Seasonal appeal: Smart goals

Developing effective visual aids and learning tools for the blind is one of the practical activities of Sightsavers

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Yusuf Mia still has memories of his parents. “I can remember my mother’s face, my father’s face,” he says. He can also remember natural scenery. Those recollections are all from a couple of decades ago before, aged 16, losing his sight after catching chicken pox.

That traumatic event left him “feeling frustrated and without hope”. Today he is an outgoing, married man of 31, a graduate and employee of Assistance for Blind Children, a non-profit organisation in the Bangladeshi city of Narsingdi, about 50km east of Dhaka.

Yusuf is ABC’s resident boffin, a generator of ideas for tools and technologies to help the visually impaired. As he talks, he strokes a slat of black plywood punched with holes filled with screws. It is a basic, yet wonderfully simple tool for teaching Braille. The size of the “dots” that form Braille letters make it easier for children to pick up the basics of the alphabet of the blind.

Mia designed the product, which was then made by a local artisan. It has since been copied and deployed in schools. It was also spotted by Sightsavers, the international development organisation that is the subject of the FT’s seasonal appeal. “I thought it was a tremendous idea and told him to develop it,” says Nusrat Zerin Joya, Sightsavers’ education programme manager. The next step is to see whether the device can be mass produced, perhaps in plastic or metal.

Developing effective visual aids and learning tools for the blind is one of the practical activities of Sightsavers. Others include the Bangla alphabet Braille book that Joya developed. The first of its kind in the country, the A4 book is made up of five big lines of text per page that “involves lots of repetition so that children get it”, she explains.

Sightsavers also funds computers equipped with audio software designed for the visually impaired, giving them early access to PCs and associated skills, a highly useful thing in societies where they often face discrimination.

Mia is fascinated by the potential of technology. An adept user of a smartphone, whose audio features give voice to his emails and keystrokes, he wonders whether it can be deployed to crack one of “the most important problems for visually impaired people”: how to identify various denominations of bank notes when they are the same size. A combination of a mobile phone camera, basic image recognition and audio software might do it. All he needs now is assistance to develop the idea.

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