December 3 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a day when the talents, contributions and abilities of people with disabilities are celebrated globally. The goal is to promote greater understanding of the rights of persons with disabilities and to mobilize support for building a more inclusive society.
The theme this year is Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology. Thanks to ever-increasing access to technology, people are more connected to each other and can utilize services and information that might previously have been beyond their reach.
With over 1 billion people worldwide living with a disability, technology can both enable and hinder their participation in society. For example, technology that is not accessible can prevent people with disabilities from accessing information and joining in forums and conversations, making them further marginalised. But technology that is harnessed to promote inclusion and accessibility can help realize the full and equal participation of children and adults with disabilities. Technology can be a tool for fulfilling rights and changing lives.
Here are just some of the inspirational innovators who are using technology to help children with disabilities fulfil their rights.
Technology is not only designed and created for people with disabilities, it is designed and created by people with disabilities. Kartik Sawhney was born in New Delhi and was blind from birth. As a student in mainstream schools, Sawhney became aware of his mother’s tremendous effort to ensure that his school materials were transcribed into braille. As a result, he turned to the computer to assist him with his studies.
Graphs are a barrier for people with vision impairments who want to study maths and science because computer screen readers only read text. For Sawhney, the barrier was an opportunity for innovation. To improve his ability to study science, Sawhney created a computer program that used different musical notes to ‘describe’ the graphs. Through his own ingenuity, Sawhney became the first blind student in India to pursue science studies in the upper secondary school grades. He won numerous academic awards, including a full scholarship to study computer science at Stanford University in the United States of America.
Sawhney is an inspiration to all in his innovative use of technology and his advocacy for the rights of children and young people with disabilities. Sawhney and other young innovators with disabilities are featured in the UNICEF Activate Talk: Youth with Disabilities and Innovation: Making the World Inclusive for All.
You can learn more about him and his assistive technology by listening to the podcast below.
For the many millions of people in Africa who have hearing impairments, access to and the affordability of batteries is an ongoing barrier. In Zimbabwe, it costs about US$4 a month to power a hearing aid and for many that price is not sustainably affordable. Tendekayi Katsiga and the company he works for, Deaftronics, utilized technology to change the lives of hearing-impaired people in Africa by creating the world’s first solar-powered hearing aid charger.
“The technology we have developed is simple, but the application is changing lives,” Katsiga said in a video for UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children 2015: Reimagine the future.
This low cost device is reaching many children with disabilities and about 10,000 units have been distributed throughout Africa.
Katsiga’s dream, he says in the video, is for young people to determine their own destiny.
“A flat battery should not be the end of a dream,” Katsiga said.
To learn more about Tendekayi and the solar-powered battery charger, watch the video:
Technology in the classroom
All children have a right to education, but not all children can access the learning materials required. Kartik and other people with disabilities, use the term ‘book famine’ because many books, including text books, are not available in accessible formats.
International research indicates that along with family support and teacher training, textbooks availability is one of the most critical determinants of the quality of education. The impact of textbooks is greatest in low-income countries where they can help counter-balance the lack of adequately trained teachers and the basic school facilities.
UNICEF is developing a new, innovative mechanism to overcome the barriers children with disabilities face in accessing learning materials. The initiative is based on the universal design* of textbooks and uses digital formats: sign language for hearing impaired learners, simplified language for learners with intellectual disabilities, and audio for learners with vision impairments. Through regular procurement processes, publishers are requested to provide multiple kinds of accessible formats for each textbook title included in the school curriculum. The objective is to transform the way textbooks are published and used by all children and teachers.
The textbook initiative is one of the ways UNICEF is harnessing technology to support children with disabilities’ right to education.
Rosangela Berman-Bieler, a quadriplegic, serves as Chief of UNICEF’s Disability Section, part of Gender, Rights and Civic Engagement, Programme Division, in New York.
*Universal design involves designing products and spaces so that they can be used by the widest range of people including people with disabilities. Universal design takes into account the full range of human diversity, including physical, perceptual and cognitive abilities, as well as different body sizes and shapes. By designing for diversity, we can create things that are more functional and more user-friendly for everyone.