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DAISY Implementation in Sri Lanka

D.P.M. Weerakkody B.A.(Cey).,Ph.D.(Hull)
Professor of Western classics
Department of Classical Languages
University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka

1. The Background

The vision impaired community of Sri Lanka is mainly one of Braille readers. Braille has been the primary medium of information and instruction since the commencement of education for the blind in the island. This was pioneered by the British who introduced a residential system, in the form of the School for the Deaf and Blind, Ratmalana, begun in 1912 as a missionary school by Mary F. Chapman. A Catholic school for the deaf and blind was set up by Belgian nuns of our lady of perpetual succour at Ragama in 1935. In 1956, the Nuffield school at Kaitadi in Jaffna was opened by the Lord Nuffield Foundation,and Tamil-speaking students of the Ratmalana school were transferred there. During the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's, Mr. Rienzi Alagiyawanna and Mr. W. Rupasingha Perera founded a number of schools in remote parts of the island, thus taking special education to children of rural areas.

There are currently seventeen schools for the deaf and blind in Sri Lanka. There is also a programme of integrated education for the vision impaired which was commenced in 1969 under the aegis of the Ministry of education, based on the recommendations of the Jeane Kenmore report.

More recently in keeping with international developments, and particularly with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the emphasis has been on Inclusive Education. At present, children with disabilities are educated in government schools either through inclusion in the ordinary classroom or in special education units attached to ordinary schools. However, a number of students with disabilities continue to attend Special Schools run by NGO's and the private sector by choice or because they cannot fit into either of the above streams.

There are a number of blind graduates (mostly employed as school teachers), and many blind students are attending university courses. But many vision impaired persons still receive no opportunities for education or employment, and are confined to their homes. Even though we have had integrated education for vision impaired children for more than 3 decades, only 71% of today's adult blind community have received a school education.

Although Braille alphabets for the local languages were introduced from the earliest stages of education for the blind in Sri Lanka, There has been no large-scale production of Braille books. Residential schools produce handwritten Braille copies of textbooks for the use of their teachers and students. This is usually achieved by sighted members of the school community dictating the texts to blind teachers or senior blind students. Some Braille printing equipment was introduced during the latter part of the last century, while several organizations today possess Braille embossers which can produce Braille from computer files. However, the quantity of Braille books produced by these organizations is small, and is generally confined to school textbooks. Those blind persons who are fortunate enough to acquire a knowledge of English are able to obtain Braille magazines from abroad, while those in residential schools could read Braille books in English acquired through foreign donations.

Although many blind persons learn the use of Braille at school, most are unable to use it later. Only 41% of individuals who know Braille are able to use it. This is due to lack of Braille writing equipment and reading material in Braille. Consequently, vision impaired persons are often excluded from mainstream vocational training programmes not only because of employers' perceptions that having no sight, they are helpless, but also because vocational training materials and instructions are not available in accessible formats..

In 1966, the Sri Lanka Council for the Blind commenced the production and distribution of talking books using the original Clark and Smith players and cassettes developed by the Royal National Institute for the Blind in England. Both the players and the cassettes were extremely large and unwieldy, and did not lend themselves to convenience of transport or handling. In 1982 the Council, with funds from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), switched over to regular two-track compact cassettes, and this form of talking book has remained the standard to this day. Its main advantages are the compactness of the cassettes and the fact that they can be played on regular cassette players which are found in most homes and in the possession of many individuals.

Since 1980, the government of Sri Lanka has been providing school textbooks free of charge to sighted students, but the service was not available to blind students until 1985, when a Braille press was established at the National Institute of Education, Maharagama, in order to produce Braille versions of the textbooks prescribed by the department of Education. However, it could provide only a fraction of the material required. Accordingly, in 1998, the School for the Blind at Ratmalana set up a recording studio to produce teaching material on cassettes. In 2002 the Sri Lanka Council of Blind Graduates also commenced the production of talking books. They have concentrated on producing teachers' handbooks for various subjects, and some forty handbooks have been recorded so far. In 2000, the Sri Lanka National Federation of the Visually Handicapped commenced the brailling of the textbooks prescribed for Dhamma schools, using Perkins Braillers. By now ten books have been produced, covering grades 1-10. The Sri Lanka Federation of the Visually Handicapped, which was established in 1974, commenced their Braille library in 2001 with funds from the Sri Lanka Christian Association in London. At present there are around 125 Sinhala titles and 25 books in English, the latter consisting mainly of children's books. These titles are available to members of the Federation.

