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From JAWS to Dolphins: IT for Nairobi's blind students

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Lawrence Momanyji, at Kilimani Primary School in Nairobi, KenyaCase study Lawrence Momanyji, 10 sits at the front of class with a Brailler at his desk. Lawrence is a bright boy – he came fifth out of 52 in the recent class exams. He is a pupil at Kilimani Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya, one of 32 blind and visually impaired children on the school roll.

Kilimani is, according to its headmistress Salome Kariuki, "a very big and old school – the buildings are falling apart. The parents do not have the means to repair it, and the city council has other things to spend its money on. But despite that, the performance is good".

The school has 1,200 children aged between five and 14, most of whom come from very poor families – it is near one of Nairobi’s biggest slums. The average class size is 50.

Kilimani’s Integrated Education programme for blind and visually impaired has run since 1983 and some of its ‘graduates’ have completed university courses. The programme is supported by the charity Sight Savers International, a strong advocate of inclusive education. In all, 220 blind and visually impaired children are being taught in Nairobi's mainstream public schools - a specialist peripatetic teacher, Anthony Mwangani, based at Kilimani, also services so-called sub resource centres in other schools in the city.

At Kilimani, the blind and visually impaired children start off in a beginner’s class, currently 19 strong. They join a mainstream class as soon as they can read Braille unaided. Typically, it takes two years to make the switch, but there is a wide range of abilities and differing ages within the beginners’ class – the current intake has children aged between three and 11.

All the blind children in the mainstream classes are supplied with their own Braillers, but the problem is “they are owned by children”, the school says and are often broken. Braillers are expensive too – around K Sch 40,000 (£320), as are Braille books and Braille paper. And Braille is clunky.The Braille version of the Bible occupies 49 large-format books.

Reading Braille

The blind and visually impaired children follow the normal curriculum, but when changes are made it takes four to six months for updated Braille versions to arrive, Kenyan Union of the Blind executive officer Martin Kieti says.

This is where computers would come in useful. But it is early days yet. A year ago, the school got its first computer for the blind students - a refurbished Pentium III funded by Sight Savers and supplied by Computer Aid International, the UK-based PC recycling charity.

The children are taught in ones and twos, away from their classes. First thing on the agenda is mastering the keyboard as the children can’t use the mouse. They start with Microsoft software and learn the keyboard layout and then how to format a document. This takes about a year, though the length is determined partly by the rationing of access to the computer. “We have only one computer and the children are many,” says Mr Mwangani. But the school is also keen that children do not miss out on their mainstream courses.

Kilimani's lone PC has some software called JAWS - Job Access with Speech. This is a voice output facility which enables students to play back what they have written. But it is only a trial version: the computer must be rebooted after 40 minutes.

From JAWS to Dolphins

Computer program to make learning easier for the visually impairedJAWS is limited because it deals with speech only, Martin Kieti says. Partially-sighted, Mr Kieti is a keen advocate of the Dolphin Project, Sight Savers’ latest project for education. He carries a 256KB USB flash drive in his pocket, containing all the software configuration he needs. He can put this into any PC running Windows XP or Windows 2000 and with a USB port. "If I go to a cybercafe, I can simply plug it in," he says.

On the flash drive is Supernova software supplied by Dolphin Computer Access. There are three facilities, or consoles, covering magnification, speech, voice input, and Braille. Using Supernova, the keyboard can be configured as a Brailler and a specialist printer prints out raised dots in Braille.

Sight Savers is to roll-out the Dolphin Project with 45 refurbished laptops supplied by ComputerAid and flash drives containing SuperNova to support blind students at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. At a cost of US$250 each, for the laptop and the flash drive, the prices compare very well with Braillers and Braille books. Using the PC, lecturers who are not conversant in Braille can input normal text which translates into Braille.

Kieti hopes that technology will opens up job prospects. Most blind undergraduates go on to become teachers, a few go into law. But job prospects are seriously limited in a country that has an effective unemployment rate of 45 per cent. However, Kieti is hopeful that technology will make it easier for young blind adults to find work. The Supernova software, already configured, will remove employers’ expense of having to set up dedicated workstations for visually impaired staff. ®

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