Editor's Letter


Reinventing the tube

Keeping up with the Times

J-blogging the best of both worlds?

'n Kykie na die veranderende eenoog-koning

MXit worth its moola

Techno impaired

Mobile media: A threat?


Solo journalism

What the eyes do not see, does grieve the heart

Beautiful journalism

Vrouetydskrifte + die internet = 'n blink toekoms?

Can u sms it 2 me?

Do you get your news?

Die Burger vir die burgers

The artist formerly known as the audience


Rebuilding the Chinese wall

Politici en hul waghonde


Burning issue: A changing climate, a changing media

Van toeka tot nou: Die 50/50 suksesverhaal


Kort aan kortverhale?

"Teater van die gedagte" se swanesang?

Gevra: 'n drukmedia Harry Potter

Fluit-fluit is die storie uit vir boeke en boekresensies?


Wat sport van vol is, loop die pen van oor

Keeping the game alive...with "sportainment"



What the eyes do not see, does grieve the heart

How would you read a newspaper, access the internet, read your favourite magazine or use the latest portable technology to gain information… if you were blind? It sounds impossible. Christiaan Boonzaier investigates how more than 225 million visually impaired people in the world (according to the South African National Council for the Blind) “read the news” and whether the media is
accommodating them or leaving them behind while it constantly innovates, upgrades and improves technology for accessing news in the twenty-first century.

Michelle Nell’s morning routine has been the same for most of the 22 years that she has lived: she gets out of bed and makes her way to the breakfast table.
Because she has been living in her current house for years, she finds her path to the kitchen without even opening her eyes.

On good mornings, no obstacles block her path to her father, who always sits at the table reading a newspaper. On bad mornings, she bumps and falls over “strategically placed” books and shoes on the ground.

Although her parents tell her to keep her room tidy to avoid falling over objects, procrastination almost always has her tumbling to the ground as a result.

The dialogue at the table is the same each morning:

“Morning Dad. What’s in the paper?”
“What’s really in the paper, Dad?”
“Selebi’s trial starts, confusion over the elections in Zim, Djokovic slams out in the first round at Wimbledon… anything specific you want me to read?”
“Yes, read the Zim story, read the letters column and see if there’s a review on a classical music concert and read that too. Oh, and which celebrities are featured on the third page?”

Michelle is blind, and this is the way her morning has started every day since she began to have an interest in news.

“I don’t really listen to news bulletins on the radio or television, because they lack the analysis that I generally find in newspapers. That’s why I have a reading session with my dad every morning,” she says.
On days she runs late or her parents go to work early, she misses her daily news and is forced to listen to the radio and television which she finds “dull” and “not analytical enough”.

The question stands: is it possible for anyone with a visual impairment to gain access to the news without getting help from someone else? Is there technolo gy that can help blind people read the news by themselves? And if not, why are people with visual impairments left behind in an age marked by the need to make technology more robust, more comforta-ble, more accessible and more affordable for the human race?

“Oh, there is technology,” says Amos Winter, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “but there are various problems in getting these gadgets to people around the world.”

In an email interview with SMF, Winter explains that he runs a project that invents and manufactures technology for people with disabilities. More importantly, they try to manufacture the technology in such a way that people can actually afford to buy it.

“Often, a person who only makes a few hundred dollars a year needs a device that costs about that much. We are working to make low-cost mecha nisms to help people to buy them and use them in everyday life.”

As an example, Winter mentions cellphones which were extremely expensive a couple of years ago, but are now so affordable they can, in his opinion, be given away freely to people on the street.

“This is exactly what we are trying to achieve with technology that will assist visually impaired people,” says Winter.

According to the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, over 90% of visually impaired people live in developing countries. Therefore financial aid is a big challenge.

James Gichuhi, managing director and founder of Information Technology and Applications Consulting Limited (ITAC Ltd) in Kenya, agrees. “Getting finances for new technology and new research is a massive problem – especially in Africa”.

