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Meem, 13, takes part in a lesson at the Baptist Mission Integrated School (BMIS) in Dhaka May 19, 2010. (ANDREW BIRAJ/REUTERS)
Meem, 13, takes part in a lesson at the Baptist Mission Integrated School (BMIS) in Dhaka May 19, 2010. (ANDREW BIRAJ/REUTERS)

Canada Competes

Danish company opens documents to the blind Add to ...

Lars Ballieu Christensen was a graduate computer science student in the mid-1980s when he was asked to help two blind adults learn how to use computers at a nearby community college. The side project turned into his primary research and he eventually created the first Danish Braille translator, the genesis of his company, Sensus ApS.

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The experience working with the blind had a lasting effect on him. At the time they had gone to school, their sole choice was to enroll in a so-called “special” school where they could study only a handful of subjects alongside other special-needs students. They could become organists, for instance, but the number of career tracks were limited.

Computers must be able to provide a solution that could allow the visually impaired to study freely, Dr. Christensen thought. Denmark had just begun closing its special schools, and their students were being integrated into normal schools. But these students had little access to learning resources.

Dr. Christensen saw his opening. However, in a country as small as Denmark (population about 5.5-million), a technology startup like Sensus has little choice but to look outside its borders for markets.

The move to teach blind students in mainstream schools was part of what is now called the Scandinavian model, which aims to give all students the same opportunities. This spirit of inclusiveness is still apparent in Denmark’s current efforts to better cater to students with learning disabilities and behavioural challenges. And because of Denmark’s success integrating the visually impaired, the approach was replicated in other countries, opening a door for Sensus.

“It wasn’t at a time when everyone had a computer, an iPhone and iPad. There were no mainstream technologies that we could rely on,” Dr. Christensen remembers. “If you were a blind pupil and you were sitting in a mainstream environment, how would we make books available to you?”

He began by programming a system that allowed students to use a telephone line to download documents in Braille. But he wanted to do more. He envisioned a simple, automated system that could convert documents to any format – Braille, ebook, audiobook.

With only about 50 blind students in Denmark, Dr. Christensen needed to create programs in multiple languages to have the critical mass to continue developing. So he founded Sensus, partnered with international schools and began offering the products in English and German.

Now, Dr. Christensen has emerged as a leader in making information more accessible. Sensus programs have been implemented in the United States, Ireland, Britain, Portugal, Italy, Cyprus, Austria and Poland.

The company has moved beyond grade schools and is providing accessibility consulting and conversion software to governments, universities and libraries. Stanford University recently installed RoboBraille, its automated Braille conversion, into its intranet.

Dr. Christensen is most excited about the work he’s been doing in countries where the need is greatest. Today he is implementing the system in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Greenland.

So why would these leading technologies have come from Denmark, with such a small population of blind students? Dr. Christensen suggests part of the answer lies with that country’s technological readiness, which has sparked a vibrant technology sector.

“It has to do with the adoption of technology and the maturity of this country in that way,” he explains, adding that infrastructure such as high-speed Internet was developed very quickly in partnership with Sweden and Norway. “It has become natural for people here to use technology.”

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