Pioneering Assistive Technology: equal opportunities in education for visually impaired learners

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Pioneering Assistive Technology: equal opportunities in education for visually impaired learners

United Kingdom
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Cost-effective, locally-relevant information technology can improve access to education, educational attainment and employment for visually impaired learners. Sightsavers International is piloting the innovative Sightsavers Dolphin Pen in Kenya giving visually impaired learners equal opportunities to their sighted peers and providing a model for replication in Africa.
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Mai Mahiu Rd, off Langata Road

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Your idea
Country your work focuses on:


What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1-5 years

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What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?


Describe your idea in fewer than 50 words.

Cost-effective, locally-relevant information technology can improve access to education, educational attainment and employment for visually impaired learners. Sightsavers International is piloting the innovative Sightsavers Dolphin Pen in Kenya giving visually impaired learners equal opportunities to their sighted peers and providing a model for replication in Africa.

What makes your idea unique?

Assistive technology has enabled visually impaired people to access information and computers for many years through screen reader talking software, magnification and Braille outputs. However, this technology did not fulfill the needs of developing countries, nor was it affordable at around $1,000 per person.

Our unique solution was to collaborate with the World Blind Union (WBU) and visually impaired people in Africa to specify the type of assistive technology that would fulfill local needs. We then teamed up with Dolphin Computer Access Ltd to develop this technology for the first time. The Sightsavers Dolphin Pen is a mobile screen reader in the form of a USB stick that can be used in any computer. Magnified text and synthetic speech give visually impaired students the same access to textbooks and basic information technology as their sighted peers. The Sightsavers Dolphin Pen costs less that $150, compared to a Perkins Brailler costing around $400 and textbooks in Braille at $45 per volume. This cost-effective model is vital to ensure improved learning for more children in Africa.

The Sightsavers Dolphin Pen is now available in Africa. We are piloting its use through a structured, research-based project in Kenya that involves providing the hardware and software as well as training and support in the use of this assistive technology. This pilot project will provide evidence, learning and best-practice to support the effective use of this technology throughout Africa.

What is your area of work? (Please check as many as apply.)

Children & Youth , Education , Information technology , Disability , Vulnerable populations .

What impact have you had?

Phase 1 of the project began in February 2007 in Nairobi, Eastern and Rift Valley provinces funded by DfID. Through this, 41 visually impaired secondary students and 78 visually impaired trainee teachers at 8 institutions were equipped with a Sightsavers Dolphin Pen and refurbished laptop or access to a desktop computer, and trained to use this new technology.

Timely access to educational materials, including textbooks and information via the internet, has improved significantly enabling students to compete favorably with their sighted peers. This will lead to better educational results including improved reading, writing, maths and critical thinking skills. This is expected to diversify the subjects they can study, widening career choices and improving transition to employment. To date, 2 blind students have taken up information technology as an examinable subject and leading cell phone service provider SafariCom is now employing 4 beneficiaries of the project.

Personal motivation and sense of inclusion also improved dramatically as students were given the freedom to access information from any computer.

These early signs of success are promising. As this is a pilot project, a research study is being undertaken to assess the extent to which assistive technology enhances accessibility of educational materials, leading to improved learning outcomes and life chances of visually impaired students, and the extent to which the technology reduces the cost of education.

Describe the primary problem(s) that your project is addressing.

45 million people worldwide are blind. Over 90% of children with disabilities in developing countries do not go to school. If the Millennium Development Goal to provide universal primary education to all children is to be reached, blind and visually impaired children must be included in education. In Kenya, like in other developing countries, an estimated 25% of visually impaired children attend primary school, compared to a total enrolment rate of 76%, and fewer than 10% go on to secondary education despite a relatively well developed inclusive education system. Accessing learning materials is extremely challenging due to the high cost and labour intensive process of producing books in Braille. The needs of visually impaired children are neglected, leading to poor performance, high drop out rates, and loss of self-esteem.

Describe the steps that your organization is taking to make your project successful.

