Enabling visually impaired to access digital world through Braille
January 07 2021 06:48 PM
Abdelrazek Aly and  Ramy Abdulzaher
Abdelrazek Aly and Ramy Abdulzaher

On the recent World Braille Day, two young engineers speak about using Braille to access digital content

World Braille Day, celebrated since 2019, is observed on January 4 every year to raise awareness about the importance of Braille as a means of communication in the full realisation of the human rights for blind and partially sighted people.

Braille is a tactile representation of alphabetic and numerical symbols using six dots to represent each letter and number, and even musical, mathematical and scientific symbols. Braille (named after its inventor in 19th century France, Louis Braille) is used by blind and partially sighted people to read the same books and periodicals as those printed in a visual font. Braille is essential in the context of education, freedom of expression and opinion, as well as social inclusion.

As the world has swiftly been moving towards virtual and digital means of communication and learning, the Covid-19 pandemic has also emphasised the need to intensify all activities related to digital accessibility to ensure digital inclusion of all people. This is high time that efforts were made to digitalise the means of communication for the blind community also.

On the eve of the World Braille Day, Gulf Times spoke to two Egyptian expatriates who have developed Bonocle –an electronic hardware product which utilises Braille as a medium for blind users to read digital content from everyday smart electronic devices. Abdelrazek Aly, co-founder and CEO of Bonocle, and Ramy Abdulzaher, co-founder and COO, recently attended an online event organised by Qatar Social and Cultural Center for Blind, where they talked about their journey with Bonocle and answered to questions raised by some members of the community of the blind.

Both are friends and graduates from Qatar University. Ramy has the degree in chemical engineering and Abdelrazek in computer sciences. The idea of having a device enabling the visually impaired people access online material started with Abdlrazek when he had to attend a center for students with special needs at the university after he got his hand broken in an accident. “During that period we got the chance to meet many visually impaired students. We noticed the struggle they go through every day to get access to the content and material they need to study,” said Abdelrazek.

The duo were moved by the fact that while the sighted students tend to complain about the amount of material they have to go through before the exams, the visually impaired ones find it hard to access that material. “That was basically the trigger. Spending time with the visually impaired persons and going through the available technologies they can try, we have tried to come up with a solution,” the computer science engineer said.

It took them four years to convert the concept into a reality. “It all started in 2016 and has been a long journey going from an iteration to another. For example, we started with a tablet. We wanted it to be a Braille tablet. Working on different ideas, we finally ended up with having Bonocle, computer mouse like device,” said Ramy.

The team has tested the ready product both in Qatar and US. “It has been successful so far in reducing the gap between the sighted people and the blind community. Other technologies are tailored 100 percent for the blind and they tend to segregate them. Bonocle allows them to play online games with their family members and other people. Our platform helps them integrate in the society,” Ramy added.

The young graduates are all praise for the support they have got from different entities in Qatar for their project. “We started with Qatar Science and Technology Park at Qatar Foundation. They helped us with an initial fund to build a prototype. We also got support from the Supreme Committee under the Challenge 2022. We won the challenge and a cash award also. We also got the opportunity to represent Qatar in the other countries,” Ramy maintained.

Having experienced the difficulties of the visually impaired people, the duo is all out for raising awareness about Braille as a language of the blind through the international day. “There is need of raising the awareness about the language that it is very essential for the blind to study and do jobs. We have tried to help the blind get to digital world using Braille,” said Abdelrazek.

Ramy said that sighted people should not turn a blind eye to the needs of visually impaired persons. “We should give them a sense of freedom through Braille and connecting them with the digital world. They should be integrated. The language is actually a powerful thing that we can utilise in so many different ways. With Bonocle they can play games and get feedback through Braille. They can use Braille to navigate through maps.”

The team does not agree with the point that audio support is more helpful than Braille. “Research shows that the visual information can be retained better than through audios. As visual is for sighted people, the tactile is for the blind.”

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