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It's about Tamru Belay, not technology

by Prof Norm Coombs
EASI: Equal Access to Software and Information
Transcript from podcast series

Some people love technology for its own sake. Most of us have come to love it because it has enlarged our lives. Not only can we access more information, but it let's us reach out to new friends around the world.

For some of us playing with various technologies can be fun and challenging. For others it can be frightening and frustrating. Technology's real purpose, however, is to enable us to do things we had not been able to do before. EASI's driving passion is about empowering people and not about the technologies they use.

The following article is based on an interview with Tamru from the EASI podcast series It's about people, not technology. The transcription has been created with voice recognition. It is not 100 percent accurate (you will find minor errors).

I don't have sight. However, I have a vision!

Hi everyone, this is Norm Coombs from EASI, with part of our series It's about people, not technology. We believe that technology is not an end in itself it is a means to an end. And that technology is a tremendous tool to the lives of people in new ways. Today I would like to interview a friend of mine from Ethiopia, Tamru Belay. He has been doing some fantastic work in Ethiopia and we would like to learn about him. I take it you were born in Africa.

Yes, I was born in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is located in the eastern part of Africa, it is an old nation as you know in history. Yes, that is where I am from.

Yes, I remember Ethiopia being mentioned in the Bible in a couple of places. So you have a long history. I remember when I was growing up reading about Haile Selassie the Emperor of Ethiopia, so I'm aware that it has been around a long time. I understand that you have a vision problem. Was that from birth or was that from an accident?

I became blind when I was 10 years old due to an accident, a hand grenade, if you are surprised. Me, and a friend of mine who is blind also, in 1974 that accident came true, I feel exactly as if it were yesterday how I became blind. It was an accident when I was 10 years old and now I am 42.

An accident sounds like you were playing with one, rather than someone threw it at you.

Actually, we found it in the bush, when Ethiopia was invaded by Italian. They left a lot of ammunitions, and (inaudible) in the field, a lot of things that are not discovered yet. So when kids are playing in the bush they find these things, and also sometimes the farmers when they plow, so these things happen. Nobody threw it at us, we just found it just out of curiosity we found it and it blew up.

Did you have other problems from that besides losing your site.

Yes, my right arm is off, and I am 100% that is how I am operating my computer and everything which is all with one hand.

When I was on the phone with you I noticed a lot of jumping around your computer using JAWS pretty quickly so my guess is that you do as much with your one hand as most of us do with two. How did you get interested and involved with computer adaptive technology.

When I came to Canada in 1988, I joined the University of Waterloo, and most of my job was volunteers and readers. Of course there were some computers, and this computer was offered to me. In the first place really I was scared to touch this computer because, at that time, as you know, it was the DOS age and the sound was not clear like this, so I couldn't understand and I was confused, but I made it through and I knew that this computer can help me anytime and anywhere. I do not have to depend on a sighted person for reading and writing. So I just went to this, and that is how I came through in 1988.

So, when you were in school in Ethiopia, how did you do your schooling when you didn't have a computer.

When I was in Ethiopia, even currently, my blind colleagues depend on sighted persons to read or to write their assignments, that is how I used to depend on volunteers or sometimes paid assistants. These things have a lot of influence on a person like me who have (inaudible) so, number one you have two at the right person to read your assignment or text books. Number two, time was one of the biggest factors, the volunteers or whoever may not do it at a time that you want to, so there were many problems and many blind people including myself when I was in Ethiopia. Most of the time we depend on the old classical school aid, we try to memorize everything the whole textbook in the universities and high schools. That is why many blind people are getting into problems or drop out. So that is a problem, I still remember many of my fellows are in that situation.

So what I hear you saying is that adaptive technology really changed your life. It changed how you study and how you work, and how you interact with the world in many ways. Can we talk a little bit more on how it changed what you do and how you do things.

Yes, adaptive technology is really (inaudible) as of this technology, it changed my life. I am now able to correspond by email and writing my own documents and reading web sites, and go to school, and writing letters. Anything by myself, I don't have to wait for somebody, or my wife, or my kids, so I'd do it independently. So it is really a gift. Sometimes we may not think it, we may take it for granted. Always when I travel to Ethiopia, I choose individuals who will receive this technology through my organization. I know they appreciate, but those who do not have that chance really are in a limbo, they are always asking us, they would like to be independent. So I know how much this technology liberated me with a lot of sight problems.

