Digital world is opened to the blind

The Athlone School for the Blind in Bellville is one of only two schools in the province which boast e-Braille technology. The other is in Worcester. PHOTO: Michelle Linnert

Although completely blind, Kyle Williams (23) says he can become a heart surgeon.

Kyle is a junior project coordinator for Edit Microsystems, the company that provides eBraille technology. He works at the Athlone School for the Blind in Bellville.

Kyle says he tries to “paint a picture” for sighted people to show how the Braillenote Apex machine has changed his life.

Kyle, from Retreat, had an accident as a six-year-old – “I fell off my auntie’s exercise bike” – and lost his sight completely due to a growing tumour when he was 13. “It was instantaneous: One moment I could see, the next I was completely blind.”

But with the eBraille technology, he says he and others like him are able to “see” into the exact same digital world as the sighted.

“The project was started three years ago. It has revolutionised education for the blind and vision impaired,” says Kyle.

Through the technology, the blind are able to access all textbooks. “We are no longer reactive in the classroom environment, but proactive. A teacher can easily cut information out and enlarge it for low vision students to use.

“For us blind students, it needs to be retyped into Braille and there is a lot of editing that goes into Brailling information,” he says. “Teachers now no longer need to Braille anything. We can go search and immediately read it in Braille. Information is instantly available at our fingertips thanks to the Braillenote Apex technology,” Kyle explains.

The technology is fully operational at the Athlone School for the Blind and Pioneer School for the Blind in Worcester, and is used nationally.

For the first time in history, learners were able to write their exams on the Braillenote Apex, print out their answers in sighted text, and have their papers marked by a sighted marker who would never have known it had been written in Braille.

“It was very successful and it’s being done for a second time this year, but the focus is not just on the matrics. Even the Grade 7s are writing their exams like this.”

One blind leaner is now attending a mainstream school.

“With the programme there is a whole new world open for us blind people. We are no longer limited to being teachers or working on a switchboard,” he says.

He’s since written a training manual on the programme. “The world is not going to adapt to us. We need to adapt to the world. I’m now quite comfortable in this world.”

Pieter Labuschagne is the managing director of Edit Microsystems.

“It was traditionally a big problem getting learners to access proper Braille books. You had your traditional paper version, with the printed Braille conversion.

“The Athlone school just took the opportunity and ran with it, moving paper to digital,” he says.

He said they’ve worked hard to form good relationships with publishers.

Edit Microsystems was awarded the Braille Partner of the Year in December 2014 in London thanks to their technology. “Now blind children have access to the internet. This is our biggest success story.”

The project was officially launched in February 2013 by the specialised education support directorate of the WCED, who supplied the equipment to Athlone and Pioneer schools.

Tessa Trafford from Edit Microsystems says part of their mandate is to encourage big businesses to partner with them to ensure learners have access to education and opportunities through this technology.

“With access to this equipment, learners will have the opportunity to reach their maximum potential and find employment once they leave formal education. “Currently only 3% of those who are blind are employed in South Africa. Through initiatives such as the eBraille project we believe that these figures will change.”

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