The only Braille and talking book libraries of any size in the country are those maintained by the Sri Lanka Council for the Blind. These are located in Colombo, the capital of the island. In the absence of a mail delivery service, students, even those from remote parts of the country, must come to Colombo in order to exchange their books. This means that they and their escorts have to miss one or more working days during the week, as well as incur travel expenses.

In the absence of up-to-date equipment and special paper, Braille book production has been an expensive, time-consuming and labour-intensive process. Cassette books, on the other hand, have inherent shortcomings such as the tendency of the medium and the sound to deteriorate, the lack of navigable structure, and the difficulty of repairing damaged cassettes and players. The need for a more compact, durable and easily navigable medium began to be felt, and interest in digital talking books (DTB's) produced according to the DAISY standard has been aroused in recent times.

2. Coming of DAISY

We were made aware of the DAISY standard and its advantages by Mr. Hemantha Kumara, a blind graduate of the University of Kelaniya, after returning from a Daskin training programme in Japan. While in Japan, Mr. Kumara had the good fortune to learn DTB production under Hiroshi Kawamura, using My Studio PC. During the training Mr. Kumara had produced what is in fact the first DAISY book in the Sinhala language. The message that he brought aroused interest, and Prof. Weerakkody contacted Mr. Kawamura regarding the possibility of introducing the DAISY standard and technology to Sri Lanka.

Mr. Kawamura was already involved with a JICA sponsored Distance Learning and Multimedia Education Project at the Advanced Digital Multimedia Technology Centre (ADMTC), School of Computing, University of Colombo. In March 2003 He gave a two-day seminar at the ADMTC in which he introduced DAISY playback and recording software and hardware to a select group of blind and sighted persons, from various universities and organizations of the blind. Prof. Weerakkody attended the International Trainers' Training which was held in Bangkok in August 2003, and Mr. A.J. Bernard attended the Focal Point Training in Delhi during November of the same year.

In early December 2003, Mr. Kawamura conducted a three-day workshop at the ADMTC, University of Colombo. During the first two days, training was provided to a selected group on the production of digital talking books using My Studio PC. Prof. Weerakkody had obtained ten licences through Ms. Miki Azuma and these had been allocated to various organizations for and of the blind. Mr. Kawamura brought another twenty licenses and entrusted them to the ADMTC.

On the third day, vision impaired university students were given a training in the use of the Plextalk DTB player. Thirty two of these machines had been sent to Sri Lanka by the DAISY For All project, and the students who attended this session were given one each. There was, however, no production of DTB's in the local languages as yet, and, consequently, the students had no books to play on their machines. Moreover, the distribution of the machines helped to foster the impression that hardware players were essential for listening to DAISY books. This impression resulted in initial reluctance to adopt DAISY on the part of many organizations for the blind who insisted that the books would be useless without the readers having affordable players.

Following the workshop, several organizations attempted to produce audio DTB's using My Studio PC. Most successful in this regard has been Mr. K.G. Kulasekera from the Sri Lanka National Federation of the Visually Handicapped, who has successfully produced a number of dtb's In Sinhala and English.

3. Establishment of the DAISY Lanka Foundation

At the request of the DAISY For All Project, a number of individuals representing various universities and blindness organizations met at the ADMTC on May 20th, 2004, to discuss the setting up of an organization to implement DTB production in Sri Lanka. Mr. A.J. Bernard was elected pro temp. chairman, and Mr. K.K. Kulasekera and Mr. Gunawardana were elected to the posts of secretary and treasurer, respectively. It was decided to call the organization The DAISY Lanka Foundation.

In the following month, Mr. Dipendra Manocha and Ms. Ai Kawamura came to Sri Lanka to hold preliminary discussions regarding the purchase of equipment and the focal point training. They met the ADMTC staff on July 23rd and, together with Mr. Bernard, visited the University of Peradeniya on the 24th where they held further discussions and also made a presentation entitled "Limiting Limitations", at the Arts Faculty Seminar Room. The seminar was attended by university staff and students as well as members of local human rights groups. On the 25th the visitors met the members of the DAISY Lanka Foundation at the ADMTC, and many important ideas were exchanged. The members met once again on July 23rd at the ADMTC to discuss final arrangements regarding the Focal Point Training and the purchase of computers. Additional office bearers and members of the board were also elected at this meeting.

4. The Focal Point Training

At the suggestion of Mr. Dipendra Manocha, the Focal Point Training was preceded by a two-day workshop on My Studio PC. It was held at the ADMTC on August 12 and 13, and was conducted by Mr. Bernard and Prof. Weerakkody.

