The young girl is all concentration, leaning close to the computer monitor, her ears to the speakers. She isn’t reading what’s on the screen but listening to the text being read out by the computer, controlling it using the tab, enter, back and navigation keys on the keyboard.

As she scrolls down to the next page, the computer stops reading — the text is corrupt. Undeterred, she walks slowly to another student, seeking his help to fix the problem. We are at the University of Pune’s Advanced Technology Blind Students Learning Centre, where students use computers to further their education and improve their social networking skills.

Most of the students visiting the Centre, which assists them in graduate and post-graduate studies, belong to lower middle class or poor family backgrounds. A few of them are orphans. Of the 15 regulars, eight have enrolled in the university’s earn-and-learn scheme, using earnings of between Rs 1,500 and Rs 2,000 to support their education. Many cannot afford gadgets like MP3 players for study purposes. They depend on the university authorities to get them.

The Centre’s coordinator Dhananjay Bhole, who is visually-challenged, says very few students are from the middle or upper middle classes. “Socio-economic background apart, they have one common need — assistive technology for their studies. All of them want to learn to use computers and the internet. We make them available at the Centre. No private education institute can claim that,” he adds.

According to Bhole, around 80% of students at the university are from rural Maharashtra where technology to support their education is not available.

Vinayak Dhoot, a 21-year-old MA student (Politics, Part I), makes extensive use of the internet on his Nokia: “I access Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter on my cellphone while using the Centre’s internet facility for study. I also check my mail, but social networking sites are strictly banned here.” The Centre does, however, provide the software required to access the internet on a cell phone.

Vinayak, who is from Ahmednagar, says he uses computers, the cell phone and the internet every day, even during exams. His father is a farmer and also owns a shop at the Agriculture Produce and Market Committee (APMC) premises back home.

Vinayak has a Facebook page titled Blind Foundation, where issues of concern for blind students are uploaded regularly. “I have over 600 friends — both visually-challenged and ‘normal’ — visiting the page. We share our problems, discuss different issues, and post comments.”

Vinayak’s Facebook page also serves as a platform for students to find writers. “It is a major issue for blind students during examinations,” he explains. “I requested a Facebook friend of mine and a group member to write an exam for me. She came down all the way from Mumbai!”

Members also use the page to upload news and invitations to events. Vinayak has Talks Software and NVDA (Non Visual Desktop Application) installed on his cellphone to read the text off his screen. “Some friends read out textbooks while revising their studies, keeping their cell phones in Whatsapp’s voice call mode. After recording it, they forward the call message to me. My cellphone is a great help in my studies.”

Vinayak loves learning about political developments at the state and central level by accessing e-editions of various English dailies. “I am a political science student and I must update myself regularly on the happenings. Apart from politics, I also follow stories related to the economy as I plan to appear for the bank entrance examinations,” he says.

Apart from Blind Foundation, Vinayak is also founder member of Drusti — Vision for Blind, another Facebook page. Some 250 visually-challenged students from different city colleges and university departments are members. They help each other through the webpage. A few ‘normal’ people are also part of the group and help with writers, reading material and guidance for competitive examinations.

‘Hello friends… Looking for computer science person for writing an exam held on November 27 to December 5. Looking for earliest response. Thank you, in anticipation,’ reads a post on the Drusti page.

Santosh Karale, 25, a partially blind student who stays on the university campus, bought a laptop a couple of years ago from his scholarship money. Santosh is doing his second-year in MBA, human resources. “I needed a laptop. I don’t have an internet connection, but access it at the Centre,” he says.

Santosh is from Anjani village in Sangli district. “I lost my father in 2009 and my mother supports me by working in our fields. I managed to win two scholarships for my higher education,” he says. Santosh was busy preparing for campus interviews by IT giant TCS. “I have prepared myself well with the help of the internet facilities at the Centre, accessing the company profile and case studies to help during the interview.”

Santosh has a Facebook account but is not on Twitter. “I keep uploading job advertisements and other stuff on Facebook for my (visually-challenged) friends to help them land jobs,” he says.

How did he learn to operate computers? Santosh explains that there are no trained computer teachers for the blind, so he learnt all on his own. “The voice software reads out at a fast pace and it’s difficult to comprehend it. We do not use a mouse to navigate, and cannot view photographs. We need some software to explain a photograph on the screen,” he says, adding that he has installed support software on his laptop to help him read fiction and non-fiction books downloaded at the Centre.

At the Centre, Santosh checks mail and surfs the internet. “Recently, I wrote a mail to the Bill Gates Foundation enquiring about job prospects for the blind in the developed world. And they counselled me through a return email, appreciating and encouraging my efforts.”

Shantanu Ladkat, studying computer management at Garware College, says Facebook is a great way to socialise. “I have Facebook friends in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Mumbai, Delhi, Kashmir, Rajasthan and other states. After introducing myself I start chatting on the phone, as I don’t like online chatting. I would rather meet them. And I have,” he says. Shantanu has real friends in various parts of the country. “I love food and sometimes like my Facebook friends to join me at restaurants,” he says.

The Advanced Technology Blind Students Learning Centre was established in February 2008 as part of Pune University’s Department of Education and Extension, to provide accessibility support services to visually-challenged students at departments and colleges affiliated to the university.

The Accessibility Research Group works towards making university programmes, services and activities accessible for persons with disabilities. This involves the creation ofaccessible course material, special teaching aids and methodology as well as integrating accessibility features, solutions and assistive technology within technology design, development and deployment.

Talking Book Library is a collection of around 400 audio textbooks on the humanities, commerce, law and competitive exams, accessible free of charge.

The UoP Centre offers a certificate course in basic computing and assistive technology learning (CBCATL) to visually-challenged college and university students. It is a six-month course. So far, the Centre has provided training to over 50 students and helped over 10 of them get jobs in banks and educational institutions.

Bhole says: “The major problem is accessibility. The font must change (enlarge and become bold) for a partially blind person to read.” Bhole and his friends are working on this, coordinating with C-DAC, National Informatics Centre and other government institutions. “We are working to make government websites accessible for the disabled,” he adds. Meanwhile, the university has switched to online admissions and examination procedures. Indeed, the internet is one of the best things to have happened to people with disabilities, Bhole concludes.

Gitesh Shelke is a Pune-based reporter.