Soundarya Pradhan's website for blind chess players
The main problem that blind players face when preparing for the chess games, is the lack of tools and resources that are available. They struggle with technology because of their inability to access some of the content which sighted people can easily do so. For big organizations who produce chess tools, tweaking the features for visually impaired players becomes financially unviable. This is the reason why Soundarya Pradhan, who is 100% visually impaired, decided to take things in his own hands. He has built up his own website, which solves a very specific problem for blind chess players. What is it? Know more about it in the article. Soundarya also received Rs.33,000 from ChessBase India and its viewers for his efforts and to develop his website further.
Chess is not just a sport, it's a social tool
Chess is not just a sport, it is a fantastic social tool. It binds people together and empowers them. If you think about it deeply, it is the only sport where the visually impaired can fight on equal terms with sighted people. When a visually impaired player faces a sighted individual in chess, no change in rules are required. Only the equipment needs to be changed a bit. A visually impaired chess player needs a braille board, everything else remains the same. It does not come as a surprise that visually impaired players who have succeeded at chess, have also seen a surge in their confidence levels in other areas of life.
Take the example of Mr. Charudatta Jadhav - the current President of AICFB (All India Chess Federation for the Blind) and IBCA (International Braille Chess Association). Charudatta Jadhav was born with normal vision but when he grew up he slowly started to lose his sight. This affected his confidence tremendously and he could no longer feel at ease when interacting with sighted people. Because he had experienced the life of being sighted, when blindness befell upon him, it affected his confidence. That's when Charudatta turned to chess.
Working on the game and improving at it, he was able to find a medium to gain back his confidence. Every victory at chess against sighted players made Charudatta believe that disability would not come between him and his goals in life. Very soon, he achieved his FIDE rating, the first Indian visually impaired player to do so. In 1997 he formed the All India Chess Federation of the Blind and has been responsible for the growth of blind chess in India over the years. Things did not end there. Charudatta's confidence which had risen thanks to chess helped him to become the head of Accessibility Centre of Excellence in TCS. He also has a Ph.D in computer science and also the current president of IBCA (equivalent of FIDE in blind chess!) It's amazing how chess managed to instill confidence and belief in a young boy who had seemingly lost hope in life.
The problem faced by visually impaired chess players
Once we understand why chess is such an important tool of self improvement for visually impaired chess players, you realize how critical it is to ensure that the right tools are given to them to get better at the sport. One wonders - how do chess players improve at chess? How do they work on the sport when they cannot read the books, nor see what is on the computer screen? This is where a screen reading software comes to the rescue. A screen reading software like JAWS or NVDA helps the visually impaired to move the cursor via their keyboard and read out the words that are touched upon on the screen. With regular training and repetition, you can see the blind chess players becoming more and more comfortable with the sound of the screen reading software. Here's a video that gives you an idea as to how the blind chess players navigate the information on a computer or a mobile screen. Sit tight, their speed might just blow you away!
While the screen reader does a wonderful job of empowering the visually impaired people, there is a very specific problem that chess players face. Let's have a look at the ChessBase screen:
The screen reader would do a good job of reading through the menus at the top and also the tabs at the right as well as the notations. What it fails to do is to tell you exactly where the pieces are on the chess board. It does not read out that the white king is on g1 and the queen is on b3. Because of this, visually impaired chess players always face difficulties when a new position is given to them. It's true that in the above case, the game starts from the initial position, and hence they can play over the moves one by one to reach the current board position. But sometimes, these moves are not available. It would help if the screen reading software would read out position of the pieces on the board. While this is a problem right now, Soundarya Kumar Pradhan, one of India's top visually impaired chess players (Elo-1746), decided to find a solution to it.
When you click on Copy Position button, it copies the FEN (Forsyth–Edwards Notation). The FEN of the above position is r5k1/3q1pp1/pp2rnnp/4p3/P2P4/1QP1BN1P/5PP1/3RR1K1 b - - 0 21. Now all you have to do is paste the FEN in the dialogue box of Soundarya's website and this is what happens!
For building something valuable Soundarya not only received Rs.15,000 from the ChessBase India Foundation, he also received Rs.15,000 from Ayushi Sharma and Rs.3,000 from Sanjeevan Pathak. Both Ayushi and Sanjeevan are viewers of ChessBase India YouTube channel and they were impressed by Soundarya's work. At the same time they wanted him to use the funds to improve his website further.
Speaking to ChessBase India, Soundarya said, "I would like to thank ChessBase India Foundation, FIDE and Nihal Sarin for their generosity. I would also like to thank Ayushi Sharma and Sanjeevan Pathak for their contribution. With this fund of Rs.33,000 I intend to improve the quality of my website. These are the plans I have:
1. I will get a domain of my own and shift the website to it.
2. I want to make it easier for blind chess players to watch games from the ChessBase software. It is not much of an issue if the game has just one main line from beginning to end, but it turns out that for now, there is no perfect solution to watch the games with a jungle of variations full of comments.
3. The only screen reader that interacts with any ChessBase software to a reasonable extent is JAWS, which costs as much as a good computer. I want all major screen readers, including the open sourced NVDA to be able to interact with the software. This may require the development of some addon for the screen reader, or, if the situation is more complicated than that, which I am not able to estimate with my current knowledge, I would like to speak and assist ChessBase programmers to carry out some changes in their code for their next release.
4. I would like to make chess materials like books and videos accessible for the blind. This may require me to buy the books or obtain certain permissions to make changes. And the amount of work needed for this is something that I cannot completely do on my own.
5. I would like to create features like puzzle rush or Tactics Sprint. It is actually not possible for a blind person to solve puzzles in a couple of seconds like sighted people can on the internet, but at least I would like to make it as accessible as possible."
We wish Soundarya the best in his endeavour to improve the current state of chess world. We, at ChessBase India, will support and help him in order to bring about a change! A huge thanks to all the viewers who have supported him and encouraged him in his journey.
Previous ChessBase India coverage on Soundarya Pradhan:
Articles on Soundarya
Soundarya wins silver medal at the World Juniors 2018
The story of Soundarya Pradhan by his brother Prachurya