The focal point training was held August 23-28 at the ADMTC. The lecturers were Mr Prashant Ranjan Verma and Mr Santosh Khare, from India, and Ms Miki AZUMA from Japan. They were assisted by Mr Dipendra Manocha from India and the two local trainers Mr Anthony Bernard and Prof D.P.M. Weerakkody.

5. Activities of the Foundation

Following the FPT training, the fifteen computers which had been purchased, were allocated as follows:

Organization: number of computers

  • Daisy Lanka Foundation: 3
  • Sri Lanka Council for the Blind: 2
  • Sri Lanka Federation of the Visually Handicapped: 3
  • Sri Lanka National Federation of the Visually Handicapped: 2
  • University of Peradeniya: 2
  • University of Sri Jayawardenapura: 1
  • Sri Lanka Society of Talking Book Readers: 1
  • CBR Unit, Women's Development Centre, Kandy: 1

The remainder of the grant will be utilized to purchase (1) one CD printer/duplicator, (2) 15 UPS's; (3) Braille embosser, (4) Screen reading software, and (5) blank CD's.

Two members are expected to attend the International Trainers' Training due to take place in Bangkok in November. With their assistance we hope to hold a follow-up to the Focal Point Training in January 2005.

In September 2004, Ms. Shinobu Takahashi of SHIA paid a three week long visit to Sri Lanka in order to observe SHIA activities in the island. She also visited some of the newly established DAISY production centres and attended a committee meeting held at the home of the DLF president Mr. A.J. Bernard, on Saturday September 4.

6. Observations and Suggestions

As mentioned above, three of the trainers came from India. In fact, the Indian experience has, provided us with an inspiration and a model, as with many other aspects of our culture. However, the differences are as significant as the similarities. India, with its long-standing experience in analogue talking book production, has had to retrain narrators and technical assistants some of whom, especially those who are older and not computer literate, have found the new experience a considerable challenge. In Sri Lanka, on the contrary, where only one organization has a talking book library of any size, it is possible to start from the beginning by training narrators and technical personnel and commencing DTB production straightaway without involving a transitional stage, retraining or analogue to digital transfer.

On the other hand, it is true that frequent power interruptions and the poor economic background of most blind persons make the computer a less viable medium than the ubiquitous battery/mains operated cassette recorder. Therefore, at least for the time being, there should be parallel production of talking books in both digital and analogue formats. The digital recording could serve as the master from which both digital and analogue copies may be made, for those requiring books in either format.

Unlike India, where retired officers and housewives provide a copious source of volunteers, we experience difficulty in finding volunteer narrators and editors. In most Sri Lankan families both men and women go to work, and educated young people prefer to find permanent employment with a view to eventual settling down, while retired officials generally take up full-time or part-time work in private establishments or non-governmental organizations. Moreover, a sample survey has revealed that our blind students prefer the entire book read by a single narrator. It will therefore be necessary to create the required number of permanent cadres of narrators and technical personnel, augmented perhaps by paid casual recruits and whatever voluntary help available. However, the creation of new jobs in the state sector is most unlikely in the near future. The possibility of recruiting young talent through the government's proposed Graduate Employment Programme is being investigated.

The training modules also need to be modified to suit local conditions. The eight-day intensive residential training programme currently implemented by DFA will be inconvenient for most working adults in this country. Accordingly, where training is provided by local trainers, the training programme in DTB production could be broken into four or more two-day workshops and held on successive weekends. This will also give participants more time to digest what they have learned. A shorter course of two-days may be sufficient for training narrators. To set up immediately a central repository of all DTB's, with a computer database and catalogue. This will not only facilitate distribution, but will also avoid unnecessary duplication.

Until reliable TTS, OCR and screen-reading software for Sinhala and Tamil are developed and Unicode or other web-browser compatible character sets for these languages are implemented, it will not be possible to produce local language DTB's consisting of synchronized text and audio. Therefore, at least for the time being, DTB production in the local languages will have to be confined to the TOC plus audio only variety. In the case of Tamil, it may be possible to benefit from work done in India; but for Sinhala, the language of 74% Sri Lankans, there is urgent need of research and development.

7. Potential Beneficiaries

The prime beneficiaries of the DAISY technology are print handicapped persons. Among them, the most important category consists of those with vision impairments, in as much as they are dependent on specialized formats to meet their informational needs. According to the report of the census of 2001, out of a total of 274,711 persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka, 69,096 have a disability in seeing. Of these, 35,419 are male and 33,677 are female.

