process. Thus, we are trying to offer a customized product, which would be based on specific needs of students." He added: "We are trying to involve sponsors to make it cost-effective for underprivileged children."

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