At 3.75 million, blind and visually impaired people account for roughly 1.5% of Indonesia’s total population—three out of 200. In developing countries like Indonesia, the disabled face more challenges than those in developed ones. The Mitra Netra Foundation, an NGO that provides support for blind Indonesians, has been embracing technology to address the challenges. And now, working with IBM Indonesia, Mitra Netra aims to provide greater accessibility to books and reading materials for the blind through the Internet, computer, tablet and smartphones, opening up a window to the world for the blind.
“As it is located at the equator, Indonesia’s exposure to ultraviolet rays is very high. Many farmers and fishermen don’t know how to protect their eyes, resulting in blindness. Other factors that contribute to blindness are poverty, malnutrition and lifestyle. The WHO says 80% of blindness can be prevented if addressed in time and with the right care, like cataracts. However 20% cannot be prevented and all these people have special needs that need to be fulfilled, including the need to read books,” says Aria Indrawati, the public relations manager for Mitra Netra and chairwoman of the Indonesian Blind Association (Pertuni). Aria herself has had low vision since birth.
To support the blind, Mitra Netra and its volunteers have been producing audiobooks and braille books. However, so far, less than 2,000 books have transcribed into braille, a relatively small number. The transcription process is both cumbersome and expensive. For example, braille books require heavier and more expensive paper than regular books, and one page of text can require three pages of braille, as braille is larger than regular text. As a result, braille books wind up costing as much as 10 times more than regular books.
However, new technologies can provide solutions to help the blind. With help from IBM Indonesia, Mitra Netra is currently developing an online e-book library based on the ePub format. The format offers text to speech functions and is accessible from smart gadgets. “It turns out the blind are very capable in using smartphones. The technology can help overcome barriers because touch screen smartphones can now use screen readers,” says Pandu Sastrowardoyo, IBM Indonesia territory general manager, who is also a volunteer at Mitra Netra. Pandu brought the initiative to her company. IBM has given $50,000 in the last two years to support Mitra Netra.
Pandu says government regulations on intellectual property in Indonesia specifically exempt reproducing books into braille and audiobooks from copyright infringement as long as they are meant for the blind. Thus, when an online library is launched in the third quarter this year, only legally blind people will be granted access. The challenge now is to get more books into the online library.