Kenya, inABLE schools for the blind and visually impaired students

According to the World Bank, there are at least 1 billion people around the world living with some form of disability, 80% are located in the so-called developing countries. These data point out that disabled people are exposed to a long series of limitations and abuses due to their status. This happens especially in countries where social protection and health services are weaker. From difficulties in finding a job to a higher risk of being physically abused and raped; from social exclusion to various types of discrimination. It is also estimated that 90% of children with disabilities, living in developing countries, do not attend school. This results into a very low literacy rate, 3% for men and only 1% for women.

Africa is now aware that indifference and marginalization are not the solution to this problem and that this does not pay off either in terms of economic growth or improvement of society. However, if politics is not going to take action, then private institutions will. inABLE is a non-profit organization located both in the USA and Kenya, it works in the field of digital inclusion and acceptability, a field where no one, not even disabled people, can fall behind. The first virtual event, Inclusive Africa Conference 2020, will take place in October. The aim is to raise awareness of the needs and rights of disabled people to access digital information and remote education which is currently inaccessible. At least 500 participants are expected to be connected from all over the African continent.

We spoke about it with Irene Mbari-Kirika, founder and executive director of inABLE, whose mission is to provide African schools with a technology suitable for teaching to young blind and visually impaired students. Mbari-Kirika explained us the ongoing project, the challenges and the results achieved.

Miss Irene Mbari-Kirika, what is the Inclusive Africa Conference and what is the expected result from the event?

Last March, after six months of planning inABLE had to shelf the in-person Inclusive Africa Conference due to Covid-19, and quickly pivoted to an online webinar series that attracted hundreds of attendees and received favorable reviews. This momentum and enthusiasm to promote digital accessibility in Africa led to the first-ever virtual Inclusive Africa Conference 2020 taking place on 8th and 9th October.

The theme of the conference is promoting digital accessibility in Africa and our objective is to advance digital accessibility and assistive technology in Africa through knowledge sharing of regional and global best practices in implementing accessibility standards, policies, and programs, and to influence government and private sector investments in inclusive design and digital accessibility.

How the idea of founding inABLE was born?

A genuine request for Braille books at a small rural library opening in 2008 in Thika Town, Kiambu County, Kenya, led to the creation of inABLE Computer-Labs-for-the-Blind program. It was a group of engaging blind students who mentioned to me that their learning was limited by a lack of Braille books. It’s important to understand that the blind and visually impaired are a neglected group in Africa, especially children. Educational opportunities are many times scarce, and where they exist, are chronically underdeveloped and underfunded.

This injustice inspired me to design a computer technology-learning environment for blind and visually impaired students in Kenya to ensure that these smart blind students could use computers to access unlimited educational resources. With the exception of inABLE students at six special needs schools for the blind, most blind students graduate with only Braille skills to enter a world that is completely oblivious to Braille.

Today— a decade later—inABLE continues to improve and expand its Computer-Labs-for-the-Blind program, while also working to break down inaccessible digital barriers by organizing live and online Inclusive Africa events that highlight global digital accessibility “best practices” that put people with disabilities at the center of inclusive design to ensure everyone can access online information.

Irene Mbari-Kirika with some inABLE computer Labs for The Blind students at the Thika Primary School For the Blind

Why is it so important to overcome without delay digital exclusion among people with disability?

Sadly, people with disabilities (Pwds) are among the most vulnerable, facing multiple forms of exclusion linked to education, health, gender equity, and social inclusion. It should be a given that every business and public service organization consider how people access a website and ensure its availability to all groups. This forward-thinking digital accessibility mindset can open virtual doors to all people, rather than a select few.

For many Africans with disabilities, these digital services and products are just not accessible; they were never designed for all people. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – when people were asked to go online to access vital public health information and remote education–only served to entrench the pre-existing systemic inequalities in the inclusion and protection of Pwds.  As countries work toward managing learning continuity while protecting the safety and well-being of learners, learners with disabilities face a higher risk of exclusion in these circumstances.

Today more than any other time, web accessibility for all needs to be urgently addressed, which is why inABLE is bringing global accessibility experts to Africa, via an accessible online platform with live captions and sign language interpreter, to kick start ICT digital accessibility policies and action.

How many people live with some form of disability in Sub-Saharan Africa?

According to World Bank, there are approximately one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, living with some form of disability, and disability prevalence is higher for developing countries and 80 million in Africa. It is estimated that approximately 1 in every 10 children in the world has a disability. Besides poverty and prejudice, the lack of access to assistive technology is a major barrier that restricts children with disabilities to access education and to participate in the community. For many children, assistive technology represents the difference between enjoying their rights or being deprived of them. However, in many low-income countries only 5–15% of those who need assistive technology are able to obtain it (UNICEF).

How many schools, children and teachers are involved into the inABLE project?

