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'My world has changed'

A trail-blazing Durham college is opening up the web and IT learning to blind people using a talking software package, reports Sebastian Lander

For blind and partially sighted adult learners at Royal Corner computer learning centre in County Durham, a talking software package is opening up a whole new world.

The learning centre is part of Bishop Auckland college and runs information technology courses for the local community in the town of Crook. Every Friday, visually-impaired adults aged 25 to 74 attend Royal Corner for one-to-one tuition and support, to gain nationally recognised qualifications in IT.

The centre started IT courses for blind and partially-sighted people more than two years ago, says manager Alan Skinner.

"One day the door opened and a man walked in and said, 'I'm 70 years old, totally blind and partially deaf. Can I do a computer course?" Alan's immediate reply was: "no problem".

"It was the first time a blind student had come into the centre and I thought I don't know how we do it but we will."

Royal Corner began as a learndirect venue providing learning materials for sighted students but not for those with visual impairments.

Alan introduced specialist screen-reading software called Jaws which guides partially-sighted users around the computer using voice commands.

The software reads information on screen out loud to the user. Every time they press a key, Jaws informs them what command has been made or what application is open. If the user is word processing, Jaws repeats back each word immediately after it has been entered.

According to the group, apart from physically switching the PC on, the software makes a computer 90 per cent navigable.

Each student has additional support for up to 90 minutes from tutors Malcolm Cummings and Joan Moss. "Originally, we had everyone working at once with earphones, but we found it was too disruptive as it was earphones on, earphones off," says Alan.

Malcolm and Joan read out instructions or sentences from the workbook, which learners follow on the keyboard, assisted by the voice of Jaws. This allows them to work at their own level and pace while giving them the opportunity to work independently of the tutor when they choose.

For many of the learners, the work of the Royal Corner centre has put real purpose back into their lives, says Alan. "The ultimate goal is independent learning for these students. I want people to enjoy, learn, to progress.

"But it also benefits them on the social side too as they have time to meet other visually impaired learners. So many people out there are not engaging with the world at all. I think it's opened up the world again for them and given them the confidence to do things for themselves."

Jim Welch, 56, is a prime example. He was already wheelchair-bound when four years ago, a stroke left him blind. "My world totally collapsed," he says. "What got me most was not being able to write anymore, as I used to keep a daily diary."

Not one to be beaten, Jim bought a laptop and joined the learning centre last October, enrolling on a City and Guilds accredited touch-typing course.

"From that point, my world changed," he says. The course gave Jim the confidence to go onto the web, where he found a community of worldwide screen reader users eager to share their experiences.

Jim joined a community web group, the accessible friends network, set up to improve the life of visually-impaired people using the internet.

"We do crosswords online, quizzes, play chess, share our experiences of being blind and help each other to use Jaws," he says. "It's such a powerful thing when you get onto the web, the world's a smaller place."

Jim also chairs the Blind group (Blind Life in Durham) and thinks courses such as these can provide a route to employment for the visually impaired.

"A younger blind and partially-sighted person with lots of computer experience using Jaws can leave a sighted person standing," he says.

The man responsible for the course is 74-year-old Gordon Nattrass, who is blind and partially deaf. In 2005, Gordon won an award from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education learner award.

"The course is ideal for people like me, whose education was minimal," he says.

"I knew very little about computers but eventually everybody will need to be able to use them and blind people are way behind with this sort of thing.

"I hope to be able to go onto the web and there are lots of things at home like accounts and records to be put onto the computer. I'll soon get around to that."

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