A vision for the visually-impaired

In a first, 24-year-old Safira gives her exam on screen reader software


Oonib Azam June 11, 2018
PHOTO: COURTESY SAFIRA

KARACHI: After three-and-a-half years of successful struggle, 24-year-old Safira Bibi is ready to embark on a journey to her hometown in Gilgit's Yasin Valley.

"It is time she goes back to her home and relax," her brother said. "It's been a long journey and she still needs to fight when she comes back."

Safira, a visually-impaired student of University of Karachi's (KU) mass communication department, lives in a small flat in the Garden area with her parents and two brothers.

Her home has no sofa to sit on, but a carpet and cushions. "This is how our homes are back in Gilgit. We follow the same in Karachi," said Safira with a pleasant smile.

She is suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, which is a group of rare, genetic disorders that involve a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina, the light sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye, due to which she has 5% vision.

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But that is not what her story is about. Her story is one of wounded loyalties, dignified pathos and increasing self-reliance. She became the first visually-impaired student at KU to give her exams on her own through a screen reader software, JAWS, on a laptop. The visually-impaired students give their exams through a writer, who they have to bring along with them on the exam day.

Safira studied at the Ida Rieu School for Blind and Deaf and appeared for her matriculation exams with a writer. "I did not know of any other option back then," she said.

She ended up going to the United States in 2012 as part of an exchange programme facilitated by the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study programme. "This changed my life," she said, adding that she was admitted to blind school, Kentucky School for the Deaf, located in Kentucky, US.

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It was there when she realised how a visually-impaired person can lead an independent life. "Their blind students used to give exams on laptops using the screen reader software, JAWS. There was no concept of writers like we have in Pakistan," she said, explaining that in order to use JAWS they have to learn keyboard shortcuts.

"Once JAWS is installed on the laptop, the software speaks any icon the cursor goes on. It also speaks every letter we press on the keyboard," she explained.

How did she convince KU?

Safira used to represent Pakistan in the American Lions Club where she won the US $1000 for representing Pakistan in the best way. With this amount, she purchased this technology and brought it back home.

Life became difficult for Safira when she came back to Pakistan where she was denied her independence at every door. While she was ready to appear for her intermediate exams, she was humiliated and denied using the accessible technology when she asked for it.

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Adamant to achieve self-reliance for herself, Safira took admission in KU's mass communication department. On the very first day, she vividly recalls she went to the department office and said she is experiencing blindness and wants to give her exams through the accessible technology.

"I do not remember which teacher was sitting there, but a very polite voice said to me; Safira you look very advanced, but have mercy on our system. We are not that advanced."

This did not deter Safira from what she wanted to achieve and she took it as a challenge. She had Sociology as a minor course. Just before the midterms, she went to her course incharge, who she did not want to name, and tried to explain him about the technology and requested him to allow her to give her exam on her own.

The teacher did not understand and thought she wanted to cheat and that's why she was willing to bring her own laptop. The teacher stood up, opened the door and asked Safira to leave.

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"I never cried when I used to run from pillar to post," she said. "Whenever I lost hope, I used to call my host mom, Maria Davis [in the US], who counseled me everytime that people in my country were not used to this technology and I must not give up."

Meanwhile, Safira kept giving her exams with the help of writers, which she says was very frustrating for her.

After some time, she again mustered the courage to speak to one of the teachers in her department, Dr Osama Shafiq, about the technology. "It was my second semester. He guided me to the correct path," she said, adding that she wrote an application to the then controller examinations and doesn't remember how many times she had visited his office, but never got a chance to see him.

"I used to visit his office even on my off days," she recalled, adding that the most common responses from the controller's office were that her application was with the dean's office, the controller was very busy and the application was told to be with the semester cell.

After months, she was told by the university that she needs to prove her blindness with the KU clinic.

"On my first visit to the university clinic, I was kept waiting for the entire day and no one attended to me," she recalled with a hint of nostalgia in her voice.

Then finally, Dr Yasmeen in the clinic called Safira and said that people say that "you just want to cheat." She was asked to prove her blindness.

It was not until Safira got her blindness certificate from the Aga Khan hospital and explained to her about the technology that Dr Yasmeen apologised to Safira and signed her document.

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Safira was then asked to move her application to the semester cell. After several months of visits, she was told to prove that JAWS was used in the rest of the world. For this purpose, her application was sent to the Umaer Basha Institute of Information Technology (UBIT) where the chairperson, Dr Sadiq, recommended Safira's demand legit.

"I never met Dr Sadiq but I am highly thankful for his recommendation. He made my fight with the system easy," she said.
Safira's journey was still not over. The semester cell further processed her application to the student adviser to purchase a laptop with JAWS installed on it, specifically for this purpose. The laptop was supposed to remain with the examination department and given to her during exams.

This procedure took another six months, until a staff member at the student adviser's office told Safira that the varsity would never purchase any laptop for her due to its financial crunches. She couldn't get to see the student adviser.

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She then wrote another application to the student adviser, asking him to allow her to bring her own laptop. One day, she happened to see him randomly at his office and got her application signed. "I didn't cheer up or cry because my soul was at peace," she said.

On Monday, May 21, it was Safira's last exam, 'Introduction to Mass Communication'. "Dr Shafiq was the course incharge," she said with a big smile. "It was the first time I went to give an exam without a writer."

The fight continues

UBIT Chairperson Dr Sadiq told The Express Tribune that technically, the JAWS software can be used for visually-impaired students. He said the resources can be arranged centrally or the department can install the software in computers available with them.

Meanwhile, student adviser, Dr Asim, said that it was the first time such a request came to them and they always welcome such ideas.

"Earlier, it was a perception that a student can cheat with a personal laptop," he said, adding that one can get it checked with the course supervisor before the exam. He assured that the technology can be implemented for all visually-impaired students of KU in future.

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However, Dr Shafiq said that examination and academic rules are framed by the academic council. "This is a temporary permission for Safira and the matter should be taken up by the academic council so that all blind students can be facilitated," he said.

The whole fight was not about giving exams on the JAWS software. "It is a way forward to make persons with disabilities independent," said a confident Safira, pledging to write another application when she comes back from Gilgit to implement this system for all visually-impaired students and continue her fight.

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