The Sunday News
Kudzai Chikiwa, Feature Reporter
THE birth of a personal computer in the 1970s, the graphical user interface in the 1980s, the World Wide Web in the 1990s and today the internet have turned the global society into an “information age”.
Technology has not only enhanced the way of living but has also become an integral part of everyone’s life. People are now living in a highly digital society where they are using electrical gadgets to learn and communicate.
Education has been revolutionised to a computer-based learning with Government introducing a competency-based curriculum where ICT is a compulsory learning area for all levels. But there is a constituency that has remained lagging behind, forgotten in all this — the visually impaired who remain strangers to the digital world. Most of them do not have access to computers, let alone owning one while the lucky ones that can lay their hands on the gadget do not have the appropriate software.
Visually impaired Mr Killion Dube (35) who is the Bulawayo Public Library Braille Department co-ordinator said most visually impaired people remained behind in ICTs. With his headphones on, while scrolling through some documents on his desktop in the public library, Mr Dube said the majority of schools especially in Bulawayo do not have inclusive education that caters for special needs of the visually impaired.
“Of over 100 schools in Bulawayo, only three have resource units. Can you imagine all learners having to congest these schools,” he asked.
While responding to an email on his computer, Mr Dube said visually impaired pupils at mainstream schools do not learn computers.
“Usually during computer lessons they are told that it’s a free period. Which to me is a violation of the child’s right to access equal education,” he said.
Mr Dube who is a University of Zimbabwe post graduate said during his time he had difficulties in coping with computers and the situation has not changed much.
“At university almost 90 percent of work is done using the computer. I had not used one before and I had to start from scratch,” he said.
Mr Dube said in efforts to address the challenges faced by visually impaired learners, using computers donated by Government through the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe(Potraz) the public library partnered with an NGO, Simphiwe Development Trust to train visually impaired people with basic computer skills.
He said his vision is to go around schools equipping teachers with basics on how to teach visually impaired people computer skills.
“We appeal to the corporate world to assist us with a vehicle, even an old one which we can service so that we use it to move around training teachers and carrying our equipment,” he said.
A Bulawayo parent whose child is visually impaired, Mrs Sanele Mathe said most schools with special needs for visually impaired learners were expensive.
“I stay in Bulawayo which means for my child to go to Capota School of the blind in Masvingo he needs transport money, boarding fees as well as groceries. At the end of the day our children attend mainstream schools that are not ICT friendly,” she said.
Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe president Mr Takavafira Zhou said visually impaired learners were the most disadvantaged in conventional schools.
“Visually impaired learners continue to struggle as there are no computers in schools. Those that have them are not user friendly,” he said.
Mr Zhou said Government should push for inclusive ICT education in mainstream schools to accommodate learners from all social backgrounds.
“If we remain with special schools for the visually impaired, it means accessing ICTs remains a privilege for the elite. It is no secret that these schools are expensive, what about the ordinary citizen with a low income?” he quipped.
Mr Zhou said teachers were not fully equipped to teach visually impaired learners.
“Teachers do not know how to use an ordinary computer to teach these learners. There are no computers with assistive devices like JAWS (Job Access With Speed) and the textbooks are not user friendly,” he said.
Mr Zhou said the first step Government should take is to make sure that all schools are electrified and equipped with computers.
“About 65 percent of schools do not have electricity and a good majority do not have computers. Government should start by providing computers and then move on to train learners,” he said.
According to statistics by the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education a total of 61 946 learners with disabilities including 34 749 males and 27 197 females were enrolled in 2018. The statistics says out of all the 61 946 learners with disabilities, those with visual impairment constitute 10,82 percent. The statistics show that only 40 schools are either specifically for the visually impaired learners or have resource units that accommodate these learners.
In Bulawayo province, out of over 100 schools, only three have resource units for the visually impaired and these are St Bernard’s, Mckeurtan Primary School and Fatima Primary School. In Matabeleland North province there is John Tallac and Tsholotsho High schools while in Matabeleland South there is Beitbridge Primary School.
As for Midlands Province there are Musume Primary and High Schools and Lower Gwelo. In Masvingo there are Capota Primary and Secondary, Bondolfi Primary, Mutendi Primary and Secondary and St Albert High school.
This makes a total of 15 schools catering for the visually impaired learners in the Southern region and 25 in the Northern region.
Deputy Minister of Primary and Secondary Education Cde Edgar Moyo said Government recognises the unique needs of learners with visual impairment and has provisions to address their special educational requirements.
“Under the 2030 vision of our ministry, no one should be discriminated in accessing education. The ministry established the National Braille Printing Press (NBPP), with support from its partners and organisations for the blind. This facility exists to provide adaptive teaching and learning materials in the form of Braille, enlarged print and audios as well as tactile learning aids for the benefit of visually impaired and blind learners and teachers,” he said.
Contrary to what teachers’ unions said, the Deputy Minister said at mainstream schools there were resource units and teachers who have special education qualifications.
“The teacher to learner ratio for a class of visually impaired is 1:10, which is much less than the average class size. We have resource handbooks to guide the mainstream teacher so that they can address the needs of learners with visual impairment,” he said.
Cde Moyo said an ICT policy which also includes adaptations for the visually impaired learner is being finalised in order to guide the whole education sector.
Asked on provision of user friendly computers, Cde Moyo said, “Every computer that a school has is user friendly for the visually impaired. If you go to the control panel of an ordinary desktop or laptop, and click on the ease of access, you will see how a person with a visual impairment can use any computer.”
He said with additional resources, some schools have accessed special software that is specifically designed for the visually impaired.
“Such software is imported and we look forward to local innovation in that aspect,” he said.
Information, Communication Technology and Courier Services Minister Kazembe Kazembe said Government has partnered with the private sector to train teachers on how to equip visually impaired pupils with ICT skills.
Minister Kazembe said in October last year, Government invited consultants from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to train teachers with disabilities including the visually impaired under the banner of “training the trainers”.
“Approximately 30 people have been trained on how people with disabilities can use computers and the target was to have at least one specialist per institution that caters for visually impaired learners,” he said.
Minister Kazembe said through Potraz, Government has donated a number of computers to learning institutions that cater for the visually impaired students.
“However, due to shortage of foreign currency, Government has not purchased the JAWS software which is incredibly expensive,” he said.
JAWS software is a computer screen reader programme for Microsoft Windows that allows blind and visually impaired users to read the screen either with a text-to-speech output or by a refreshable Braille display. He said access to ICTs by visually impaired people would guarantee equal opportunities to all.