MANILA, July 4, 2005
 (STAR) By Alma Anonas-Carpio - This is a case of the blind leading the blind, but the results of the Computer Eyes summer camp are undeniably good now that the program is on its fourth year.

Computer Eyes is a joint project of IBM Philippines and the non-government organization (ngo) Resources for the Blind. It aims to teach blind students from the first grade to college level how to use computer programs and surf the Internet using special software.

The software, called Jobs Access With Speech or jaws, translates text displayed on the computer monitor into speech, so blind users can "read" their computer screens by listening to the text translations. Printouts of documents may also be made in braille, using a special printer that embosses braille symbols on heavy computer paper.

The computer camp brings together blind students from all over the Philippines who are referred to the program by their teachers through Resources for the Blind. Once they are admitted into the program, the campers undergo two weeks of training that covers computer training, socialization and prayer.

The training takes place at the IBM Plaza, the computer giantís headquarters located in Eastwood City Cyberpark in Libis, Quezon City. This year, 20 blind high school and college students and 10 grade school children are among the campís participants.

When we started this program four years ago, we just wanted to give way to an initiative for Resources for the Blind, an ngo that worked with schools around the country that have blind students," IBM Philippines communication manager Richard Burgos says.

Resources for the Blindís mission began with "simply to provide schools with books in braille so (blind) students who go to these schools would not be deprived of an education because they are blind and they make sure that the book translations are correct for use in our schools."

The Computer Eyes camp marked the beginning of a fruitful pooling of efforts between Resources for the Blind, which refers promising students and provides trainors, and IBM Philippines, which provides classroom space, computers and the rime of IBM personnel volunteers for the camp.

From the first camp in 2001, Computer Eyes has taken on a vibrant life of its own, Burgos says. "It has won its share of recognition and awards but its success lies in the lives of people it has touched."

The cost of the campersí travel expenses, lodging, transport and meals for two weeks is shouldered by Resources for the Blind.

What he has learned from working with the blind, Burgos says, is that "these people know how to fend for themselves. They are very self-motivated... they want to do things on their own and the camp provides many opportunities for that."

Jaws was developed by engineer Ted Henter, who learned computer programming after losing his sight in a car accident in 1978.

In 1985, Henter started his own business and founded Henter-Joyce two years later. He began developing his first screen-reader software to convert computer text to speech so people who are vision-impaired can use a computer; that program is now known as jaws for Windows.

The program "reads" onscreen text and a feminine or masculine voice (the userís choice) reads the text to the user through speakers or a headset connected to the computer. When a user types text, the software reads back the text letter by letter as the user types, thus enabling users to keep track of what they are typing. The software includes translations to 17 languages. Today, jaws is used by over 100,000 people worldwide.

The full jaws programs cost up to $1,095 and can be purchased online from Freedom Scientific. The full program comes with a jaws Basic Training CD, which contains over five hours of audio instruction to help users understand how to navigate the Windows environment using jaws.

Freedom Scientific was formed after the companies Henter-Joyce, Blazie Engineering and Arkenstone merged. Henter was named to the Freedom Scientific board in July 2002. The firmís mission is to develop, manufacture and market innovative technology-based products and services that those with vision impairments and learning disabilities use to change their world.

Roselle Ambubuyog, a blind Filipina whose story landed on the pages of Readerís Digestís Heroes for Today segment, is one of Freedom Scientificís consultants.

While the jaws software is expensive, there is a free demo program that can be downloaded from the Internet. Campers who excel at Computer Eyes get a free copy of jaws software, along with other prizes and presents given by the IBM volunteers to the camp.

In the classroom on a regular camp day, campers banter noisily among themselves while typing away at their keyboards. Some of them giggle as they chat online or use instant messaging programs like Yahoo! Messenger.

Four of the campís trainors stand out: They all navigate about the room tapping the collapsible canes used by the blind.

Burgos introduces them as the campís new trainorsĖformer campers who returned to teach the newbies attending Computer Eyes for the first time: Diana Rose Rivera, who attended the 2002 camp; Joel Rescober and Hannah Mae Aldeza, who attended the camp in 2001; and Joyce Lopez, who was at the camp in 2003.

