NEW: When technology helps the visually impaired to see

27 Mar, 2024 - 08:03 0 Views
NEW: When technology helps the visually impaired to see Tracy Phiri reading aloud for workshop participants using braille

The Sunday Mail

Theseus Shambare

A room full of people stood in rapt attention, watching as a young woman confidently made her way to the stage.

With her cane tapping against the floor, she moved with grace and precision, navigating the room with ease.

As she reached the podium, the crowd erupted into applause.

The sight before them was nothing short of remarkable.

Standing before them was Tracy Phiri, a visually impaired young woman, who was about to give a presentation using only her voice and an assistive technology device.

As she began to speak, her words filled the room with hope and inspiration.

In her presentation, Tracy described how she learnt to use assistive technology to access information and navigate the world around her.

She explained how she uses her smartphone to read books and articles, find places on a map, and even navigate the streets of Harare without a helper.

Her audience was amazed by her abilities, and by her determination to overcome the challenges of being visually impaired.

Tragedy

When The Sunday Mail Online tracked her to the dormitory town of Chitungwiza, where she resides with her aunt, Tracy revealed that life has never been a walk in the park for the past 29 years.

She was born visually impaired, and the doctors had foretold her parents of a doomed lifetime.

No one, including close relatives, had ever imagined that she would one day become a beacon of hope for others – defying all odds to pursue her dreams.

At the age of seven, the Grim Reaper took her only source of hope and support, her mother, who had already separated with her father.

“Her death forced me to drop out of school while doing Grade Two, because no one was able to pay for my school fees.

“My mother’s death separated me from my two siblings, as I went into the custody of my mother’s sister,” Tracy narrated her ordeal.

Her life almost crumbled.

As if that was not enough, after a desperate search for her father for four years, she only met him on his deathbed.

“It was tragedy after tragedy. Having been born visually impaired and losing both parents at that early age. I cannot describe the feeling that overwhelmed me,” she said.

Fate led her to Margaretha Hugo, Copota School for the Blind in Masvingo, where her script was rewritten.

With financial assistance from well-wishers, she was taught braille, which eventually became her language.

“This is where I restarted my academic journey from Grade Zero again, up to Form Six.

“Honestly, it was just grace; I don’t even know who was paying for my fees, but everything was catered for,” she said.

She got 10 units at Grade Seven and six subjects at Ordinary Level, before getting 11 points at Advanced Level.

Tracy, now a social work student at the University of Zimbabwe, can read and write her assignments with ease, assisted by information and communication technology (ICT) gadgets like laptops.

Benefiting from the upgraded software, she can now “see” through talk-back.

Tracy is determined that after completing her studies, she will help others find light in the darkness, just as she did.

“My dream is to empower the disadvantaged in different communities, so that they know that education is for all. I also dream of venturing into entrepreneurship, so that I can live an independent life while helping other vulnerable people,” she said.

Tracy’s story is a powerful reminder that technology has the power to transform lives and create a more inclusive society.

However, although Tracy is still in need of more help, very few are as fortunate as she is, as many people with disabilities (PWDs) are largely finding it increasingly difficult to access ICT skills, due to a lack of resources.

This has created a social gap that has made it difficult for people with disabilities to have access to information, education and other crucial human rights.

Mr Taurai Chako, the lead consultant with the Disabilities and Development Pathways, said exclusion of PWDs in ICTs is detrimental to the economy.

“To achieve Vision 2030, Government should ensure that people with disabilities are not left out in the adoption of technology. If they continue to be excluded, it means we are creating more beggars yet we want everyone to contribute to nation building.

“Inclusive drive is the Vision 2030 accelerator; to achieve it, no one has to be left behind.

“It is costlier to leave PWDs than to create an inclusive environment for all so that we move forward together,” said Mr Chako.

University of Zimbabwe media and linguistics lecturer Mr Sipho Sibanda said ICTs are the key to accessibility.

“PWDs have been facing challenges of accessing information. Now what we need to do as a country is to make sure that our policies that are in inclusion with ICT are conducive and applicable.

While accessing information with ICT is crucial, the challenge now is accessing the gadgets at crucial institutions.

“There are selected schools that have ICT gadgets for PWDs. So there is a need for synergies between Government departments and Ministries to ensure inclusive education at all levels,” said Mr Sibanda.

Every school, he said, must be mandated to embrace ICTs since education is now largely done electronically.

“E-learning is taking precedence over face-to-face classes,” said Mr Sibanda.

He said the import duty imposed on ICT-assistive gadgets makes it difficult for people with disabilities to have access to information.

“Buying ICT-assistive devices is expensive on its own and having them pay import duty makes them unaffordable for the disadvantaged groups.

“The same way civil servants are exempted from paying duty for cars, Government should say the same about these assistive, important gadgets that help people with disabilities live better,” said Mr Sibanda.

Ms Samantha Sibanda, director of Signs of Hope Trust and an activist for people with disabilities, said access to information is a fundamental human right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“With the right technology, those who were once left behind can now thrive and contribute in ways they never could before.

“In a world where technology is constantly evolving, it is now possible to imagine a future where no one is left behind.

“Article 21 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), among other things, encourages state parties to ensure that persons with disabilities (PWDs) exercise their right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas on an equal basis with others and in a form of communication of their choice,” she said.

Last month, the Government through the Ministry of Finance, Economic Development and Investment Promotion, decided to eliminate Value Added Tax (VAT) on Assistive Technologies.

Assistive devices are not mere luxury items or optional accessories; they are essential tools that enable individuals with disabilities to attain independence and actively participate in society.

These include hearing aids, wheelchairs, and assistive technology (AT) devices, among others.

The lack of these tools creates a social gap, which makes it difficult for people with disabilities to have access to information, education and other crucial human rights.

In June 2021, President Mnangagwa launched the National Disability Policy, of which section 3.14 is dedicated to issues of accessibility, promoting and directing access by persons with disabilities from buildings, and transportation, including indoor and outdoor facilities.

It also prioritises the issue of ICTs for PWDs.

National director of Disability Affairs under the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Dr Christine Peta said ICTs for PWDs have been prioritised by Government.

“The Government of Zimbabwe takes cognisance of the fact that information and communication and all other services including electronic services must be accessible to PWDs.

“Even when there is new information in ICTs, the programming, designing, production and distribution must be in line and conform with the policy.

“Government, through the department of Disability Affairs provides assistive devices like hearing aids. However, we are also calling upon tertiary institutions to impart skills to students so that they can design and manufacture assistive devices and technologies for PWDs.

“This will ensure availability and affordability of them compared to imported gadgets,” said Dr Peta.

 

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