1. Partnerships: The project is built into existing education structures to encourage ownership and effective replication within individual schools and the Ministry of Education (MoE). The programme management committee comprises key stakeholders who drive the strategy and analyse performance for continuous improvement. On a regional level, we are partnering with the WBU to make this project visible and encourage other governments in Africa to mainstream technology into their inclusive education strategies.

2. Monitoring, evaluation and learning are critical to improve effectiveness and generate research evidence for replication of the model. Using indicators such as academic grades, employment salary, confidence and independence, the pilot groups are being tracked over a three year period and compared to control groups with less or no access to assistive technology.

What will it take for your project to be successful over the next three years? Success in Year 1:

1. Implement Phase 2 of the project by targeting 40 more secondary students and 90 more trainee teachers over two years, including equipping them with the hardware and software and full training in using this technology for learning.

2. Increase access to educational materials by finalising translation of all MoE textbooks into soft copy.

Success in Year 2:

1. Continue training and support for students involved in Phase 2 of the project.

2. Collect further data for the research study, particularly on the performance of beneficiaries in National examinations

Success in Year 3:

1. Analyse data and generate evidence on the impact and cost effectiveness of assistive technology, and publish and disseminate findings to education stakeholders.

2. Advocate for the roll-out of the model by Kenya MoE for all visually impaired learners at secondary and primary school level, and for the Kenya Government to mainstream the provision of technology to assist visually impaired learners into their ICT strategy.

3. Promote adoption of the model in three other countries in Africa through partnership with the WBU, African Union of the Blind, the MoE and other NGOs.

Do you have a business plan or strategic plan? (yes/no)


What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization? STEP 1:

We will scale up the project to more schools, including primary* if possible, and continue to develop effective M&E to increase the sample size and produce compelling evidence to stimulate governments to fund and support assistive technology.

* After demonstrating success at secondary level, where visually impaired learners are most disadvantaged, we hope to develop it at primary level. The current project intends to improve primary education by improving the abilities of visually impaired teachers, facilitating transition from primary to secondary, and providing a model for adaptation.

What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization? STEP 2:

Following demonstration of the viability of assistive technology for visually impaired learners, advocacy is necessary on a national basis to ensure that the Kenyan MoE mainstreams this initiative. We will advocate for the MoE to commit to cost-effective assistive technology for all visually impaired learners, and develop further strategic alliances and partnerships to facilitate this.

What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization? STEP 3:

We will further develop partnerships with governments to grow this initiative and embed assistive technology into education systems across the continent. This will also be achieved through Techshare Africa which Sightsavers and the WBU’s Institutional Development Programme will launch in 2011. This is a regional initiative for technology and development for people with disabilities. It is an excellent opportunity to communicate evidence and best practice from our pilot project to encourage decision-makers across Africa to mainstream assistive technology into their strategy and actions.

Describe the expected results of these actions.

This pilot project and the actions described above are expected to demonstrate to governments the value to the education system of assistive technology for visually impaired learners, both in terms of educational attainment and transition to employment and the cost-savings made through such technology. This project demonstrates how to develop locally-relevant technology, how to develop it in a cost-effective manner, and how to ensure its effective use through training and support. Through continued advocacy with government, learning institutions and other agencies, it is hoped that this initiative will result in the development of strong, inclusive strategies for using assistive technology in education for blind and visually impaired learners, and the implementation of these strategies in Kenya and across Africa.

What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

At the WBU’s Africa Forum in 1999, blind people in Africa specifically requested access to assistive technology. They asked Sightsavers International to lead the development of screen reader technology that was appropriate and affordable in Africa. In line with our goal to eliminate avoidable blindness and promote equality of opportunity for disabled people, we took on this challenge to narrow the technology divide and teamed up with British accessibility software company Dolphin Computer Access Ltd.

