I was born with arthrogryposis. A rare congenital disorder that meant muscles in my arms and legs wouldn’t fully develop. As a result of this, my handwriting was illegible. I remember the fight my mother had to put up against my grade one teacher who was reluctant to promote me as she couldn’t read my handwriting. “Fine, keep him in class one for the rest of his life then,” my mother had said. Sense eventually prevailed. Today, that interaction sounds bizarre, as technology has taken over education.
Step By Step School in Noida, for example, is leading the way in mainstreaming education for children with disabilities with the help of accessibility for wheelchairs, technology, tools for alternative communication, accommodations like laptops for notes, AV support, tablets, audiobooks, etc. which is just the start. The school has designed it’s own software called, ‘Suno Bolo Sunao’ with a custom designed communication book which enables children with speech impairments to express their needs and provide them an opportunity to interact with others. The software consists of a grid system with pictures and symbols representing daily classroom activities, symbols to interact with family members and even communicate their basic hygiene needs. Using these pictures, the children can express their likes and dislikes to family, friends and faculty. The software requires the student to touch the pictures on the tab resulting in voice output. This helps to augment the speech. The app works as an alternative mode of communication for nonverbal children. The students are encouraged to use proper syntax which aids their language development.
The system keeps in mind the need to provide basic communication opportunities and help children to communicate their basic needs, get information, give information, develop social skills agree and disagree, express feelings and ask for clarifications. This software, although in its early stage, has empowered students with various disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome, neural disabilities, physical impairments, speech and language impairment etc.
The school is also taking full advantage of external tools like Microsoft’s ‘Sticky Keys’ that enable students with physical disabilities to press a modified key (such as Ctrl, Alt, Delete keys) and have it remain active until another key is pressed or if the KeyBoard Features feature wherein, if the same key is pressed for a long period, the command of the key is not triggered more than once. For the children facing reading difficulties, the school provides audio books. These audio books are created by teachers of the school itself to develop their vocabulary and help them memorize words in return. The school is also working on to use mics for teachers and connecting them to hearing aids for students who are hard of hearing.
What Step By Step is doing is just the tip of the iceberg. Companies like Microsoft are leading the way when it comes to creating accessible technology for students with disabilities. Microsoft’s neural text-to-speech services help persons with disabilities use human speech recognition and synthesizing. This can facilitate the learning process for students with disabilities especially by avoiding the unnecessary use of paper and pen during exams, thus, empowering students with speech, neural and locomotor disabilities. Microsoft has also developed the ‘Eyegaze’ technology that allows the eyes of the locomotor disabled control computers, seeing AI that allows the blind to identify things or project Emma, a wearable device has been created to help persons with Parkinson’s control their hand movements.
Going beyond the classroom, online education can be a very powerful tool for those with extreme disabilities. The option to take classes in a single environment can guarantee that students with disabilities have all of their assistive technologies available in one place. This is true for students with behavioural disabilities too who have difficulty concentrating amidst the normal distractions of a classroom or have emotional inabilities and/or challenges preventing the maintenance of appropriate classroom behaviours.
AMBA for Life, a Bangalore based NGO, for example, has created training and job centres for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities by imparting functional learning free of cost with the aid of computers. These individuals are then recruited to perform economically sustaining data entry work that is outsourced to AMBA.
Matt Miller had rightly said, “When schools tell students to put technology away, it’s like asking a doctor to save a life with one hand tied behind his back”. I do believe that this is even more true for students with disabilities. I hope this nation sees many more schools like Step by Step and the development of accessible software. For that, the government needs to rise up and mandate accessible technology in its procurement policies.
Nipun Malhotra, a disability rights activist is CEO, Nipman Foundation and Founder, Wheels For Life. His Twitter handle is @nipunmalhotra.