NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 1- Monday ; the sun casts a warm glow over Kilimani Primary School, students and teachers alike gather in anticipation of another day of learning. Among them is Mrs. Clara Wangui, a seasoned educator with a passion for inclusive education. She heads the Deaf and Blind Unit a center catering for leaners with visual and hearing difficulties.
For Mrs. Wangui, the journey toward accessibility and empowerment begins with a vision of possibility—a vision where blind students are not just passive observers of technology but active participants in its creation and use.
“We believe in the power of technology to level the playing field,” Mrs. Wangui declares, her voice filled with conviction. “With the right tools and support, blind students can excel in the digital realm just like their sighted peers.”
But how can one learn to use computers and navigate the digital world without sight? Mrs. Clara clarifies that as opposed to general belief People who are blind can use computers, phones, and other electronic devices just as much as sighted people.
“Blind learners have different ways of accessing these devices. They use what’s called assistive technology, including screen readers, refreshable braille displays, and digital screen magnification to interact with high-tech products.” Says Mrs. Clara.
Assistive technology is any hardware or software used by people with disabilities to access computers, phones, tablets, and printed materials. There are many types of assistive technology, and different disabilities require different technologies.
Desktop and laptop computers use screen readers. Software products, such as JAWS (Job Access With Speech) for Windows and NVDA (Non-Visual Desktop Access), allow users who are blind and visually impaired to navigate the computer and access most of its functions. Instead of using a mouse to navigate around the screen, people who are blind use a system of key commands to get to where they need to go.
For learners at Kilimani Primary they make use of Screen readers that are able to give audio feedback, and can be connected to refreshable braille displays.
“Refreshable braille is an electronic way of reading braille. Pins on this device pop up and can be read with a finger like hardcopy braille. Once the person is done reading a line, the pins go down and pop up again with the next line in the text.Refreshable braille displays are especially helpful for people who are both deaf and blind and cannot use text-to-speech output.” Mrs. Clara demonstrates.
For blind students like John Njuguna (11) and Nicole Achieng (13), the journey to mastering computers begins with the basics. The dedicated computer lab equipped with specialized software and assistive technologies, enables them to learn how to navigate the digital landscape through touch, sound, and intuition
“I may not be able to see the screen, but I can still use technology to access information and communicate with others.” Explains John.
“Technology has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me. I mostly enjoy playing games and the science demonstrations.” Adds Sarah.
Despite the recent advancement in ‘inclusive’ technology the cost factor has proved an impediment to technology penetration amongst learners with blindness in Kenya.
Most of the devices needed for digital literacy is way beyond the reach of most blind students especially those from financially challenged backgrounds.
“A normal scientific calculator costs around Sh1, 500 but a talking calculator for the blind costs up to Sh60, 000.“Michael Kariuki, a Technology Consultant at the Africa Inland Church’s Education Unit explains.
Other costs such as braille machines, braille papers; white stick that is needed to keep a blind child in school has worked against education access amongst this vulnerable group.
Amnesty Kenya in its recommendations to the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) Taskforce estimates that a traditional brain printed textbook costs anything to the north of Ksh.2000 compared to Ksh. 200 for a normal textbook while a braille machine costs up to Ksh. 100,000 compared to Ks. 10 for an average pencil.
Beyond the classroom; soft wares and operating systems in different machines have been designed to enable learners and other persons with visual impairment gain access to technology.
Android devices for example use an app called Talkback. Apple iOS devices use built-in software known as Voiceover, which uses text-to-speech output. Text-to-speech is essentially a synthesized voice that communicates what is on the screen.
Sadly Mrs. Clara also informs that a number of parents do not see the sense in taking their children with sight impairment through the entire education system opting to have them dropout.
“We have had a number of children who have shown great potential however, their parents failed to see what we see in their children. Some especially from slum areas cannot just afford the costs involved. “she explains.
A number of organizations have come in to support the school financially and with equipment’s however Mrs. Clara tells us that donor funds have fizzled since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic.
She however exudes confidence that with the listing of digital literacy as a key pillar of Competency Based Curriculum intentional investment will be made to improve the situation for her students.
As we reflect on the journey of Kilimani Primary School, we are reminded of the transformative power of technology to empower and uplift individuals with disabilities. By embracing accessibility and inclusion, we can create a future where all students, regardless of ability, have the opportunity to thrive in the digital age.