You mentioned your organization and that is one of the things I really wanted to have you talk about. You went to school in Canada, but now you spend a lot of your time living back in Ethiopia. Would you tell us about your organization, how and why you started it and tell us a little bit about what it does and who it serves.

Adaptive Technology Centre for the Blind, Ethiopia

This organization is a nonprofit, and it's called the adaptive technology Center for the blind (ATCB), this organization was founded by myself five years ago, (inaudible) the previous problem as I mentioned, and I passed from the same situation when I traveled to Ethiopia with my family, I met my old school friends, and I went through universities and high schools. Still many of my blind fellows depend on the situation and they cannot take it away. some friends in some organizations also donated some computers, by the way I would like to thank those organizations if I am allowed here, freedom scientific offered me jaws for free to be installed on the computers, (inaudible). So using these good machines I went there, approached the Government of Canada on some other costs. So I in 1999 it was (inaudible). I know it was very difficult it was like building a new house from the ground. It was five years and a lot of struggle, a lot of discouragement, a lot of situations. But now, our organization was able to give training to 175 blind people, and out of them we especially give priority to blind women. I would like to stress here that being a blind woman in Africa or in European countries is a very big problem. The societal influence is a gender issue. Number two would be that being blind is a double standard. So in my organization after we give training we give employment possibilities for high school blind dropouts. We call it empowering blind women. That is the name of the project, this project has not only created training, but also blind fellows are corresponding by e-mail and Internet, whatever other people do. The second project was computerized Brailleing. Braille I would say is the life of a blind person, I would say always. To do brailling (inaudible) it takes about three to four minutes to do one book, but in my center using embrossers we are able embross or print more than 10 books. So this is a little bit about how technology is working in Ethiopian countries.

You talk about the Braille books, do you put those out in English, or I guess it's my ignorance but, what is the language in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian language is called Amharic which is derived from Hebrew, it is a very old language. Currently we are producing English books for high school and university text. We tried the Amharic Braille also, it is possible. With my research I found out last week that we could get a Braille keyboard that you can attach to your regular PC. Currently we are typing Amharic or the Ethiopia language and Braille using the (inaudible) in (inaudible) that is causing a little bit of problem for speed. And the main thing I would like to mention here is that me and my colleague, a friend of mine, we're trying to develop a new speech synthesizer called ESS, Ethiopian speech synthesizer, this technology will be displayed next month in Ethiopia by me and my colleagues. Would like to get stakeholders and donors who could support this project, so those are exciting projects coming soon.

Well, you really have your hands full with a lot of projects as I said at the beginning that the end goal is the technology itself, it's what it can do for people. What kind of opportunities have you been able to give to blind women who have gone through your empowering women project.

With regards to the empowering women project. Number one is that they have full employment possibilities, the training and also most of the blind women in the department, in the brailling Department, are handling and controlling that department at ATCB. So they are in charge of taking orders and brailling in making the books. It has a psychological impact of having a job. These one women do not have income a they stay at home, by obligations people go out on the street and are begging. This thing has eliminated to our capacity, they still have to do many things, not only (inaudible) with technology, but also to be independent, and to make their own bread (money). So this technology has made a lot of changes.

I think you're right, from what I understand to help women in underdeveloped countries is really important, and certainly being a woman and blind must be a double difficulty. And I'm really excited that you have taken this on. What is then some of the employment that you have been able to find with the male graduates.

The male graduates are divided into three parts, high school or university dropouts, male-female, the second part categories are high school blinds or university, and the last one is blind professionals, blind professionals are school age they call it Ethiopian reading and writing (inaudible), this situation is created by a sighted reader, the government employing somebody, somebody could read or write. It still has a very negative impact, the reader or writer needs to be on time, and also should be compatible. Sometimes blind professional have to lose some confidence to the person, they are not dependent, this situation really eliminates the governmental offices now. The governments are aware of this technology. When I was in (inaudible) everyone was a little bit surprised how a blind person is able to do things, nobody believed me. It takes me a while produced by medias, TV, radio, campaigning, it is possible. Finally the government was convinced to install hardware and software for the blind professional to do their own job independently. Another blind in the region had problems to access information. In the city this project was spread on the region side of the country. It was really exciting for many blind people. Like to stress here one point, since it was a one-man project I was the one running this project, there are a few individuals who'll are also behind me, still many people are interested in who would like to participate in this project the first initiative in Africa.

