Technology leaps helping the blind ‘see’ and deaf ‘hear’

Zachary Muasya, a blind teacher at the Salvation Army Thika Primary School for the Blind. He can code computer programmes better than most people. PHOTO | WILLIAM OERI

What you need to know:

  • For people with disabilities, information and communication technology (ICT) has opened up opportunities that would have otherwise been beyond their reach.

These are the sights Zachary Muasya remembers from the time before he lost his sight: his mother’s face; a mango tree from a distance; a rainbow on a drizzly day; the curvature of the sky on the horizon, enclosing the earth as if it were a dome.

When he was five, disease took away his sight. He would never be able to see his mother again. Zachary learnt to live with this loss, learning to navigate a world whose visions were receding into memory.

Grown up, Zachary finds himself at home in a different universe. He sits in an empty computer laboratory at the Salvation Army Thika Primary School for the Blind navigating his way around the Internet with unexpected ease. Today his students are away doing mid-term exams.

As he questions my coding abilities, he admits that his technology skills are “actually sometimes better than some people who can see”. He is not given to false modesty.

“My knowledge in computing has brought me a totally different life altogether,” he says in a voice whose husk suggests overuse rather than lack of use. He was trained by the Kenya Society For The Blind immediately after high school.

His story is not as rare as one would expect. For people with disabilities, information and communication technology (ICT) has opened up opportunities that would have otherwise been beyond their reach.

When Zachary attended the Thika Primary School for the blind, there were only “stories of computers”.

Today, the school’s headmaster, Jotham Makokha, says the school is struggling with technology “addiction” in much the same manner as thousands of teachers and parents across the country.

Zachary no longer has to request family and friends to read newspapers or text messages to him.

So how does one make devices and technology adaptable to those who can’t see a computer screen or hear the voice on the other end of a phone call?

Simple really, says Mr James Gichuhi, the managing director of ITAC, a company that provides assistive technology for the disabled. For any Windows computer, open-source screen-reading software provides a running commentary of the computers activity.

Android phones are equipped with similar software— TalkBack. Apple products have their own, in-built voice over software.

For those with hearing disabilities, video relay services, available mostly in developed countries, allow them to communicate with hearing people in real-time through interpreters vibrating and colour-coded alerts on mobile phones, making it easier to never miss a call. On television, Kenya has mandated that all news and education programming is translated.

This rosy image is not without blemish. Theoretically, technology ought to increase inclusion for disabled people, but it can also be a barrier if it is inaccessible.

Mrs Nancy Wangui Ikahu has struggled with visual impairment throughout her life and swears by her iPad and Google for opening doors that would otherwise have been closed to her. 

She tries to imagine what life would be like for someone with similar visual impairments, but with less financial muscle.

“For a poor mother with a visually impaired child in the rural areas, it is almost impossible that she would know or be able to acquire these kinds of technologies for her child,” she says before concluding that “disability is not cheap”.

Considering that the world’s one billion disabled people are often among the most economically marginalised in society, this point becomes especially poignant.

The Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative (GARI) runs an online system that allows users to compare features of mobile devices in terms of their accessibility for the disabled.

The phone with the lowest recommendation for visually impaired people in Africa retails for at least Sh13,000 while the one with the lowest recommendation for the hearing impaired retails at about Sh8,000. Products at the high end of the market offer some of the best accessibility features.

Although Zachary relies on open-source software, NVDA, he would ideally prefer to be using commercial software that provides better features, among them a less robotic face. However, the market leader in screen reading software for the visually impaired, JAWS, would set him back between Sh90,657 ($895) and Sh110,916 ($1,095).

Embossers, which when connected to computers can turn “print” braille, can go for as much as Sh400,000 while braille displays, which can stand-in for computer monitors, may go for between Sh100,000 and Sh400,000.

Admittedly, these latter technologies are probably more apt for institutional rather than home use.

Even Mr Gichuhi, whose job is to sell these software and hardware, says that he would restrict his use to open-source software were he in any other business. 

Beyond the hardware and software, there are other additional costs. Mrs Ikahu has relied heavily on the Internet for academic material that can be relayed audibly as she completes her master’s degree. There are associated data costs.

These costs are, however, probably higher for people with hearing disabilities who want to use video calls to communicate in sign language.

“It would be really helpful for us if we could somehow get special data prices from the phone companies,” Mr Nickson Kakiri, the national chairman of the Kenya National Association for the Deaf, told me through a sign language interpreter.

Such proposals may be included in a draft policy paper that is being authored by the communication sector regulators from the East African Community (EAC). 

If the policy paper is benchmarked along international standards, the countries would also have to ensure availability and affordability of technology that is accessible to the blind.

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