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A CDS Personal Profile: Sajja’s journey

  • Photo: Sajja Koirala

‘Tis the season of brisk online shopping, according to retailer reports nationwide. Ever consider what it is like for someone who cannot take this online convenience or any other Internet activity for granted due to a disability? This is the reality for a UH grad student, who has, nonetheless, found her way around barriers-with determination to spare.  Enjoy this first in a CDS News series of people profiles. 

Asked to name a favorite online activity, Sajja Koirala does not skip a beat before exclaiming: “Shopping!” The UH graduate student says her most recent online buy is a collectible ceramic figurine.

An estimated 190-million U.S. consumers shopped online this year, so Sajja’s purchase would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that she has been blind since birth. The 27 year-old cannot see the computer screen, but this hasn’t stopped her from making it her portal to daily online searches of sites related to her work, her studies and a few leisure pursuits. The latter includes posting on social media accounts.

As might be imagined, it is difficult for someone with a congenital vision impairment to get around easily in the overwhelmingly visual frontier of 21st electronic information. But to hear Saia’s story is to understand that disability is no barrier to pioneering achievement when an individual’s true grit gets a little push from innovative technology and the special intervention of extraordinary mother. 

 “I am from the developing country of Nepal. My brother was also born blind and we were poor,” Sajja begins, quick to add that despite any material hardship, she was lucky enough to grow up amid a wealth of tough love meted out by a mother, who forbade self-pity as a response to vision impairment. Instead the mom encouraged Sajja to never give up on her dreams.  Sajja was inclined to take her mother’s advice. Often as a girl she dreamed of operating a computer. When she was just ten years old, an aunt obliged and presented her with a used computer. She quickly mastered the keyboard, causing a small sensation. “People wanted to come see this if this little blind girl could really type words. It was funny to get all this attention,” she says with a modest shrug.

But Sajja also endured teasing from other kids who mocked her for being different. Then there was this: there was no clear policy in Nepal for the education of vision-impaired children. Sajja says she was denied entry into nearly two-dozen schools. If it had been up to her, maybe she would have given up, but there was her mother, as always convincing to try harder and apply to one more school. She was accepted into the school, albeit on a trial basis. She passed a probationary period and she flourished. 

The low expectations of others can have a way of making you more determined to succeed, says Sajja, who began early to channel her determination into being a good student. Towards this end, she wanted to know Braille. If becoming a good student is the goal, however, Braille is helpful only if it is widely available in textbooks, which was not the case back then in Sajja native Nepal. But, still, in the spirit of forging ahead, Sajja mastered the tactile Braille code, while her Mom did the same, learning alongside her daughter and even blindfolding herself so she would better understand the intrepidness of her daughter’s journey in education.

But none of this mattered much when Internet cafes began sprouting up in Nepal. Sajja sensed from the excitement of her peers that this sudden access to the Information Highway from remote Nepal was an unprecedented opportunity for all to learn about the wider world. She was as much a part of this sea-change as she could be, sitting with friends in the new establishments, entranced by the novelty of these screens, notwithstanding slow dial-up connections. She even opened her own email account. But there was problem: she had to rely on someone to read her emails and any other electronic information.  “I can’t even begin to explain how frustrating it was,” she says. 

Nonetheless, she persevered with email correspondence. It paid off when she heard back from an Italian national who had befriended her family while traveling through Nepal. The woman was offering to cover the cost of Sajja college education—anywhere in the world. Sajja chose Leeward Community College. It would be a big leap for this teenaged vision-impaired Nepalese native who did not yet speak English. She wanted to go online for a sneak preview of what awaited her in Hawaii by Googling extensively on her own without borrowing someone else’s eyes. She used a rudimentary form of assistive technology that let her do some online exploring alone.  Not very efficient, she says of the technology, but at least she was able to make contact with the Hawaii chapter of the American Foundation for the Blind before leaving home.

That was in 2010; fast forward to 2017. Sajja has moved on to state-of the art assistive technology. She has mastered JAWS. That stands for Job Access with Speech, an assistive technology device, which converts text to simulated speech, thereby giving people with a vision disability a web experience like everyone else’s, especially when used in combination with “alternate text” description for images. Sajja credits both alternate text and JAWS for helping her keep pace with college coursework during the last seven years. She describes how easy it is use the technology: she passes the JAWS “screenreader” over the LCD display; she adjusts the simulated voice until it is not robotic in nature but utterly pleasing—just like the process of learning itself.  

