ICTs and Assistive Technology in Education: Paving the Way for the Integration and Inclusion of People with Disabilities

Introduction

With the advent of information and communication technologies (ICTs), new hopes are emerging for Persons with Disabilities (PWDs). In spite of the huge challenges, sincere efforts are being undertaken to involve ICTs to counter issues around disability.

ICTs and Assistive Technology (AT) are offering new opportunities for everyone but they are becoming more significant for PWDs, as PWDs use assistive technology for daily activities to a higher extent than other people, in general. When using assistive technology that is adapted to the abilities of everyone, disabled end-users are able to participate in all aspects of social life on more equal terms than ever before. It is vital for students to benefit, on an equal basis, from rapid development of ICTs to enter an inclusive and barrier-free Information Society.

A lot of effort is required to address the special requirements of Students with Disabilities, using new pedagogical technologies and appropriate methods of educational, administrative and legislative measures to ensure their full integration and inclusion.

ICT have become the most suitable tool, in the field of education, to enhance independence and equal opportunities for all. AT tools can be used to allow students with serious sensory impairments such as physical, visual, hearing, cognitive impairments, as well as speech language and learning impairments for communication to provide an individual with opportunity and to support lifelong learning for students with disabilities to participate in the educational process based on special techniques and equipment.

The new technologies of information and communication are essential tools to advance social inclusion, as they provide capacities
for PWDs to access and use information, to interact, therefore, to enjoy educational, training, and employment opportunities. Thereupon, access to Information Society products and services, including ICTs, has become vital in enabling and facilitating the integration of PWDs in society. However, if the technologies fail to match the needs of end-users, they can turn into a new and insuperable barrier for PWDs.

Statistics and Fact Sheet

The following statistics will give us a better idea of the use and importance of ICTs and AT use in Education:

  • On an average, around 17% of the world population is disabled and this number is likely to increase in the near future due to various factors. Says the World Health Organization (WHO), an on average of around 15% of the Arab world population is a disabled.
  • Eighty percent of persons with disabilities live in developing countries, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
  • Disability rates are significantly higher among groups with lower educational attainment in the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), says the OECD Secretariat. On average, 19% of less educated people have disabilities, compared to 11% among the better educated.
  • The World Bank estimates that 20% of the world’s poorest people have some kind of disability, and tend to be regarded in their own communities as the most disadvantaged.
  • Ninety percent of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school, says the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (UNESCO).
  • The global literacy rate for adults with disabilities is as low as 3%, and 1% for women with disabilities, according to a 1998 UNDP study.

Taking into account the above statistics, it is important to note that the information society must be created on the principles of social engagement, i.e. involvement of all citizens, regardless of their abilities, background, social status, ethnicity, etc. The common grounds of this approach were expressed in Declaration of Principles of World Summit on Information Society in the intention “to build a people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.

The benefits of ICT in e-learning and improving capabilities of Persons with Disabilities

Basically, we all believe that an ‘Information Society for All’ can be achieved through a number of methods. One method, forexample, is the building and supporting Knowledge AT centers/Telecentres in remote and disadvantages communities all over the world, specifically in the poor and developing countries which could and should be structured in such a way so that they can look after the needs of the disabled:

ICTs are useful for improving quality of life by enhancing effectiveness of teaching, developing life-skills; complementing learning in special needs education, and exploring other related issues.

ICTs enable disabled students to provide access to the curriculum and support learning and help disabled trainers and promote their skills.

ICT, if utilized in a coordinated, planned and appropriate manner, can be compared to a magic wand that can help the disabled students to jump forward, to capacity building, empowerment and combating poverty in their communities.

ICT is heralded as enabling PWDs to fully participate and enhance the social and economic life of their communities, combined with proper methodologies can offer individuals the ability to compensate for physical or functional limitations.

ICT is a significant force in terms of providing choice and opportunity to disabled students and serving as a significant means of bridging the gap between the disabled other people.

ICT offers the old and the young alike an opportunity to overcome social barriers to interaction and communication that can be caused by the lack of provision for impairments or life-long limiting illness.

ICT has also been identified as playing a significant role in offering severely disabled people an increased degree of independence in everyday life.

