A gateway into computer literacy for the Lake District’s visually-impaired population

SLSBWho are they?
SOUTH LAKES SOCIETY FOR THE BLIND.

Where are they?
Kendal, Cumbria.

What do they do?
Provide support and services for people with a visual impairment.

How big are they?
Fewer than 10 staff, but 170-180 volunteers.
Turnover circa £200k

What did they receive?
9 Office Professional Plus suites.

The outcome?
Office software available on laptops being loaned for free to computer novices with a visual impairment.

From Kendal, at the South East corner of the Lake District, the South Lakes Society for the Blind provides support and services for residents of the local region who have visual impairment.

Currently, around 600 people are being helped by the charity. Charles Ely, the SLSB’s Technology Adviser, has a very 21st-century role – to use his expertise in IT to provide training and to demonstrate how technology might support and enhance users’ lives.

“If you think about it,” Charles explains, “for somebody with no sight at all – to take an extreme example – a computer provides the means by which they can communicate exactly as a fully-sighted person does. It’s not like Braille. If you receive an email from a blind person, you won’t have a clue that they’re blind. Likewise, shopping online is the same experience.”

As ever, there’s a huge variation in user skills amongst the client base, which is demonstrated when Charles pauses to take a call. Marion is 88, completely new to IT, and her printer cartridge has run out for the first time. Charles makes an appointment to visit her at home the following week to show her how to fit a replacement.

For users like this with a low level of computer expertise, the SLSB provides the specific hands-on help that is largely unavailable nationally. This is an area that is being enhanced by the charity’s purchase of laptops via a lottery grant, and the donation of Office Professional suites via the CTX programme.

“We loan the laptops out for two months at a time,” says Charles, “so that the recipient can become familiar with computing and start to get to know the software. We help them along with it, then after that period they are able to decide whether to spend money on their own computer.”

Before they’re sent out, Charles installs each laptop with specialist software designed to help visually impaired people, along with the MS Office products that are found in workplaces across the country. The Office products are particularly important. “Screen readers work far better with MS Office than with OpenOffice or some other software,” he explains.

If the Microsoft/CTX programme can help to get previously computer-illiterate people with vision impairments trained up on industry standard software such as Microsoft Office, then everybody will benefit. And there’s no reason to believe that the laptop loan scheme won’t be a roaring success. The SLSB has been going strong since 1956, and has amassed a network of 180 volunteers across the region. That seems an awful lot for a small charity with a single figure staff count. “Yes,” confirms Charles. “We’re extremely proud of that.”

 
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