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How tech brings self-reliance to students with disabilities

by Prasad Krishna last modified May 29, 2016 07:47 AM
Rakshit Malik, 18, has every reason to be pleased with himself. He just scored 96.4% in his Class 12 exam -the third-highest score in CBSE's disabled category.

The article was published by the Times of India on May 29, 2016. Nirmita Narasimhan gave inputs.

He treats his visual impairment matter-of-factly: "My ability is stronger than my disability". A humanities student who wants to specialize in history, Malik learns by listening. He hears the material, pauses, and assimilates it. "While we found audio versions of NCERT textbooks in Classes 9 and 10, they are not available for Classes 11 and 12," says Malik, who then used his own method. "Mama recorded herself reading out my textbooks".

This year, there was merely a 12-mark difference between the student who topped the disabled category and the highest scorer in the exam. In many cases, learning outcomes are aligning, and advances in assistive technology have something to do with the trend. While it is still essential to know Braille, the system of reading raised dots by touch is falling out of use in many parts of the world. In the US, fewer than 10% of the visually impaired read Braille. Now, digital screen readers and magnifiers, and text-tospeech apps make sure that a blind student and a sighted one are on the same page. "Tactile diagrams can be used to teach geography , science and other subjects that require visual aids," explains Nirmita Narasimhan, accessibility expert and policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society , Bangalore.

As more learning material is put online, students have it much easier than they did a generation ago. They also get study notes from peer-to-peer forums.

According to the 2011 census, 2.21% of the Indian population -around 26.8 million -have some form of disability . On paper, the state is committed to supporting these students, and to providing aids and appliances, access to material, scribes and readers; and easing exam processes.In practice, it is far from smooth, explains Diana Joseph of the Fourth Wave Foundation, a Karnataka NGO that bridges the gap between government and students with the Nanagu Shaale programme."Each integrated education resource trainer has to oversee 30 schools. So it's often perfunctory . For example, they may supply hearing tools, without explaining that the battery must be replaced."

Over the last five years, there has been progress in both technology and policy. Copyright restrictions have been lifted for the use of the disabled. Textbooks have been proactively digitized. But ultimately , success depends on the mundane but critical matter of the right standards, explains Dipendra Manocha, who leads the DAISY for All project in India. DAISY, or Digital Accessible Information System, is an international standard for printed material that can be read in Braille, large print, audio, etc on a computer or mobile phone. By contrast, something scanned as an image file can't be read.

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