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Unfair Education, Limited Digital Tools Affect Career Options of Visual Impaired Children (Part I)

Ogenrwot wants to become a lawyer, so he wishes he could get digital learning aids to enable him to study well. He says his parents cannot afford to let him study online and that the radio lessons also don’t give him a chance to ask questions, because that means making a phone call to the radio.
23 Aug 2021 15:10

Audio 8

For learners with visual impairment in Uganda, preparing for a dream career means revising old braille notes, past examination papers, and donated braille Bibles.

Martin Daniel Ogenrwot, a primary four pupil at Gulu Primary, a blind-inclusive school is one of such pupils.

//Cue in: “I got that Bible from…”   

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Because braille papers are thick and bulky, each of the 73 books in the Bible is brailed and laminated as a single book. But to keep him busy during the COVID, the parents of 9-year-old Ogenrwot have sacrificed a huge space in their tiny, grass-thatched hut, to keep the Bible.

Due to the closure of schools resulting from the pandemic, lessons are being done on television, radio, and online instead of face to face. But learners with visual impairment, say both methods do not favor them.

Ogenrwot wants to become a lawyer, so he wishes he could get digital learning aids to enable him to study well. He says his parents cannot afford to let him study online and that the radio lessons also don’t give him a chance to ask questions, because that means making a phone call to the radio.

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Ogenrwot says the government should give a computer to each learner with visual impairment so that when they join secondary school, they don’t struggle to use it. 

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Lucy Akech, Ogenrwot’s mother, is a peasant farmer. Sometimes, she buys reading materials that are inserted and sold with newspapers and read for him. 

This method of acquiring new information, she says, requires a child to have unmatched listening, visualization, and memorization skills.

“But many people here are illiterate. That means looking for someone who can read to help,” says Akech.

Adding that “The writing materials are expensive for me. The brailled notes are always left at school because it is government property. The only materials they are given are their past examination papers.”

Each family member in homes that have children living with a disability live on less than $1.9 (UGX 2,400 per day) and spend 31 percent more on other education-related costs, than families of children without disabilities. 

This is according to 2020 situational Analysis of Persons with Disabilities in Uganda by the Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development. As a result, Akech says, Ogenrwot constantly reads the Bible, which only helps him improve his command of the English language.

“He can hardly access new knowledge. With this kind of learning, only a child born intelligent can get meaningful examination results.”  

Angelo Peter Olaka, is an orphan under the care of St. Phillip’s Cathedral, a local church near Gulu Primary, which is also Angelo’s school. At 17 years, Olaka is still in primary four, yet his agemates are a year away from joining University. 

Olaka wants to become a cleric, and also spends most of the time reading the braille Bible that he borrowed from School. “God has helped me a lot so the only way I can pay him back is to serve him. Unfortunately, I cannot keep this bible forever. I have to return it,” says Angelo.

“I’m not learning anything new. Even if they bring learning materials, I cannot read them because the print is not brailled. I wish the government could give us computers because it makes things easy," he added.

There are 43 blind-inclusive schools in Uganda and almost all schools practice Inclusive Education, IE policy, a policy advanced by UNESCO to have all children, regardless of their ability or other characteristics, aided to learn and develop their full potential.

This means for the IE policy to have meaning; the education system should give the learners with visual impairment the digital tools and skills opportunities to realize their dreams. However, the IE policy in Uganda is still in the development stage, making IE a mere ambition, rather than a tangible plan for action, according to a 2017 report by the Uganda Society of Disabled Children.

Persons with visual impairment can use a computer installed with Job Access with Speech, JAWS, a screen reader that works with Windows operating systems and provides text-to-speech and braille output. Victor Reader Stream is a handheld digital media recorder and player that enables a user to listen to books, newspapers, and online reference tools through a tactile keypad. A talking book player (plextalk) is another digital tool that uses features that are friendly to persons with visual impairment.

Joyce Ajok, the head of the blind annexe at Gulu Primary School, says they have struggled to educate the 55 learners with visual impairment due to the shortage of these digital tools. Two years ago, a charity organization that provides assistive technology for children with visual impairment gave them two laptops installed with JAWS, but the JAWS license expired in March 2020 and the department has since failed to reinstall it. 

Installing a JAWS software costs $1,000 (above UGX3.5 million). This amount is more than the (UGX 2million) subvention grant given by the government for the department to pay for costs of light meals, scholastic materials, and medical care for three months.

In March 2021, the Ministry of Education in partnership with UNICEF also donated two laptops to the blind annex, but without the JAWS, says Ajok. “The laptops are now being used by the teachers who have sight. A Victor Reader Stream that was donated by UNICEF in 2018 was used by the learners in a group.”  

“If well-wishers could get a computer or a recorder per child, then it could ease our work. But now, rewarding learning by children with visual impairment solely relies on their parents’ financial capacity and will,” Ajok says.  

Charles Byekwaso, the Executive Director of Uganda National Association of the Blind (UNAB), agrees that the JAWs software is expensive for learners with visual impairment and many cannot afford it. He says UNAB is talking with the producers of the software for them to sell at a subsidized price.  

“You know the license for JAWS is expensive. It is not easy and at times when you get a subsidized one, it is around 800 dollars. It is not easy I agree with them. But we are trying to advocate to see that those prices are reduced. And sometimes people find no way of reducing their prices. But we are trying to engage the companies that produce software to reduce at give us at a subsidized price,” he says. 

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The 2017 National ICT policy report notes, that barriers such as high costs of setting up ICT infrastructure and buying assistive devices, limit access and availability of the tools to PWDs in Uganda. Byekwaso says since learning is now done from home and online, UNAB is advocating for all learning materials to be brailled, so that it is accessed by the learners with visual impairment.

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Sarah Ayesiga, the assistant commissioner for inclusive and non-formal education in the Ministry of Education and Sports agrees that learning is more difficult for children with visual impairment, especially when they have to rely on radio and television, which makes them miss some aspects of the lessons such as diagrams and maps. 

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He explains that there are issues that are so pertinent, adding that the Ministry has transcribed the print content into braille. 

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However, Lucy Akech, a mother to Ogenrwot, says her son had not been given any recorded home-learning materials for the 16 months.  Ayesiga then explained that the materials were delivered to the respective schools because they could not distribute to every child with visual impairment. Meaning, even those learners at home, those with visual impairment have to travel to their respective schools to use them from there. 

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Joyce Ajok, the Head of the Department of Gulu Primary School blind annexe, agreed that they received eight Perkins braillers from the Ministry of Education in June 2021, but they are yet to start using them.  

This reporting was supported by Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) as part of the Isu Elihle Awards.