Unfortunately, as mentioned above, there is very little accessible material in the local languages. We are confident that the single-source DTB will serve to fill this gap speedily and efficiently. Further, through the use of computers to play back DAISY books, vision impaired persons will have the opportunity to acquire basic computer skills and, hopefully, with the help of screen readers, they may be encouraged to gain proficiency in other computer applications, once they realize how useful computers are in accessing information. Such proficiency, with undelayed availability of material, will enhance their capacity to function on equal terms with their fellows, whether as students or as employees. Computer skills will also enable prospective vision impaired job-seekers to find gainful employment in areas from which such persons have hitherto been largely excluded. It is a matter of grave concern that in this age of Information Technology less than 1% of individuals who have disability have access to the use of personal computers.

Another class whom DTB's have the potentiality to serve are people with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia. The census report states that there are 69026 persons with mental disabilities in the island, of whom 37,181 are male and 31,845 are female. There is, however, no categorization according to the type of mental disability. Consequently, it is not possible to ascertain the number of persons with learning difficulties. There are currently no organizations or institutions for such persons. Children with LD attend ordinary schools and, when identified, are helped by peripatetic teachers, as is the case with most other children with disabilities. The Education System, both state and private, lacks the expertise and the capacity to deal with these children. Similarly, only 35% of adults with intellectual disability have had some kind of schooling. For those who have autism, dyslexia, attention deficit syndrome and so on little expertise is available.

Among various disability groups in Sri Lanka those with intellectual disability (due to mental retardation) are the most marginalized. ... While some of those with relatively milder manifestations of this disability may have had access to school, those with more severe forms of the disability receive no services at all. Schooling and the right to education are out of their reach because even special schools and their teachers are not equipped to help such children. For the same reasons their applications for skills development are, as a rule, rejected. They remain isolated and segregated with a poor quality of life until they have an early death. Many young girls and women of this category are subject to sexual abuse, and have no recourse to justice.

The general educational reforms of 1997 currently effective through all levels of primary schooling are conducive to the inclusion of children with disabilities in the ordinary classroom. Competency based curricula and continuous assessment are believed to be more suitable to such children than the conventional end-of-semester and end-of-year examination systems. Learner-centred and group and activity based, classroom teaching, development of practical and technical skills, co-curricular activities, counseling and career guidance, school-based management and new strategies for teacher education have the potential to benefit children with disabilities in inclusive education.

Moreover, the reforms require every child entering primary school to be assessed, with parental involvement, by both a medical officer and the class-teacher. The assessment does not encourage labeling, but rather enables the teacher to identify children with disabilities and practice child-centered teaching methods that address each child's particular problems. However, the process requires effective, appropriate and relevant preliminary and continuous training of all schoolteachers.

A 3-year course to produce Resource Teachers for Inclusive Education has been introduced at the Hapitigama National College of Education, Mirigama. The training of Special Education Teachers also takes place at the Teachers College, Maharagama, through 2-year courses. These teachers serve mostly in non-government schools. The National Institute of Education (NIE), Maharagama provides Degree and post-graduate Degree (MA) courses in Special Education. All these courses, however, concentrate on disabilities in general, so that there are no teachers specializing in any particular disability.

The manifold activities undertaken by the National Institute of Education include "preparation of teaching-learning materials to meet the special problems of school children who have disability, in keeping with the Educational reforms of 1997 and any future reforms and policies and keeping in mind that such material can be used by all children". This is one area where the advantages of the DTB could be harnessed to good effect. The special education teachers whom I consulted are confident that the DTB can enhance the learning process of students with learning difficulties, and we can learn much from the experience of other countries such as Japan in this regard.

However, it is our firm conviction that the benefits of DAISY need not be confined to the print handicapped. With the eventual perfection of electronic scripts and TTS for the local languages, DAISY will serve as the standard for e-books in Sri Lanka. The search and navigation facilities offered by the DAISY standard will make the DTB a valuable tool in the hands of students. The DTB also has the potential for taking adult education to rural and urban under-privileged sections of society such as farmers, estate workers factory workers and fishing communities. It will thus contribute to the elimination of poverty, spread of literacy, improved sanitation and higher standards of living.

D.P.M. Weerakkody B.A.(Cey), Ph.D.(Hull),
Professor of Western Classics,
Department of Classical Languages,
University of Peradeniya,
Sri Lanka.
Vice-President, DAISY Lanka Foundation.


1. Dept. of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka: Report of the Census of 2001

2. Dept. of Social Welfare, Sri Lanka: Draft National Policy on Disability for Sri Lanka, May 2003.

3. Manocha, D. and Sena, V. DAISY Report: Digital Talking Books and Their Relevance to India.

4. Perera, W.R. Dasin Datata ("From Hands to Eyes"), Colombo 2000.

5. Piyasena, K. Towards Inclusive Education Bandaragame (Sri Lanka) 2002.