ICT gives disabled persons an improved quality of life through individuals and offer the ability to compensate by accessing knowledge and adapting digital media to the nature of their disabilities.

e-Learning and Education for Persons with Disabilities

e-learning, or “electronic learning” is fast becoming the leading mode of distance delivery in adult education. It is also a powerful tool in increasing diversity among learners. As more learners become engaged in e-learning, instructors and course developers are finding that the pool of learners is becoming increasingly diverse. Among those learners who access adult education through e-learning, a portion will be those who have learning challenges due to disability.

e-learning and education must work to meet the accelerating needs of communities, especially as the numbers of students with disabilities in societies particularly in remote and disadvantaged communities, has increased. For this reason, we are required to work with groups of developers, researchers, teachers and volunteers to combat this situation. We are also obliged to set work plans and look to the data gathered from monitoring and evaluation to realize to be able to make informed decisions and changes.

We can work gradually through a grounded base of special education teachers, volunteers and donors, who implement e-learning strategy and suggest ways in which instructors and course developers can prepare their e-learning courses so that accessibility is maximized for all learners, including those with disabilities. Observing the principle of universal design for learning, “best practice” teaching strategies and accessibility guidelines will reduce barriers in an e-learning environment.

ICT Providing Computer Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities

It is important to have intensive exchanges of knowledge and experience in promoting awareness, planning and developing accessible ICTs solutions in the context of sustainable and equitable development for present and future generations.To address the digital divide faced by persons with disabilities in the world and to promote digital opportunities for PWDs, a set of decisions, (declarations) and recommendations must be made as well as the formulation of standard definitions of terms such as PWDs, (ICT) “and “Accessibility”. For example, “Accessibility” can readily be reached or used at: People with Physical Disabilities, Blind and Visual Impairments, Intellectual and Hearing Disabilities. Also, Learning Disabilities, Autistic Spectrum Disorders, Down Syndrome and Dyslexia.

The role of people in the ICT industry is to promote and enhance teaching, learning and exploring the issues relating to how ICTs enhance learning. ICT practitioners should also explore how ICTs enrich the learning opportunities and potential of students who have disabilities.

The issues is largely a software concern; realizing ways when software, hardware, or a combination of hardware and software, can enable use of a computer by a person with a disability.

ICTs and Barriers: What do we need and what are the challenges?

It is crucial to raise awareness about the barriers that persons with disabilities face and identify the potential of technology to overcome these barriers.

Several inter-related barriers to ICT can be identified in existing literature. These are:

  • Lack of interest.
  • Lack of awareness.
  • Difficulty of access.
  • High cost of ICT.
  • Lack of on-going support.
  • Lack of training.
  • Limited complementary services e.g. assistive technology, special accommodation for certified exams, vocational counseling and assessments.
  • Limited accessibility features at mainstream ICT training facilities.

For the sake of brevity, these barriers will be referred to throughout the document simply as interest, awareness, access, cost, training and ongoing support. In this sense, the above-identified barriers can be seen as bottlenecks in the path towards ICT education and inclusion.

People enter the process of ICT education and inclusion at different stages. For example, some persons may already have aninterest in and awareness of ICT having recently retired from a job requiring computer literacy. Others may have money but lack and awareness of means by which they can access ICT. The barriers, therefore, inter-relate and overlap. For example, there is often a prohibitive cost associated with training or on-going support. Similarly, little or no awareness of low cost and no cost options can serve as a bottleneck to bringing ICT equipment within the financial reach of many PWDs.

There are different types of support structures available within countries; specialist national, regional, and global working groups to support networks and online networks can all be considered valuable support structures. However, it is may be necessary to focus efforts on combinations of one or more structures to increase the success of the role of ICTs in development disabilities by overcoming attitude barriers in relation to understanding the benefits and possibilities of ICTs at policy and diffused responsibility for policy implementation.

Conclusion: “The People are the real wealth of a nation”

ICT is providing opportunities and making life easier for students with disabilities by introducing them to innovations in quick succession. Students with disabilities are now able to communicate with each other and learn through tools of Assistive Technology (AT) and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).

Despite the fact that AT & ICTs are helping students with disabilities to learn and interact, there are still some barriers that stand in the way of the disabled taking advantage of these wonderful technologies. The following are suggestions on means to overcoming these barriers:

  • Ensure that all students with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living.
  • Design and develop special education programs and instructions to meet the unique needs of a student with a disability that is provided at no cost to the child or the child’s parents. Ensure that these programs are provided in the classroom, in the home and institutions and in other settings.
  • Establish training programs to disabled instructors and develop personal training, classroom training, e-learning and online seminars according to need and preference.
  • Collaborate with universities and development research projects to focuses on innovation in the area of Arabic language solutions to expand the reach of AT solutions to Arabic-speaking students.

Finally, people with disabilities should have the same rights to participate in the Information Society as other citizens. ICT should be tools that help overcome barriers they face in education, the workplace and social life.