Rivera trained under the Computer Eyes program after going blind from a kidney ailment in third year as a BS Management student at San Sebastian College. The school initially refused to re-admit Rivera, fearing her blindness would hamper her ability to meet the requirements of her course.

Taking a painful setback in stride, Rivera spent her time out of school to "learn braille and attend the computer camp". Her certification from Computer Eyes helped her return to her studies.

"Because of Computer Eyes, I learned a lot of applications and improved my computer skills," she says. "When I returned to San Sebastian to try to gain re-admittance, I proved I could meet all of their requirements, including the ones for computer accounting."

She graduated in 2004 and plans to open and run an Internet cafe.

Joel Rescober, the son of a Marinduque farmer, began gradually going blind in 1990, when he was 14 years old. His brother brought him to Manila after he went totally blind in 1998.

"When I went totally blind things seemed hopeless," he says. "Most of the time, Iíd fall into manholes." Rescober says he "learned to read Braille, do therapeutic massage and use computers" in Manila.

He was the recipient of the Most Helpful Camper award during his training and is a third year BS Computer Management student at Trinity College in Quezon City.

The camp "became my avenue to independence, particularly in my studies. We learned how to use jaws and it has helped us."

With a good-natured shrug, Rescober admits that blindness does make life more challenging but, challenges aside, he likes to engage in sports such as the shotput and javelin. His latest passion is "working to excel in chess because I want to (make) the school team".

Now that he is back as a trainor, Rescober is "excited and my heart is really there because I really want to help the campers. I can see myself in them and it feels good to teach them because my teaching comes from the heart".

He adds, "We share with them how we adjusted, we share our experiences and we can relate with them because we are also blind."

His plans are to "first finish my degree and take all the training I can to improve myself, grab those opportunities" because "if you make the most of your opportunities, you can fulfill your dreams."

Hannah Mae Aldeza was blind from birth, delivered prematurely because her mother had a tumor in the uterus. The massive doses of oxygen administered to her at birth saved her life but caused her blindness.

Aldeza attended two camp sessions, one in 2001 and another in 2002. In 2001, Aldeza won a cash prize and a computer for her school for being that yearís best camper. She is an incoming sophomore at the STI College and is working towards a BS Computer Science degree.

Petite but plucky, Aldeza enjoys an early start in computer use: "When I was younger, I was already interested in computers. I asked people at home to teach me how to use" the computer.

"Computer Eyes helped me become independent and inspired me to go on to college," she says, reminiscing that "once, I was the one eager to learn, now I am eager to teach and the campers are the ones who want to learn. I feel great joy when the campers understand the lessons we teach."

Joyce Lopez, like Aldeza, was a premature baby blinded shortly after birth because the hospital staff did not shield her eyes from the bright incubator lights.

She is a second-year BS Theology student of the Wesleyan Bible College in Pasay City and she is training to become a Protestant minister.

"The computer camp really helped me a lot," Lopez says. "Before I attended the computer camp, all my school requirements or assignments were done by my mom, who had to research and surf the Internet for me. After the camp, I gained independence in that I could research on my own."

Sighted people also stand to benefit from the Computer Eyes camp training of blind students, Lopez adds. "Sighted people around me will find it easier to work with me and give me work."

The lasting impact of this computer camp, Burgos says, covers everybody who is part of the program.

After almost two weeks of training, the campers are confident, sociable, poised and independent. They work without supervision, speak with self-assurance and find their own way around their environmentĖthe classroom, canteen and bathroomsĖwith minimal assistance from sighted companions, if at all.

IBM personnel, especially Computer Eyes volunteers, have learned how to interact with the blind. They pass around Resources for the Blind leaflets that dispense advice for how the sighted can interact with the blind. The volunteers treat their charges with respect and equality, kindness and candor.

Outside the classrooms, elevators and signs throughout the IBM Plaza show that the Computer Eyes program has left its mark: All of the signs have translations in braille.

If this summer camp has improved the lives of its blind beneficiaries by opening up a world of opportunities and skills to them, these visually-impaired people have touched the lives of IBMís volunteers and altered the very space in which they work.

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Resources for the Blind may be reached through tel. 726-3021 to 24, or email info@blind.org.ph. To download the free jaws demo software or read more about jaws, visit www.freedomscientific.com

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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