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Hi-tech harvest

These days, the banana boats of the Caribbean carry a more valuable crop - computers. Bound for blind and visually impaired pupils on the islands, they are opening up a whole new world. Graeme Ewens reports

Eleven-year-old Piesha Paul skips as confidently as her classmates across the dusty grass between buildings at the TN Kernon school in St John's, capital of Antigua. Then she feels her way through the door of the unit for the visually impaired, where she settles down in front of a desktop computer to practise her spelling and composition.

Piesha, who has been blind since birth, is in a familiar place writing stories about her family. She uses a school computer whenever she gets the chance. In most developing countries, children have little or no access to a computer at school. But blind Caribbean children such as Piesha are leapfrogging the technology gap and joining the information society, thanks to the Regional Computer Services Initiative, set up by the UK charity Sight Savers International (SSI). With Computer Aid International (CAI) and the Caribbean Council for the Blind (CCB), they are helping to supply each child with a specially adapted PC.

The prevalence of blindness and low vision in the Caribbean is almost double the rate in Europe as a result of poor diet and genetic susceptibility to glaucoma. There are an estimated 720 blind children in the English-speaking Caribbean and, where they have access, they are learning keyboard skills at a young age. The computers are used primarily for handling text documents, which can be printed on Braille and ink printers, enabling teachers to read results simultaneously with their students. Screen-reading software speaks aloud the words on the screen and magnifiers can enlarge print for the partially sighted.

"I use the computer to type words and stories about myself and I write about my little baby sister," says Piesha, smiling at the thought. "The computer talks to me and I can ask to use it when I want to. Without the computer I do Braille. I do maths, science, English language, social sciences and spelling." Piesha rides a bike and plays several sports, but enjoys using computers the most.

Twelve children attend the unit, where headteacher Sonya Osborne was sponsored by SSI to study at Birmingham University in the late 1980s for a BPhil in special education for the visually impaired. "We are part of the regular school but this unit starts at 8am - an hour before the regular school. The children can spend some time on the computer before they go to class and sometimes they are able to teach themselves."

The first shipment of recycled PCs arrived in the Caribbean on a banana boat in October 2001; since then, 335 computers have been delivered to 10 English-speaking islands. The donated machines have been stripped down, data-wiped, refurbished and tested to strict standards at CAI's north London headquarters. None is more than four years old, so they have plenty of life left in them.

"Any non-profit organisation in a developing nation can have any number of PCs," says Tony Roberts, executive director of CAI. "On receipt of payment the consignment will be packaged and on board a ship within three weeks." These machines have been paid for by SSI and shipped from Portsmouth by Geest Line, a major sponsor, on the ships that bring Windward Islands bananas to Britain.

The lush, mountainous island of St Lucia is thick with banana trees. In a roadside house among the plantations at Foresti re, lives Akim Fevri re, a bright, enthusiastic 13-year-old suffering from congenital cataracts. He has just started his second term at Bocage secondary school, which is expecting a shipment soon. "Last year I used the computer at the St Lucia Blind Welfare Association to do my homework and we had lots of fun," says Akim. "It is difficult for me to read books, but if I had a computer with a screen magnifier it would be no trouble."

The adaptive software for screen reading, magnification and text scanning is installed by the CCB, but it is expensive. CAI is beginning to address the issues involved in sharing software designed for disabled users. Last December's World Summit on the Information Society declared: "The use of ICT in all stages of education, training and human resource development should be promoted, taking into account the special needs of persons with disabilities."

But CAI and SSI believe the declaration isn't forceful enough in recognising ICT as the driving force behind a fully inclusive society. Conrad Harris, regional training co-ordinator for the CCB, sees access to technology as essential. "If blind people cannot use computer technology they are going to be left behind. Computers offer a great possibility for equalising the opportunities," he says.

Shereen Gordon, a peripatetic teacher at the Salvation Army school in Kingston, Jamaica, explains how low expectations of blind children need challenging and how computers can help promote the cause for education. "Even some of the parents do not believe blind children can do well, so they don't push them," she says. "They have to pay school fees so they prefer to pay for the sighted ones first."

In Trinidad, Mr Harris discusses training with Francis Khan, a "semi-retired" computer specialist and enthusiastic net surfer who is helping to set up a computer laboratory at the Santa Cruz school for blind children. "I have been working with computers for a long time, since the 1980s, and now I consider it is payback time. So I am offering my services to the school to help train the trainers."

Mr Khan and Mr Harris, both of whom are blind, discourage trainees from using a mouse, and prefer low-vision learners to switch off their monitors and listen to the screen reader. They agree that the use of specialist software should be integrated with the teaching of programs such as Microsoft Word, Excel and Outlook Express, using the screen reader and keyboard to find their way around in these applications.

That is how Janelle Findlay, aged 22 and virtually blind since birth, picked up her basic computer skills at Santa Cruz. She is a calypso singer and entertainer who uses computers for a variety of purposes, including email and net browsing. "I sing and write a lot of my own compositions. I need programs to help my music compositions and to make a demo," she says. "Also, I write poetry and I broadcast two radio programmes each week."

Janelle voices a sentiment common to many PC users. "I would like to use computers to go into areas I know nothing about and maybe discover another side of me."

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