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Thriving as a Person with Blindness

Dinesh is a person experiencing blindness due to Glaucoma. At an early age, he discovered  an interest in computer programming but was met with a challenge due to lack of accessible educational resources. He shares his journey to develop an open-source screen reader for himself and countless others, making a wide library of educational content accessible for the first time.

Dinesh Kaushal
Dinesh Kaushal

My first memory of problems with my eyesight is around 7 years old when I was running away from a nurse who had an endless supply of injections. After my eye surgery, the ophthalmologist told my parents I will lose my eyesight completely and advised that they look for a school that teaches blind persons. My parents would take me to various religious places before and after my surgery in hopes of getting my eyesight cured. All of the well-wishers would suggest alternative treatments such as Ayurveda, Homeopathy, and many religious places that my parents had never heard of.

We decided to visit the Vaishno Devi shrine, the place of a very well-known Hindu goddess in North India. Before the visit, I was told about various miracles that happened to people who visited her shrine so my hopes were high. We embarked on the 7-hour trek with no concrete road. After we returned, I realized that my eyesight was not improving and my hope of getting my sight back was crushed, and in despair. I would go through many more similar cycles of hope and despair in the coming years.

Throughout my life, I have seen many others go through emotions because of incorrect beliefs that visiting holy places can solve their problems. These beliefs not only lead to false hope but also waste invaluable time that could be spent finding solutions.

With time, my sadness gave way and I started focusing on living life. Like many other blind persons, I faced the challenges of getting study materials. As many of you know, blind persons study with what is known as Braille, but you may not know that producing Braille books are more expensive than traditional print books. As a result, we would get very few books for our studies. These problems were even more severe before digital technology as organizations would manually produce those books. It was somewhat similar to what happened before Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

Another method of studying is to record books which is also cumbersome. My entire family would either record the books or draw diagrams for me. Due to these difficulties, many schools for the blind would not teach mathematics, economics, or science. Similarly, I also could not study mathematics after eighth grade. At the same time friends around me, including my brother, were studying not only how to use a computer but also how to program it. Around 12th grade, I learned that there is talking software that would let me use a computer, so I decided to learn to program and make it my profession.

“With time, my sadness gave way and I started focusing on living life.”

But I had to study mathematics before I could pursue programming professionally. By this time, The National Association for the Blind (NAB) Delhi had electronic books for mathematics from 6th to 10th grade and I started studying what I had missed. But that was not enough, I needed material of higher studies and it was not available in India. I found that those books were available as recorded books from an audiobook library in The United States. Unfortunately, these audio cassettes would not work on a regular player as they were recorded at a slower speed and with more tracks. I would have to import a special player for $200. My father had recently purchased a computer for me from his insurance money and I didn’t want him to spend more. After some deliberations and online searching, I figured out that I could modify a regular cassette player by adding resistance and a special player head used in car cassette players. This head allowed me to control all 4 tracks with a switch and cost around INR 150. This innovation helped many other blind persons as they could now access many books from the same library.

It was also clear by now that the screen reader software that I have been using so far was not affordable for everyone at $1,000. After completing my studies, I worked to develop the first open- source screen reader in collaboration with NAB Delhi. This software was not only open source and free, but also available in Indian languages. The screen reader was recognized by our ex-president, the Late Abdul Kalam.

I later joined Publicis Sapient to lead the development of NVDA, another open-source screen reader. It is motivating to see that our organization realizes the need for contributing to the development of enabling technologies for people experiencing difficulties.

I lead an independent life with my wife who also experiences blindness. Both of us are proud parents to our amazing son and are learning many things involved in parenting. Some of the lessons are common among parents with sight, but others are unique such as when he asks us why can’t we drive like other parents. We tell him it is something that he is missing that other parents can provide. Unfortunately this provides him an opportunity to ask for another favor which we then have to deny or agree with depending on who gives in first.

Dinesh Kaushal
Dinesh Kaushal
Dinesh has been with Publicis Sapient for 7 years as a Technology Manager, supporting large banking clients. He has contributed to the enhancement for an open source screen reader that helps persons with blindness to work effectively with computers. He is an active member of the EnABLE BRG and works to promote awareness about the issues facing persons experiencing disabilities. Dinesh is a person experiencing blindness due to Glaucoma. He loves reading and traveling and in his spare time can be found reading audio books on his mobile phone or traveling with his son and wife.

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