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Enhancing Learning for African Children with Disabilities Through Assistive Technologies

Enhancing Learning for African Children with Disabilities Through Assistive Technologies

Enhancing Learning for African Children with Disabilities Through Assistive Technologies - Afrocritik

Aside from socio-cultural problems, children with disabilities in Africa face a learning deficit in classrooms. This is due to the existing infrastructure which is not designed to accommodate their special needs.

By Michael Akuchie

Education is a transformational tool that is vital for learners and the society at large. According to an article published by Mahindra University, the benefits of getting an education include helping people to change society for the better and sharpening their problem-solving skills, among other things. The United Nations, a coalition of countries across the world, also believes in the relevance of education. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has a right to education.

Unfortunately, not everyone can unlock the vast potential that getting an education offers. In every country, a percentage of citizens, particularly children, do not have access to education, due to several reasons including political instability, poverty, and negligence on the parent’s part. In 2022, a UNICEF report found that Africa’s Central and Western regions accounted for nearly a quarter of the world’s out-of-school population. To be more specific, 57 million children (representing 24.1% of the world’s 236 million out-of-school children) from the aforementioned regions have been cut off from education.

Children with disabilities make up a sizable part of Africa’s out-of-school demographic. 65 million children of primary and secondary school age, according to a World Bank report, are living with a disability, with nearly half of them unable to attend school. Acquiring an education for this demographic can also be challenging due to socio-cultural barriers like stigma and bullying. Unable to learn at a school like others, children with disabilities are likely to struggle with adulthood and its obligations such as securing a well-paid job and achieving financial independence. 

For those who can go to school, they are likely to face a learning deficit in classrooms. This is because the existing infrastructure is more likely than not, not designed to accommodate their special needs. For instance, in many schools in Africa, teachers rely on an instructional method that utilises a board. For children with visual impairment, this is not inclusive enough. Children with hearing difficulties may also struggle to keep up with the teacher’s words. It gets worse if the children have to learn in an overpopulated classroom. Teachers, too, may also not have received training on how to work with these children with special needs, and the children may lag behind their peers.  Not only do these problems force disabled children to drop out of school but it discourages those intending to enroll. 

Fortunately, technology has evolved over the years and has birthed several tools that can improve the overall well-being of people with disabilities. These tools are classified as examples of “Assistive Technology”. The Assistive Technology Industry Association, a global organisation of manufacturers, sellers, and providers of assistive technology, defines assistive technology as “any item, piece of equipment, software programme, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.” 

The wheelchair is a popular example of assistive technology. Other examples include hearing aids, prosthetics, pencil holders, and more. There is no one-size-fits-all with assistive technology. However, these tools intend to make people with disabilities feel included in society. 

Consider the Text-to-Speech software which is programmed to read words aloud. The software typically converts text from a personal computer or any digital device into speech. If introduced to schools across the continent, this innovation will be helpful to children with learning disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Dyslexia (a learning disability that affects the ability to read). 

Another assistive technology worth considering for mass adoption in schools is Speech-to-Text software. Children who have trouble writing correct sentences can use a speech-to-text tool to overcome this barrier. The software translates the user’s spoken words into text that can be read clearly by others. This tool is ideal for children with dysgraphia (the inability to write words clearly), visual impairment, and dyslexia. The speech-to-text software program came in handy for Taba, a nine-year-old third grader at Hana High and Elementary School in Hawaii who, while extremely intelligent, struggled to convert his thoughts into speech. Aside from the program which allowed Taba to speak to the computer, he also used a special microphone which allowed him to dictate his thoughts and the program translated them to readable English. This allowed him to fully partake in class activities like creature writing without worrying about how to fill the page with words. Other assistive technologies that can make their way into African classrooms include audiobooks, electronic spell checkers, digital recorders, reading pens, hearing aids, mobility aids, etc. 

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Assistive technology has also proven to be beneficial in helping African teachers enhance the classroom experience for children with learning disabilities. Pauline Okach, a teacher living in Zambia, was one of the 75 teachers learning how to use the Orbit Reader 20, a device that makes it possible for people with visual impairments to read in braille and take notes in braille too.

Due to their ability to improve the learning experience for children with disabilities, assistive technologies are a must-have in Africa’s education system. This should be a welcome development seeing as the continent has a large population of out-of-school children. Of course, obstacles to assistance technology rollout like low awareness, funding shortage, inconsistent government policies, and ill-equipped teachers stand in the way. How African countries’ governments choose to navigate these issues will determine whether its population of people with disabilities, especially children, have a greater chance at bettering their lives with education. 

Michael Akuchie is a tech journalist with four years of experience covering cybersecurity, AI, automotive trends, and startups. He reads human-angle stories in his spare time. He’s on X (fka Twitter) as @Michael_Akuchie & michael_akuchie on Instagram.

Cover Photo: Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay.

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