Learners with disabilities need tech

At their fingertips: A blind learner holds a valuable braille note-taker

At their fingertips: A blind learner holds a valuable braille note-taker

A whole host of technologies are available these days to assist learners with disabilities in the classroom.

They range from personal devices like a hearing aid or a braille typewriter to computer software that allows learners to navigate the world of computers and the internet despite their disabilities.

However, many schools in the country do not have access to these technologies and if they do, they are not being used optimally due to various limitations, such as a lack of electricity, no internet connection, crime, inadequate teacher training and costly repair work.

South Africa has just under 600 000 learners with disabilities who are currently not attending school, because the schooling system cannot cater for them.

Those learners with disabilities who are in school are mostly catered for in the just less than 450 “special schools” across the country.

It is estimated that a further 3 800 “special schools” would have to be built in order to meet the demand.

Robyn Beere, director of Inclusive Education South Africa, says this is an impossible task and the only feasible solution is to capacitate schools across the country to cater for learners with disabilities.

She says this would equate to learners with disabilities making up about 5% of all learners at every school.

“Children with disabilities need to be accommodated in their local neighbourhood,” says Beere, who describes some of the “special schools” as “diabolical dumping grounds”.

One way to integrate learners with disabilities into all schools across the country is through the use of technology.

“Under no circumstance should a learner with disabilities be disadvantaged because of their learning needs,” says Beere. “There is an obligation that they are provided with what they need.”

But anecdotal evidence from lawyers, researchers, activists and teachers suggest that many learners with disabilities are being denied access to technologies that can have a massive impact on their ability to learn.

Even old technologies for blind learners such as the Perkins Brailler — effectively a braille typewriter — are not readily available, never mind the high-tech Apex BrailleNote, a braille computer or standard computers with the software JAWS, which allows blind readers to navigate a computer screen.

Section 27’s Silomo Khumalo says that Zamokuhle Special School in Mbizana, Eastern Cape, has three Perkins Braillers that are shared by 100 learners.

“The fact that they don’t have enough is shocking,” says Khumalo. “It’s a huge problem.”

Khumalo says that learners sharing devices causes all kinds of problems, especially around exam time, as many learners cannot write exams without the devices.

Khumalo, who is blind, says he is speaking from personal experience.

He says when he was in school in Kwazulu-Natal his Perkins Brailler often broke down and had to be sent to Johannesburg to get repaired, leaving him disadvantaged for months at a time.

“Most teachers don’t sympathise,” he says. “They say ‘you broke the machine, you must find a way to make notes.’ ”

In a recent report to Parliament, Section 27 pointed to two schools it had encountered where 83 and 45 Perkins Braillers were provided for the schools, but currently the schools only have 46, with just 15 of them in working order.

Odette Swift, director for deaf education at the Deaf Federation of South Africa, says there are many assistive devices that deaf learners can benefit from in the classroom.

These include hearing aids and the FM system — which are specific to deaf learners and amplify sound — as well as smartboards, video cameras and tablets, which can assist deaf learners to engage fully with South Africa’s sign language curriculum.

However, access to these technologies is very limited, especially in rural schools.

“Most learners in schools for the deaf, especially the previously marginalised schools in the more rural provinces, do not have access to even simple hearing aid technology,” says Swift. She says that this wouldn’t be a problem if teachers were able to teach using sign language, but this is not the case.

She says it is also important for schools to have teachers who are able to check that equipment is working properly and to conduct minor repairs where needed.

She says that if this doesn’t happen then there is actually no point in ordering the devices, as they will soon be rendered useless.

Section 27’s Tim Fish Hodgson says that education departments in South Africa don’t tend to budget properly for technology to assist learners with disabilities. 

He says that because the assistive devices are expensive, they a target for opportunistic crime and are therefore very expensive to insure, which is often not accommodated by government. It also makes learners with disabilities who carry these devices between home and school potential crime targets.

Hodgson says that this means that often schools will not allow the devices to be taken home or even to hostels that students live in during term time, which again limits their benefit to learners.

He says a lack of regular electricity supply and internet in many schools also means that even if schools have the necessary technologies, they often are not being used optimally.

Swift says you will find in some cases that a learner has a hearing aid, but their parents prefer to keep it safe at home rather than allow the child to wear it to school.

“I have heard of instances where learners have been mugged and hearing aids stolen,” she says.

“The tablets and video cameras that have been purchased to be used in the sign language curriculum have to be insured by the school and while some schools seem to have managed this successfully, others maintain that they do not have sufficient funds to insure items such as these, which are easily stolen or broken and therefore attract higher premiums,” Swift says. 

Technology can play a huge role in providing learners with disabilities optimal opportunities in the classroom, but the national and provincial education departments have a long way to go to make this a reality.

Lloyd Gedye