I am assuming that your organization is located in Addis Ababa?

Yes indeed is Addis Ababa I is the capital city of Ethiopia.

How big it is Addis Ababa, I don't even know that?

It is a very big city it is 100 years old, it is about 3 million people, so you can imagine how big it is. The African Union is sitting there and there are many international hotels there, so it is a very nice city.

Things that we should be sure that people listening to this can find your organization on the Web.

The web site is www3.sympatical.ca/tamru.

It is clear to me that I have the privilege of talking to a real pioneer and trailblazer, your work is opening up a lot of things in Ethiopia and putting a trail for other countries in Africa and I really want to congratulate you. I know you've been spending a lot of time in Canada and the United States. Searching for more contacts and information. So I wonder if before we close you can tell us what you plan to do when you get back home to Ethiopia and any other comments that you would like to make.

Yes, when I get back home to Ethiopia, I would like to give more employment opportunities to blind women. Now we have new partners in an organization called (inaudible). This organization is interested in our project. So they approved some amount of budget so that we could employ blind women. So that is our goal we will get more training and employ more blind women. I believe it will be eight women will be employed. And the final comment that I would like to give is that two years time we have produced 80,000 copies of Braille books for the use of education and other organizations.

Sorry you got bounced out a the recording room for a minute.

When I go to Ethiopia I would like to get more training for blind women, who could get employment opportunities. There's a new initiative also to increase job opportunities for blind women also, giving the technology training. So that is my main target. My other one is to import Braille, it is very difficult to buy Braille paper from the United States and Canada and should is another cost. So this seems to have a lot of influence in my activity. To solve that I was able to talk the local paper factory in India that they can produce Braille paper for us. And they gave us a sample of that which is wonderful. We're looking for a perforateing machine, I can give a shape for our embrossers. This machine will cost us about $20,000. When I was in Washington, DC I met Dr. Schneider who is a very good friend. So this is my dream to import this machine so we don't have to worry about buying Braille paper. You could buy Braille paper from a local factory and we could use this machine or perforating and giving binding lines. So that is my plan for my main dream. So that is what I would like to do in my next plan.

Thank you very much for this interview and telling us about your past and all the work you are doing with ATCB, your new visions and plans are right on and it sounds like the kind things that need to be done. And we certainly wish you all the best in which we can do more to help, and I hope our advertising brings more people to your web site. And I understand that you might be posting something on your web site where people can make donations. I urge people to go to your web site and look at it. And we will be having in other pod-cast from Ethiopia with several of Tamnu's students talking about what technology has done for them. I want to thank you and give you a final comment.

Thank you, the ATCB project and Norm for giving me this opportunity. One thing I would like to mention when I started this project I had a motto stating I do not have site but I have a vision. This vision was the man to lead me to act on this thing. It is a matter if you have site or not the vision that drives you for your final project. People who are interested in seeing our final web site, we would like everybody to donate. Now in my center we have a German lady volunteer. Anyone who would like to volunteer in my center in Ethiopia blind or sighted. Anyone in your organization who could sponsor you. You could live in Ethiopia and live off of the natural beauty you could spend some time in Ethiopia. We would like to get some volunteers who could assist us. I like to really thank you for giving us this opportunity.

About EASI

EASI, equal access to software and information, is a high profile provider in training on how to make your information technology accessible for everyone including people with disabilities. EASI runs online courses, Web conferences and has recently introduced a new podcast series.

The podcasts follow two themes:

The It's About People and Not Technology podcasts provide weekly interviews with people, some of whom have disabilities which adaptive technology has enabled them to transcend, and others who have no disability but whose lives have also been impacted through using technology.

Subscribing to these podcasts is easy and free, plus you will meet interesting people and learn about fascinating technologies.

Published: April 2006

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