To address the basic computer skills gap between the blind and sighted in Africa, inABLE has currently eight assistive technology computer labs in six schools for the blind in Kenya. The inABLE’s technology program is effective because it provides everything required, including setting up assistive technology labs and providing basic skills training that are critical for students to independently operate the devices and take advantage of online content. We install the infrastructure, computer furniture, hardware, software, and accessories in each of the assistive technology labs. We have currently enrolled more than 8,000 blind and low vision students and teachers; provided more than 35,000 hours of assistive technology computer skills training; recruited, hired and trained 15 assistive technology instructors.

Our aim is to establish at least 50 inABLE Computer-Labs-for-the-Blind program sites in special schools for the blind across East Africa to serve at least 10,000 visually impaired students. This will increase inABLE’s capacity to provide quality assistive technology training to blind children by 50% within five years.

Peer to peer session in the computer labs of one of the six schools for the blind in Kenya

Can you give some example of how the program works?

Every day inABLE computer instructors witness demonstrable ways that our blind and visually impaired students benefit from computer-technology education. Thanks to these assistive-technology computer labs, eligible students are now able to access online educational resources and research homework assignments, communicate worldwide, use social media, host blogs and develop employable skills like coding (HTML), application testing and web design. Such skills provide a solid foundation, and a more level playing field, to prepare blind and visually impaired students for post-graduation employment and educational opportunities.

Nancy Muthoni is among an advanced group of totally blind inABLE students who are learning HTML and Java programming. Computer coding teaches problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, math and collaboration. Watch video

John Brown was born visually impaired and an Albino. His parents are farmers based in Western Kenya and have eight children, two of whom are challenged by blindness. While John is not fully blind, in time, he will be. His eye eyesight continues to diminish. The inABLE computer program helped him to develop confidence in himself; now with ample knowledge of computers and access to Internet resources, John is presently studying at university and credits the program with improving his confidence. He is currently in the process of developing his own website to highlight the challenges of persons with disabilities and also offer solutions.  Watch video

What is the approach if a student has more than one kind of disability? 

Over the last 11 years we have been working with a number of partners towards empowering the blind and visually impaired with assistive technology. Our programs have been tailored to the blind and visually impaired. However, many of our students have multiple disabilities that require different adaptions and accommodations to address their individual learning needs.

For example, in 2014 three computer lab students were visually impaired, but could not hear, while another four students were totally deaf-blind. With the help of their inABLE instructors their computer lessons were modified to address the needs of both the blind and deaf. The normal lesson that typically lasts 30 minutes was not sufficient for these students because the Computer language-English-Deaf Sign (CED) required more time. This reworking of the computer-lab program gave the computer instructors a new appreciation for the value of sign language, as they became the students learning sign language guided by qualified trainer.

Is the program only implemented for basic education?

We currently work with primary and secondary school students. However, we are currently developing a Tech Hub program where we envision equipping the high school graduates with technical computer and programming skills in order to make them employable and give them financial freedom.

There are countries particularly advanced in giving disable students, chances to follow special program, like yours, and that are ready to cooperate?

Only a small fraction (11%) of special schools for the blind across East Africa are providing ICT training to their students, which further expands the digital divide and marginalization of blind people. In a world that is increasingly being shaped and driven by information and technology there is an urgent need to address this situation.

The Kenyan Government has made commendable progress in terms of improving inclusive technology, but we still have a long way to go and I believe to make this possible governments need to collaborate with the private sector. Recently, the Ministry of ICT in Kenya gazetted the National ICT Policy. I absolutely commend the ministry for formulating a very inclusive strategic approach that makes a tangible emphasis on accessibility of technology for people with disabilities.

Is your project and your technology brought even in other public spaces, such as public offices, hospitals, etc.?

Initially the inABLE Computer-Labs-for-the-Blind program was anchored in a classroom with desktop computers. Then as technology changed and mobile laptops and devices became available and part of the curriculum, inABLE was able to demonstrate how blind youth operate computers to extend their learning beyond books at public awareness events.

Today, the coronavirus pandemic has affected educational systems worldwide. Our special-needs students have been sent home due to school closures. For most of them, learning stopped. To address this disconnection, inABLE has partnered with Google, the Department for International Development (DFID), and the Ministry of Education to pilot a homeschool learning project that was set to distribute 40 Chromebooks laptops and headphones to 22 students, 10 interns and eight teachers from four special schools for the blind in Kenya.

What is the best success of inABLE and which one the bigger frustration and/or in success?

In the early days, success for me was all about expanding the computer program to all the 16 special schools for the blind in Kenya, and then scaling the program to other African nations. However, I soon experienced a greater purpose as I watched how learning basic computer skills gave blind students a new more life vision. As they begin to access digital information and communicate with the outside world, they gain hope and enthusiasm for their future.

While on an operational level our success is measured in the number of blind and visually challenged youths who can use computer assistive technology to improve their educational outcomes and acquire vital employable skills, it’s the independence and self-sufficiency they gain that is most appreciated.

For example, at age of 16, Valerie Olesia Busaka lost her sight in the right eye and had low vision in her left eye after a life-saving brain tumor operation. At first, she was grief-stricken by what vision she lost. Today, this inABLE computer lab graduate inspires young people as a student leader and mentor. Her leadership skills earned her the Congressperson for Special Needs Students’ position.

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