Gichuhi explains that his company not only helps to raise funds for the manufacturing of assistive technologies, but also helps handicapped people integrate into society by using these technologies for their own benefit.

“Visually impaired individuals do have some access to the media, but the path to reading one newspaper is extremely expensive: you need a computer, access to the internet and software that can read the text on the screen to you. The amount of money needed for this equipment can be extremely high.”

He also says that most visually impaired individuals in Africa have no access to any form of media independently, because it is too expensive.

Like Winter, Gichuhi hopes his company can find a solution to make technologies less expensive, so that more people can have access to them.

In an SMF interview with five of the 17 visually impaired students at Stellenbosch University, the question about accessing media brings nervous laughter and a unanimous answer: “It’s difficult!”

Hanro Louwrens, a postgraduate psychology student, says that text-to-speech software is available at the university, and gives them access to the internet and media.

“The problem is that the internet isn’t really friendly to the software that blind people use because pictures, links and other graphics can’t be interpreted by the software,” says Louwrens.

Tamaryn Watson, a third-year sport science student, adds that Jaws (the software that reads text to them via headphones that are plugged into the computer) has its limits.

“Although most newspapers have websites, we have no access to lifestyle pages or supplements like By in Die Burger. Also, most websites are extremely complicated to navigate and takes hours to access,” says Watson. Programmes like Jaws can only read English and people therefore have no access to Afrikaans newspapers.

Elna Dürr, a second-year humanities student, says she feels sorry for every blind person that is not at a
university and does not have access to the Jaws software.

“It is too expensive to buy and when we leave the university during the holiday we don’t have any access to the internet, newspapers or magazines,” she says. She adds that most blind people are older than 50 and do not have money to even think of buying a computer.

Andre Manders, access consultant at the South African National Council for the Blind, says the Jaws software costs between R10 000 and R12 000. He adds that optical scanners, which can scan newspapers and magazines and then print them in Braille, cost around R16 000.

Manders also comments on new technologies like the BrailleNote PK, SpeakOn and other gadgets that can read newspapers to users by just holding the device over the desired text. Unfortunately, the gadgets, which retail at R40 000 and R6 000 respectively, can only interpret English. “People with disabilities in South Africa live on a grant of R940 and therefore cannot afford scanners and software like these,” he says.

An SMF inquiry into some of South Africa’s biggest libraries delivered dismal results for any visually impaired person who has the need to read a newspaper or magazine in the comfort of a library.

Currently, the National Library of South Africa has “no facilities to assist users that are visually impaired” and, more ironically, the South African Library for the Blind in Grahamstown does not offer newspapers to members.

Ria Greaves, section head of circulation at the South African Library for the Blind, explains that newspapers are not offered because of logistical problems.

She says newspapers are not in the right format for software to translate it into Braille and that attempts to receive newspapers directly in electronic format from publishers have not been successful.

“With electronic format I mean any file that can be placed on a compact disc or something as basic as a Microsoft Word document that publishers can email to me,” says Greaves.

Philippa Louw, Braille Officer at the Office for Students with Special Learning Needs (OSSLN) at Stellenbosch University, says it would be wonderful if publishers would make electronic available.
Louw confirmed that if a document was sent to her with all of the newspaper’s articles in text form, i.e. with no graphics or layout, that she would be able to print it in Braille with the touch of a button.

She also says not all documents need to be printed out because some students have text-to-speech programmes on their computers which would be able to read those documents to them.

But is a document like this possible?

Jacolette Kloppers, senior subeditor at Die Burger, said generating such a document wouldn’t be difficult, but it would be quite time-consuming.

“Every story lies in a different file, therefore every heading, byline and article needs to be copied and pasted separately into one big document.” Kloppers adds that while it is technically possible and basically a matter of copy and paste, this task would take a few hours to complete.

As far as she knows, there are currently no extra hands available on the staff to compile this document. She also did not have any success in finding out whether Die Burger plans to compile such a newsletter.

For now, however, the visually impaired will have to continue struggling to gain access to their daily news.