Higher education must accommodate the blind

Friday April 7 2017

By REGINALD ODUOR
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On Tuesday, March 28, 2017 Nation.co.ke carried an excellent article by John Walubengo titled “A blind person in Kenya can’t get a computer science degree. That’s unacceptable”.

As a member of the community of people with total visual disability (“totally blind”), I confirm that along with computer science, our academic institutions are ill-prepared to accommodate us in many other courses including accounting, journalism, engineering and medicine.

Yet with the right personnel and technical support, members of our community in some countries successfully complete these courses.

As for computer science, both Apple and Microsoft have hired a number of computer engineers with total visual disability, who ensure that the products from these firms are visual disability-friendly and also develop other products specifically geared to surmounting the limitations of visual disability.

One of the greatest challenges for those of us with total visual disability is how to access adequate information. Most information is presented in visual form as books, newspapers, journals, films and videos in their traditional media, or on the internet.

While those with hearing, speaking, handling or walking disabilities can all use sight to gather information, this is the very thing that the totally blind cannot do without some kind of assistance to overcome their sensory hurdle.

While the Africa Braille Centre produces textbooks in Braille for primary school pupils who need them, and while the Kenya Institute for the Blind provides similar services for those in secondary school, many of those in tertiary education and the professional world have very little support in their efforts to access adequate information.

A SHOP IN TOWN

In the world of ICT, those of us with visual disabilities need to use adaptive or assistive technology - various innovations that enable us to circumvent our limitations as we use computers, mobile phones and the many other recent innovations.

In most cases, we do not use specially manufactured equipment, but rather software that enables us to use products sold in the open market.

For example, I use an typical laptop from a shop in town, but I have in it a screen-reader that enables me to hear what is on the screen, and with that I perform numerous tasks (word processing, preparing and presenting slide shows, working with spread sheets, emailing, browsing, tweeting and blogging, among others).

I have written this article using MS Word and a screen-reader, with absolutely no sighted assistance. For seven years, I edited Thought and Practice: A Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya and uploaded the journal issues with minimal sighted assistance.

Similarly, Using the iPhone’s Voice Over screen-reader, I make calls, write text messages, send and receive email, browse, and access social media such as Twitter and WhatsApp.

Some of my colleagues access data from their computers and smartphones using a Braille Display - a piece of hardware that produces virtual Braille on a panel, enabling the use of the sense of touch to read what is on the screen. This is particularly useful for people who are both deaf and blind, as they cannot listen to a screen-reader.

There is also a Braille embosser, which is really the equivalent of an ordinary printer. With it I can produce a Braille version of an MS Word document. I use an embosser to produce Braille copies of the handouts that I give to my students. I also use it to produce Braille copies of my slide shows.

PRODUCING BOOKS IN BRAILLE

When we wish to read printed documents, we can scan them, then use optical character recognition (OCR) software, after which we can access their contents through a screen-reader, Braille Display, or by embossing (printing into Braille).

Over the last few centuries, many people with total visual disability have used Braille, and Braille will continue to be an important tool for them in certain situations, such as when they need to read a speech. 

However, the cost of producing books in Braille is much higher than that of producing them as soft copies which such people can access through screen readers or Braille displays.

Even more crucial is the fact that knowledge of Braille alone cannot land a blind person a job any more than knowledge of good handwriting can land a sighted person one.

The labour market requires people who are ICT-literate, and the innovations I have described above enable people with visual disability to achieve such proficiency.

Adaptive technology for the visually disabled is actually available on the market, but at a cost that is simply out of reach for many of those who need it. For example, the cost of my screen reader is almost three times that of my laptop.

As such, much more needs to be done to address this financial challenge. The government’s role in this regard is pivotal.

While education is crucial to the empowerment of every member of society, it is pivotal to the rehabilitation and overall development of visually disabled people. A number of them have excelled in their academic pursuits and taken up positions of great responsibility as lawyers, magistrates, judges, teachers and lecturers, among others. 

STUNTING CAREER GROWTH

However, in the extremely fast-changing world in which we live, the need for continuing education has never been more urgent. Yet with the emergence of the information age, the visually disabled are in danger of being left behind due to lack of financial resources with which to procure adaptive technology, and this at the very time when it is theoretically much easier to make information available to them.

If I had received the requisite adaptive technology ten years earlier than I did, I would have got my PhD in the mid 1990s instead of 2011.

Having lacked the technology for so long has meant that people who were undergraduates in the early 1990s when I was already a lecturer, and some of those whom I beat badly in high school and in our undergraduate course in the 1980s, are now professors while I am a senior lecturer.

I say this not to mourn, but to illustrate the fact that lack of requisite support is stunting the career growth of people with total visual disability.

Many years ago, I heard then South African President Thabo Mbeki tell his people that his government was committed to ensuring that no South African can complain that he was not given a place in the sun. 

Of course once we all have a place in the sun, we have various options on what to do with it - we can simply bask in it, engage in agriculture (with ample water as well of course), bake bricks, tap solar energy to light and warm our homes, and so on. 

However, if we are not given our place in the sun, all such options are unavailable to us. In the same way, the availability of adaptive ICT gives people with visual disabilities numerous options - to pursue academics, do business, engage in creative arts, and so on. 

'GIVE US A PLACE TO STAND ON'

Yet people with visual disabilities have suffered marginalisation since time immemorial, thereby being denied their place in the sun. This is why the provisions of the Disabilities Act (2003), the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006), and the relevant articles in the Constitution of Kenya (2010), among which are Articles 27 and 54, must be fully operationalised without any further delay.

Archimedes (287-212 BCE), the ancient preeminent Greek mathematician and inventor, once declared: "Give me a place to stand on and I will move the earth." King Hiero of Syracuse, absolutely astonished by the statement, asked him to prove it.

In the harbour was a ship that had proved impossible to launch even by the combined efforts of all the men of Syracuse. Archimedes, who had been examining the properties of levers and pulleys, built a machine that allowed him to single-handedly move the ship from a distance away. 

Those of us with total visual disability say to the government, private sector and civil society, “Give us a place to stand on in the information age, and we will contribute substantially to the all-round development of society.”

Once professionals with visual disabilities have easier access to information, they will be able not only to pursue their personal career goals, but also to contribute to the welfare of their non-professional visually disabled colleagues. They will also contribute much more to the overall development of society.

A NEW, INCLUSIVE KENYA

In addition, the availability of adaptive technology would reduce the need for assistance from sighted people, thereby partially or totally freeing those who offer such assistance to engage in other economically productive activities.

I end by parodying the famous words of Martin Luther King Jr: I have a dream - a dream of a new, inclusive Kenya. I have a dream that one day people will be judged, not by their visual ability or disability, but by the power of their intellect, initiative and integrity. 

I have a dream that journalists, computer programmers, economic advisers, agricultural consultants, university professors, legal practitioners, social workers and many others will sit together to solve social problems, with the only consideration being their professional capabilities, and not their visual abilities or disabilities. 

Adaptive ICT can greatly contribute to converting this dream into reality.

Reginald M.J. Oduor, PhD, is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Nairobi. He blogs at http://kenyancrossroads.blogspot.co.ke. Twitter: @ReginaldOduor