In Kenya, Sightsavers has been promoting inclusive education for over two decades. In recent years, the school curriculum has been changing regularly with recommended textbooks changing almost on yearly basis. This posed a great challenge for learners with visual impairment as producing a single text book in Braille takes over four months, thus students often finish a whole year without appropriate education materials. In 2006, the MoE announced enhancement of ICT in secondary schools, but no concrete initiatives were proposed to address the difficulties faced by visually impaired learners. This opportunity was taken to pilot our assistive technology as part of a comprehensive, integrated project and advocate for its replication as a model of improving education for visually impaired students.

Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.

Chris Friend, Programme Development Advisor at Sightsavers International, and Noel Duffy, Managing Director of Dolphin Computer Access Ltd, developed a partnership to bring NGO and corporate experience together to create this innovative, affordable technology. Chris, himself blind since the age of eighteen, brought to the partnership significant knowledge and experience of disability and development issues in Africa through his work for Sightsavers and the WBU’s Institutional Development Programme. Noel brought his company’s technology, a commitment to the real purpose of the technology, and therefore a desire to adapt it for the benefit of visually impaired people who cannot afford it. Together, these two innovators worked with the WBU and other local partners in Africa to develop technology that would be locally relevant and affordable. Noel is now working directly with the African Union of the Blind to reproduce the technology in other languages. Chris continues to spearhead its use in Sightsavers’ projects, advocate for changes to publishing which would enable blind people to read the same book at the same time and for the same price as everyone else through the Right to Read campaign, and has been appointed as the Strategic Objective Leader on Accessibility for the WBU following his involvement and experience in this field.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

We heard about Changemakers through the Ashoka website.

What would prevent your project from being a success?

The main risks to the project and strategies to mitigate them are:
1. Limited availability and cost of computers: The project is designed to enable students to study at any time in any location, requiring personal computers or shared access to desktop computers. The cost of personal computers, the availability of shared computers at school, and the availability of electricity particularly in rural areas could hinder replication of the project. The cost is mitigated through our partnership with Computer Aid International, through whom we acquire adequate low-cost computers.
2. Delayed translation of books: Textbooks must be translated to, or made available in, soft copy in order to be used with the Sightsavers Dolphin Pen. This was delayed during phase one due to copyrights rules and technical capacity. The project has now successfully engaged the MoE in acquiring exemption of the copyright requirements from relevant publishers to enable the project to produce the materials in accessible formats, and secured Easy Converter technology to translate books in selected institutions in Kenya.
3. Technology security: The new software is designed to access information using any computer, and a small number of Dolphin Pens have consequently been affected by viruses. To address this, Dolphin Ltd is producing a ‘concept’ version of a pen drive which houses the software in a separate partition on the pen drive, which will give a much better level of security and be available soon.

Financing source
If yes, provide organization name.

Yes, Sightsavers International.

How long has this organization been operating? (i.e. less than a year; 1-5 years; more than 5 years)

Sightsavers International has been operating for over 50 years. Sightsavers’ office in Kenya was established in 1956

Does your organization have a Board of Directors or an Advisory Board?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with NGOs? (yes/no)


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with businesses? (yes/no)


The Story
Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with government? (yes/no)


Please tell us more about how these partnerships are critical to the success of your innovation.

Partnerships with government and other local organisations are critical to ensure the sustainability of our work, both for those children who are already involved in the project and those who will be in future. For example, partnership with the WBU and blind and visually impaired people in Africa was critical to developing locally-relevant technology, and this partnership will continue to ensure the technology is improved and available in other languages. Partnership with the MoE is vital to ensure that assistive technology is embedded within government education systems and can be scaled up to reach more children. Our relationship with the African Braille Centre and Kenya Union of the Blind ensures that the technology is appropriate and useable, teachers are trained, textbooks are available, and students are provided with ongoing support.

How many people will your project serve annually?


What is the total number of employees and total number of volunteers at your organization?

Kenya: 5 employees
Sightsavers International:334

What is your organization's business classification?

Non-profit/NGO/citizen sector organization

Have you received funding from any of the following groups? (Please check as many as apply.)

AusAID (Australia) , DFID (United Kingdom) , European Union (Any EU Government) , Garfield Weston Foundation , United Nations (UN) , USAID (United States) .