Technology: The Biggest Gift To Students With Disabilities

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’sSticky 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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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