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March 2010

Assistive Technology

How Can Assistive Technologies Increase Learning?

Blind? Deaf? Impaired? Then in most of the developing world, this means you’re also dumb. You’re excluded from formal educational opportunities at an early age and possibly even shunned by your family and community. But this doesn’t have to be the fate of physically or mentally challenged children anywhere.

Assistive information and communication technologies can allow those with disabilities to learn and grow, indistinguishable from any other child. But we have to ask three questions about them in our context: 1. Which assistive technologies are appropriate for the developing world? 2. How might they be implemented in resource constrained environments? 3. And what would their impact be on the children that use them?

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Hidden Opportunity: Mobile Reading Solutions for the Blind

The major roadblock to accessing digital content in the developing world, where more than ninety percent of the world’s visually impaired live, are affordability and access. A more affluent, English speaking resident of India with a desktop computer or smartphone has access to much of the print disability technology and content available in the developed world. But this is not the case for the wide majority of the poor. Their visual learning is often restricted to what others care to read to them and to what content is available locally in hard copy form.

Blind and visually impaired children are at a distinct disadvantage in school without the visual aids and technology that many children in the West now take for granted. With such a high rate of adoption in the developing world, cell phones offer a potential solution to address the challenges of content access and learning for the visually impaired.

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We Need an Assistive Technology Strategy not Devices

The biggest challenge in bringing access to the digital realm to kids with disabilities in developing countries, and with it access to education and eventually employment, is the adoption of public policy and NGO strategies that are truly scalable. Traditional strategies have no chance of fundamentally changing the horrible statistics that prevail among persons with disabilities given the relatively minuscule resources available to help this community.

Right now, some initiatives run by departments of education and most initiatives run by NGOs spend some of their very limited resources on software-based assistive technologies such as screen readers or virtual keyboards that are extremely expensive. As a result, a very small minority of kids with disabilities get access to technology and then they do, they become dependent on software that they, their families, and future prospective employers cannot afford. Such an approach is just as ineffective whether one is talking about software that runs on PCs, netbooks, or cell phones since the best-known cell phone assistive technologies are extremely expensive.

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NVDA: A Competitive and Free Screen Reader

NVDA is an open source screen reader, with the ability to install on individual computers, or to run from a CD or a thumb drive. While it is over ten years behind other popular screen readers in development, in practice, the developer team is able to build on previous industry experience, as well as prioritizing […]

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What We Really Need for Students with Disabilities

In countries like Afghanistan (where I live) those without disabilities may not be able to access education. The needs of the deaf, blind and those with other disabilities (physical and psychological) are often neglected. For the deaf, communication between parents / teachers and children can be almost impossible and there is a severe shortage of sign language, braille and assistive expertise, never mind the resources to pay for them.

What we are lacking is high quality (preferably creative commons or similarly licensed) localized content for both children and adults, such as interactive video sign language courses. Often we lack localized text to speech software. Because parents often can’t afford or can’t find the resources they need to communicate with their children they often find themselves completely excluded, and such frustration can easily foster worse problems.

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Assistive Technology Must Address Extreme Poverty and Support Local Content

Children who are challenged by disability and extreme poverty face the greatest danger of being deprived of their right to education and freedom of expression. For this population, technology must not only be accessible; it must also fit within a context of severe limitations in infrastructure and income. The right solution will address the presence of numerous languages within the same region and will empower local people, disabled or otherwise, to contribute to their own knowledge and culture repository.

Technology that relies on access to grid electricity will not serve the poorest 1.5 billion people. Sadly, this barrier isn’t likely to be removed soon – the International Energy Agency predicts 1.3 billion people will remain without electricity for the next 20 years.

Alternative energy options are ideal, but one should proceed with caution, as the practical amortized cost will often exceed what is possible for consumer-sustained revenues or even for government education budgets. When an education ministry has USD 100 a year per student to split between teacher pay, books, furniture, and construction of running water and toilets, little remains for new educational technologies. Program designers need to thoroughly measure and disclose the total cost of ownership of any solution, particularly technology based solutions.

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