Chalya and Rejoice are businesswomen. Like most people across the globe, the COVID19 pandemic has had devastating effect on their business. The duo have had to embrace the social media and other digital tools to promote sales. Increase in daily orders ensures that the economy continues to breathe despite the storm. This is the new normal.
The case is not different as it concerns persons with disability. For a long time, the disability community has been appealing for examination bodies (WAEC, JAMB etc) and educational institutions to adopt assistive technology. While there is semblance of progress, reports indicate that many visually impaired students still depend on the conventional method of reliance on a sighted reader.
While most schools were on lockdown due to COVID19, many were forced to embrace digital tools as a means to deliver content to their students. This is vital, howbeit, a recent UNICEF-WHO report indicates that approximately 1 in every 10 children in the world has a disability, less than 10% of children with disability in low income countries go to school, and only 5-15% of those who need assistive technology are able to obtain it.
Assistive technology are products, softwares, equipment and systems that greatly enhance the productivity of persons with disability. It aids communication. The most amazing thing about AT is that it continues to improve everyday. Some of these AT include; Job Access With Speech (JAWS), Non Visual Display Access (NVDA), wheel chairs, hearing aides etc. A counsellor, Chukwuka Ikegwuonu succinctly put it, “Assistive Technology is a means to an end, and not the end itself”.
Reminiscing on the impact of COVID19 on the disability community, Ram Kamal, Managing Trustee of a not for profit organization based in India, Chakshumathi Assistive Technology Center noted, “There was discrimination against persons with disability. They were perceived as victims, and often kept away from learning technology. Now due to the COVID19 lockdown, schools have had to resort to technology in order to remain functional. For the visually impaired community, technology is their eyes and ears. Technology is now a must for all, including the disability community. This is the advantage that has evolved from the COVID19 adversity.”
Chief Executive Officer of Akure-based Special Learning Needs Consultants (SLNC), Olufemi S.A. Bayode rejects the notion that any sort of advantage had evolved from the COVID19 pandemic. “It offered no advantage. Our lives evolve around technology. You cannot place the so called normal students with their visually impaired counterparts side-by-side. This is because COVID19 has made students with disability (especially the blind and deaf) educationally disadvantaged. When you observe the various platforms offering educational content (LTV, OGTV, NTA etc) the peculiarities of these class of students are not taken into consideration. I was privy to the mathematics that was being taught on OGBC sometime in May. A sighted student would have easily seen what is on the screen, but a blind person would not understand. Also, for subjects like English Language, persons with hearing impairment should have been provided a sign language interpreter. When it comes to receiving lectures online, how many websites are accessible for persons with visual impairment? Do these students have information on where and when to get these content? COVID19 made us realise that we are persons belonging to the fourth world even in our own country. Nobody cares. How can you teach braille to a blind person through the media? If there’s any advantage at all, it should be that the pandemic allowed parents of children with disability more time with their wards.”
The debate continues. While some experts believe that the pandemic has brought some kind of benefit to the disability community, others believe otherwise. The truth, however, is that COVID19 lockdown presents an opportunity for everyone (regardless of current digital skill level) to improve drastically.
As the world gets more engrossed in digital technology, nations (Nigeria inclusive) must do more to make Assistive Technology available to persons with disability from primary to the tertiary level. Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of People With Disability (CRPD) states that there should be international cooperation to ensure improved access to assistive technology. Taking cognizance of this, all hands must be on deck to implement this resolution.