With the new technology facilitating her online learning, Sajja has distinguished herself academically. She is currently working towards a master’s degree in social work at UH. Two years ago, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at UH and then she completed the 15-credit Graduate Certificate Program at CDS. As for her initial entre into higher education at Leeward Community College, she graduated in 2013, after serving in the school’s student government council and writing for the school newspaper. And, oh yes, she was also the class valedictorian—the first student with a vision impairment to have this honor at LCC. 

Asked if she could be more specific in explaining how assistive technology has impacted her accomplishments, Sajja hesitates a bit. The impact is hard for someone with sight to fully imagine, she says.  “I used to have all these fantasies about doing things others said I couldn’t. Driving was one of them. Maybe that will happen someday with driverless cars being developed now. But being able to do my own Google searches—I can do that,” she says, referring to the advent of the text-to-speech technology. “This is freedom. This is independence. This is what everyone wants,” she says.

Not having such freedom is not only frustrating to the sight impaired, it can be construed as unjust. Just how unjust it is came to Sajja’s attention in a CDS course where she learned that people with disabilities in the last century mounted protests that spurred the passage of laws ensuring they have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life, which these days definitely means having some degree of an online life.

Sajja has plenty of company these days when it comes to having an interest in the accessibility of web content. Government officials, web developers, designers, IT specialists and numerous others in media and technology professions are reacting to the update of an existing regulation, requiring all public agencies or those funded with public funds to provide people with disabilities easy access to electronic or digitally displayed information. The update to so-called Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 takes effect on January 18th of 2018.

The spirit of the law is to bring people with disabilities in from the margins of the digital world where too many have been relegated. Section 508 is legally binding and it specifies penalties for non-compliance. All of this, of course, can sound very intimidating, but it shouldn’t be. Accessibility is already built in to the latest versions of digital applications. The downloadable software is also free online (see links below). Learning to use assistive technology does take a small commitment of time but training is available.

Notably, CDS offers services in accessibility assessment and repair, video captioning, document accessibility, and accessibility training. There are some strong incentives for compliance: figures from the World Health Organization say more than 250 million people are vision impaired, preventing them from reading web content without assistance. For organizations looking to deliver anything from product information to public service messages, they are not reaching this sizeable population, if they don’t provide accessible content.

Still, even as the goal of accessibility is beyond dispute in a democratic society, the new law has raised a lot of curious questions that perhaps reflect how little mainstream society knows about the importance of digital realm inclusivity for the vision impaired. A recent controversy over a cable company’s failure to provide closed captioning for screen content prompted a question about whether audio description technology gives people with vision impairment an authentic approximation of the sensory experiences that their sensory loss precludes them from receiving directly?  In answer to this question to Sajja responds with a forthright “yes!” 

Case in point was her experience this past Summer working for the CDS-supported UniDescription Project, which is seeking to audio describe not just onscreen content but wondrous places around the world. Sajja was tapped by CDS to take the new app dedicated to audio describing U.S. National Parks Service for a trial run. She hiked with it into the splendor of Yosemite National Park in California in the company of 60 other people—all of them affected by vision impairment. They gave her feedback on the app—insider comments that will be used by researchers at CDS and UniDescription partners to improve the app and keep pace with the needs of users really in the know.

Sajja concedes that she wished she could have lingered a bit longer amid Yosemite Park’s delights enhanced by the audio description.  After all, a walk in such a park is one of those experiences deemed out of the reach of the blind by so many others. Those others have likely not encountered the don’t-fence-me-in attitude of one Sajja Koirala, who has ignited inspiration for many, including the audience which sat rapt as she gave her valedictory speech at that Leeward Community College graduation ceremony four years ago. “I challenged them,” she says with perhaps more than an echo of her mother’s tough love. “I said to everyone, `Never give up on your dreams. No matter anyone else’s low expectations, you can do what your heart desires when you persevere. Just don’t let those dreams die.”

Find free downloadable accessibility software by clicking on the following: