Shifting the mindset about the blind and technology use in Kenya

“A braille dictionary has 26 volumes and each one is quite heavy for most students to carry comfortably. A tablet can hold hundreds of books,” said Irene Mbari-Kirika, founder and Executive Director of InABLE, summing up the challenge of her organization.

InABLE aims not only to empower blind and visually impaired students in Africa with computer assistive technology but to change the opinion of the sighted world about the visually disabled use of technology.

She founded the organization after seeing a group of blind students attempting to share a braille textbook.

“Five sighted students might manage to share a textbook but when touch is involved it’s impossible,” said Ms Mbari-Kirika in an interview. She will be presenting her work as part of Mobile Learning Week, UNESCO’s flagship ICT in Education event at its Paris headquarters from 7 to 11 March2016.

“Students need braille skills for reading and writing but if they leave school with only those skills they find they are completely disconnected from the rest of the world.”

The InABLE programme works with Kenya’s special schools for blind and has 1400 students on the programme learning about and through tablet devices with screen readers and large type.

Most blind students fall off the charts after school

Her goal is to get blind and visually impaired children successfully through school and into work, to give them lifelong skills enabling them to become productive members of society whether in academia or as entrepreneurs.

“The Fifties generation went through Kenya’s blind schools and where did they go? They are not part of corporate Kenya. There may be a few teachers, a handful of lawyers but the rest just disappeared or became beggars or prostitutes. It’s a complete waste of potential.”

Key to its success is working with devices with good quality inbuilt specifications for the blind.

“Africa, like most developing countries, likes Android products because they are cheap but android is just not accessible by blind people,” she said. “If a student cannot turn on the tablet or find his or her way around inside it unaided then it is no good.”

“The challenge is to get tech companies to think about these things at the design stage. It requires a change in mindset. Often access for the disabled is an afterthought or governments just don’t understand accessibility. We are constantly educating people.”

Special efforts have been made to engage girls

“We noticed them dropping out of classes and carried out surveys. There is a psychological barrier for them to get past. They started off telling us that other girls have discouraged them or that the boys are so aggressive and take all the computers and finish all their work first. They ended up by saying that they would like to develop their own websites.”

She has seen proof that special needs children can benefit more from technology than sighted students and it is cost effective.

“A form 4 student (12th grade) needs to spend about 7000 shillings (70 dollars) on textbooks for a year. The same student who is blind and needs the same books in braille will have to spend 61,000 shillings (610 dollars) which is prohibitive. One mobile device can hold all those books and more in a digital format,” she said. “This makes the child equal as the books can be obtained at the same price as for a sighted student. With good computer skills and resources the blind child no longer needs to be in a special school."

This is the second interview in a series to highlight innovative practices in the use of ICTs in Education on the occasion of UNESCO’s Mobile Learning Week.