Computers are essential tools in all academic studies. They can enhance the independence, productivity, and capabilities of people with disabilities.
Furthermore, computers can benefit people with low vision, blindness, speech and hearing impairments, learning disabilities, mobility, and health impairments.
Each of these impairments poses challenges to accessing and using a standard computer and electronic resources.
For example, a student who is visually disabled is unable to read a computer screen display or standard printouts.
A student with a spinal cord injury may not have the motor control and finger dexterity required to use a standard mouse and keyboard.
Accordingly, African governments should prioritise adaptive technology devices since they are necessary for people living with disabilities. Adaptive hardware and software can facilitate computer access for people with disabilities.
Access to computers for students with disabilities involves two major issues: access to the computers themselves and access to electronic resources such as word processors, spreadsheets, and the World Wide Web.
Adaptive technology solutions may involve simple, readily available adjustments such as using built-in access devices on standard computers, or they may require unique combinations of software and hardware such as those needed for voice or Braille output.
Most individuals who are visually impaired can use a standard keyboard. Since viewing standard screen displays and printed documents is problematic, specialised voice and Braille output devices can translate text into synthesised voice and Braille output, respectively.
Dr Tamru E Belay, an adaptive technology specialist, says there are essentially five methods of output that can render computers and printed materials accessible for individuals who are blind or visually impaired: screen reader, Braille printer, reading device, electronic Braille displays, and text magnification.
He explains: “The Screen Reader converts computer outputs and text entering cues into major spoken languages. The person with visual impairment can access computers with the help of speech output to use any word processor application to write letters, school assignments or any other writing. The exploration of the Internet and sending electronic-mail (e-mail) are possible for a blind individual by the use of a speech synthesiser.
“A Braille Embosser is a hardware device for ‘printing’ a hard copy of a text document in Braille. A Braille translation software program is required to translate the text from the computer into Braille. Most Braille translation software programs can translate material into several grades or versions of Braille. Computerised Braille Embossers definitely have great advantage over the manual Brailing method.
“The reading devices for the blind allow access to hard copy of ink printed materials into the computer where it becomes accessible. Once the text has scanned within a second, the user can start listening to the text in a clear voice. The user can also save the scanned material for later use.”
Belay goes on to say: “There are also devices that are able to convert ordinary print or the symbols on a computer screen into an exact tactile replica. The Braille Display is one such a device and it is a vital communication device exceptionally for persons who are deaf-blind.
“There are also read-write systems, mostly doubling as word processors and computer terminals. Braille text is entered and manipulated by means of a simple six-dot keyboard and a few additional keys or switches. Text is displayed on a small tactile screen. To produce hard copy, the device is interfaced with ordinary standard printers or with Braille Embossers.
“For persons with partial sight there is an ever increasing range of useful magnifying lenses. By means of closed circuit television devices, print can be enlarged and brought into focus and small objects observed closely.”
Dr Marcia J Scherer in ‘Living in the State of Stuck: How Technology Impacts the Lives of People with Disabilities’ said, “To be effective, adaptive technology must not only foster independence and autonomy but also contribute to a positive identity and enhanced self-esteem.”
Accordingly, the use of adaptive technology should be to improve the quality of life of those with disabilities; to enhance the vocation, recreation, education and independence of the user; and to provide equality between visually impaired individuals and their sighted peers within the emerging information society.
With the aid of the adaptive technology devices, people with disabilities can independently access, process, store and transmit the same information handled by sighted people. Importantly, the use of adaptive technology devices enhances functions and increases skills and opportunities for people with disabilities.
Consequently, African governments should facilitate the provision and manufacturing of assertive technology devices. Countries in the African continent must stop importing expensive assistive technology devices. Instead, they must produce their own devices.
More so, it is the obligation of African governments to embrace such devices and technologies and ensure the integration of people with disabilities into the mainstream and to level the playing field.
Frankly, the vast proportion of employment, education and daily living activities require access to electronic information. Therefore, adaptive technology devices can assist people with disabilities to become active participants in their respective societies.
The progress of adaptive technology devices has meant that people with disabilities can have access to practically everything through spoken messages, natural or synthetic, through tactile markings and readings, through enlarged or enlargeable characters and/or through optical character recognition systems. Therefore, Africa must embrace and promote the use of these devices.