How technology brings hope to the disabled

But those aspirations where cut short in 2005 when his world literally went dark. In 2005 and at the age of 50, Mr Ndahani went blind after suffering from glaucoma.

This is an eye disease in which the optic nerve is damaged and can permanently damage vision in the affected eye(s) and lead to blindness. It is normally associated with increased fluid pressure in the eye.

To many this would have been a devastating blow and indeed for a while it was for Mr Ndahani. Losing his sight at such an advanced age meant that he could no longer put his education and acquired skills to use, that is to say, he could no longer work and provide for his family.

Mr Ndahani, however, says that he is thankful that he had two priceless possessions, a wife and family that never gave up on him and his will and resolve to accept what he could not change and desire to continue living as normal a life as possible. He now works at the Open University of Tanzania (OUT) as a technologist after learning how to read and write in Braille in 2009 at the Tanzania Society for the Blind (TBS).

“What helped me was the desire to pass on the knowledge I have to others, so I decided to apply for a postgraduate diploma in Education at OUT but I could not afford to pay the tuition, when I sought assistance, someone suggested that I should apply for a job instead,” he says.

That someone was Mr Cosmas Mnyanyi, Coordinator of the Assistive Technology Unit at Open University. Among thethings that the unit has managed to introduce is a technology to assist people with visual disabilities to learn and ultimately use ICT applications independently.

With the help of Sightsavers and Tanzania Education Authority (TEA), the unit has started using screen readers and has thus far trained 15 people to become trainers of trainers (TOT) of the technology. A screen reader is a software application that attempts to identify and interpret what is being displayed on the screen (or, more accurately, sent to standard output, whether a video monitor is present or not).

This interpretation is then re-presented to the user with text-to-speech, sound icons, or a Braille output device. Screen readers are a form of assistive technology (AT) potentially useful to people who are blind, visually impaired, illiterate or learning disabled. Mr Mnyanyi notes that the country’s education system has for many years not taken into  consideration people with visual disabilities in terms of teaching methods.

“Pupils and students who cannot see suffer a lot because they are in many instances regarded like ordinary students, this affects their performances and that’s why we are keen to ensure that assistive technologies get to as many disabled people as possible,” he said.

Mr Mnyanyi further says that use of the software is relative new in the country and even fewer people know how to use it. He says conception of the idea at OUT started in 2009 but prior to that they conducted a study on students with visual disabilities who were using typewriters and observed that they had been underperforming.

“We realized that students with visual disabilities underperform because they lack the necessary learning tools and institutions lack teaching methods thus some are forced to spend years in school or colleges and others simply fail and do not continue with their studies,” he says.

The technology, among other things, will empower visually disabled individuals by enabling them to work independently, be it school work or office work. One of the beneficiaries of the technology, Mr Amon Anastaz, observes once the technology would be embraced and become common in the country, it would not only enhance the capabilities of people with visual disabilities but also bridge the educational gap between ordinary people attending school and those with disabilities.

Mr Anastaz, an Advocacy Officer with CCBRT who is also blind, says that at the moment statistics of the number of people disabilities getting access to education are vague but still shocking enough to raise concerns. He says that according to the Baseline Survey Report on Persons with Disabilities of 2008, 45 per cent of all persons with disabilities have attended a certain level of education.

As vague as it may be, it still reflects a stark reality of the situation on the ground. The report also states that less than one per cent of Tanzanians with disabilities make to tertiary education. He is of the opinion that if the Ministry for Education and Vocational Training takes the concept seriously and invests in the technology it will enable people with blindness and low vision to access information easily but most importantly it will enhance the performance of students.

“In the long run, embracing this technology fully will also assist people with disabilities in the job market. They will have that competitive edge because they will be guaranteed of fair opportunities,’ he said. But making the application a mainstream feature has its challenges. For starters, the software mostly used, Dolphin Pen, is very expensive.

According to the Country Director of Sightsavers, Dr Ibrahim Kabole, the software costs 900 sterling pounds in the open market. However, Dr Kabole says that Sightsavers has an agreement with the provider of the software and they can purchase it for as little as 110 pounds, which is still not a small amount to many.

The other challenge is that to be able to continue using the application without forgetting its usage, people with disabilities need to have access to a laptop at all times. Most of them cannot afford to possess and maintain a laptop without outside help. But Mr Mnyanyi remains optimistic and says that at the moment they as an institution want to scale up the training of trainers and other individuals.

This is because there is a serious shortage of people who are aware of the technology and during the training conducted last year, the trainer was sent in from Kenya. He says that when more and more people become aware of the application and its importance, it will start to be used in various offices and other establishments to accommodate people with visual disabilities.

“The other problem is that in primary schools we use Kiswahili, so we want to start research on how to be able to make Kiswahili users to make use of the application which is in English,” he said. As for now, Mr Anastaz says he is using the programme in pursuing his  Masters’ Degree and finds the studying experience rather satisfying and less demanding as when he was doing his undergraduate degree in law.

Then, he had to depend on someone to do the reading for him but that is now a thing of a bygone era for him. And he hopes it will soon be the same for many others like him. For Mr Ndahani, the sky is the limit  now.

...The Kilimanjaro Twins, revolutions and Granpa


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