Bridging the digital divide for blind people

Saturday November 21 2009

Ms Mbari-Kirika of Our Reading Spaces, envisions a future when blind people aren’t discriminated against in the job market due to lack of computer skills. Photo/DENNIS OKEYO

Ms Mbari-Kirika of Our Reading Spaces, envisions a future when blind people aren’t discriminated against in the job market due to lack of computer skills. Photo/DENNIS OKEYO 

By PHILIP MWANIKI

The digital era seems to have left blind people in Kenya behind. Many of them still rely on the age-old braille equipment to read and write and miss out on the opportunity to access the wealth of information available online, made possible by the computer.

Some complain of discrimination at the workplace because they lack computer skills.

But if Irene Mbari-Kirika’s realises her vision, a number of young blind people will soon be let into the new virtual world disability has long shut them out of.

“I want to bring to a stop the era where blind people are discriminated against in the job market because they are not conversant with computers,” says Ms Mbari-Kirika.

Reading materials

“The amount of resources available online is immense even for blind people but they cannot access such because nobody seems to want to help them be tech-savvy. When it comes to reading materials, the children do not have enough and a book is shared among five students.”

Ms Mbari-Kirika and Our Reading Spaces (ORS), the non-for-profit organisation she founded, are running a programme which aims to equip schools for the blind with computers installed with a software which enables the students to operate the machines.

The magnifier software reads out any information or command to the user. All the user has to do is master the keyboard and other simple commands to operate the machine.

With help from corporates like Coca Cola and Access Kenya, ORS has in the past donated 30 computers to the Thika School for the Blind.
Corporate organisations

“A refurbished computer and its accessories goes for Sh20,400 and I have been lucky to have friends who contribute to the foundation and also the few corporate organisations that have come on board providing free Internet services and some computers. The computer must not be more than two years old,” says Ms Mbari-Kirika.

Thirty-nine students and 17 teachers have either been trained or are currently undergoing training on how to use the computers and Ms Mbari-Kirika says the excitement among the students is overwhelming.

She is so passionate about the project that not even the global recession which saw her laid off from her job last September will dampen her spirits. She has since decided to concentrate fully on ORS’s activities.

“It was hard being laid off but I know there are people who are worse off than I and that is why I have decided to be involved in the foundation,” she says.

The foundation was started in 2006 to cater to the reading needs of underprivileged children around her rural home in Thika.

“I was inspired by a 12-year-old boy from Murang’a who used to rise up at dawn and rush to school just to read before classes started. I realised that it’s the lack of books that holds them back. I grew up in Maringo estate and I could relate to his plight. Since I was in a position to help, I started the foundation,” she says.

On another occasion during a tour of the school’s library, the performance of the pupils in a reading competition jolted her into action.

So touched

“A blind girl emerged the winner and I was so touched. After that, one of her teachers came to me and told of how neglected they are and did not want money, but books, computers and to be involved in such activities in the future,” says Ms Mbari-Kirika.

She travelled to America 12 years ago to pursue higher education at Kennesaw State University graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

“I worked at Circuit City for five years at a call centre and then to General Electronics for a year,” she recalls.

She says she also managed to collect books from different American institutions, which are still lying in a warehouse in Atlanta.

“Delta Airlines were to help ship the books to Kenya on their inaugural flight but it never happened and I am looking for a sponsor to help bring the 22,000 books to Kenya,” she says.

Computer programme

She got the idea of starting a computer programme while looking for reading for the school.

“I approached the Center for the Visually Impaired Atlanta for reading materials via email and I got a contact person who invited me for a meeting. We had exchanged so much information online and when we finally met, I realised she was blind but she could write and send email, attach documents and do everything online. That was when I realised I could do the same,” says Ms Mbari-Kirika.

She says she would like to see the private sector come out more to help such causes and not to take too long making a decision to do so.

Make it a reality

“These children need to learn computers from an early age to be able to access reading material on the Internet and the foundation needs as much support as possible to make it a reality for them,” says Ms Mbari-Kirika.

Her future plans are to start a computer lab for adult people with sight problems so that they can get skills to work at call centre jobs.

“I also want to establish computer labs in all the schools for the visually impaired in Kenya and provide a mobile library for children who cannot access story books and other reading materials,” says Ms Mbari-Kirika.