Groundbreaking technology could revolutionise the future for the blind – but the exorbitant costs make it inaccessible.
“There are many things I want to be when I grow up,” 12-year-old Jonas Ndlovu says in his soft voice. “When I was doing grade three, I wanted to be a farmer because I like animals.”
Seated on an office chair, his small frame is still except for his fingers, which he intertwines.
“But then in grade four, I learnt about the courts and that entertained me. I want to protect people so I wanted to be a lawyer.”
Jonas pauses between sentences, as if carefully selecting his words. His eyes move slightly when he speaks.
“This December, eish,” he says, covering his face with his hands, “I was thinking it would be nice to be a programmer.”
He is alert to some obstacles but he is determined to overcome them.
“Then if I had the money, I could programme a robot to guide me and to do some things for me. Like, if I want the broom but I don’t see it, I will tell the robot to find it and bring it here.”
A bell rings in the background indicating break time and learners stream out of their classes. It’s the first day of the 2016 school calendar at the Sibonile Primary School for the Visually Impaired in Meyerton, south of Johannesburg, and Jonas’s first day of grade seven, but he doesn’t join his friends outside.
He is fluent in English, which he began learning only in grade one. And he has learnt to use the new equipment at the school so well that he spends time with teachers training them or helping them teach his classmates.
He giggles as he feels the presence of the school’s principal, who stands a few metres away looking at her “most promising student”, and says: “I told you I like to help people.”
Just over 7% of the population lives with a disability, sight problems being the most common, according to a 2014 report by Statistics South Africa, based on data from the 2011 national census.
It is estimated that more than one in 10 people who are classified as disabled have vision problems. But the South African Council for the Blind says that only 3% of blind people are employed.
Those who have jobs are usually employed in lower-level jobs, according to a report from the social justice organisation, Section27. Published two months ago, and based on interviews with all the country’s 22 schools for blind and visually impaired learners, the report blames this on “the paltry state of education” available and on barriers created by social stigma.
Commenting in the report, former justice in the Constitutional Court Zak Jacoob, who lost his sight in his infancy, says blind children lack the support they need despite “the significant and laudable efforts of very many dedicated, though often underequipped and under-supported principals, teachers and support staff at special schools for learners with visual impairments”.
Tech opening up a ‘world of opportunities’
Lindiwe Mhlungu, who has been Sibonile’s principal since 2011, says there has been a renewed focus on schools for the visually impaired in the past three years, particularly with “access to new technology, which is changing the lives of kids before my very eyes”.
She says new devices have “opened up a world of opportunities” for the 189 learners in her school. “With these assistive devices, there is no difference between me, who can see, and them – they can do what I can do and sometimes even better than me.”
She believes that it is a lack of knowledge among general society that has left the majority of blind people without a steady income.
“When I have approached companies in the past to inquire about employing people with sight disabilities, they automatically suggest positions like a receptionist, because that is the only thing they think blind people can do,” says Mhlungu.
“They don’t realise in this digital age that the only thing missing is vision, not brain power and definitely not capability – if they have access to the technology, of course.”
About 40% of the learners in the boarding school are blind, and most are partially sighted. But, she says, many children have several disabilities, including hearing and intellectual impairments.
“It makes our job very tough because each child has a unique obstacle so we can’t teach everyone in the same way,” she says.
The Section27 report highlights unequal access to “vital” devices that “allow learners with visual impairments to perform ordinary tasks such as reading, writing, studying and using computers”.
The report states that some learners do not learn how to use a computer at all, “a skill which is particularly crucial for blind learners who often will not have access to Braille materials during their tertiary education or in places of work, and will therefore need to rely completely on the use of computers”.
In comparison, Sibonile, which caters for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, is surprisingly well equipped.
Each child has access to Braille machines and, from grade four, each child has their own special Braille computer, which they carry around with them during the day and which are locked away at night for security purposes.
This computer, called the BrailleNote Apex, was identified in the Section27 report as “perhaps the most cutting-edge assistive device” for people with vision disabilities.
Edwin Seqwabe, who trains teachers on how to use it and other devices, says the Apex allows blind people to access anything on the internet because it digitally converts text to Braille.
The Apex is a flat rectangular device with eight big keys, which represent the six Braille notations, as well as “enter” and “backspace” buttons. Below that, there is one key, the conventional space bar.
Seqwabe says it might look odd to sighted people because there is no screen. Instead a “strap” of little holes spans the length of the device through which plastic dots appear and retract, converting text into Braille.
“You just run your hand over this and read what is on the ‘screen’.”
A costly – but vital – device
Born blind, Seqwabe is statistically extraordinary – he is one of the few blind people in the country with a job. He is employed by Edit Microsystems, the Cape Town-based company that imports this device from the United States, and he travels around South Africa to train teachers in schools that have been equipped with these computers.
“This is so important because it allows a blind learner, in their own language, Braille, to read and type and use software common to most workplaces and education environments,” he says.
The Western Cape’s education department was the first in the country to fund these devices in schools in 2013. It was called the eBraille project. A number of other devices were are also part of the project but the Apex is the most important and most expensive, according to Pieter Labuschagne, the managing director of Edit Microsystems.
The cost of the Apex has been badly affected by the falling rand/dollar exchange rate. He estimates that one Apex will now cost about R70 000, about 10 times more than an ordinary laptop.
“But if you look at disabled schools in developed countries – England for example – this is standard. It allows someone to function on the same level and do the same things as a person who can see. Not having it is not an option. But, of course, we have more financial pressures in South Africa, so access is not the same here. Not yet,” he says.
Chasfred Ahrends, from the Western Cape department of education, says that in South Africa’s context the Apex is particularly valuable because many of the curriculum’s textbooks are not available in Braille.
“The introduction of this device has allowed us to install all text books in electronic format, effortlessly.”
He says other provinces have seen its advantages and have begun to buy them too. Some Limpopo and Gauteng schools, such as Sibonile, have been given them – and the opportunity for learners to develop “the necessary skills to take their place in society”.
Ahrends says “learners who are blind should be given opportunities to compete in the job market with those who have full sight” and this is one of the tools that can facilitate that.
An uncertain future
Back at Sibonile, Mhlungu tells Jonas to join his friends at break. “You deserve it, my child,” she says.
After he has expertly navigated his way out of the classroom Mhlungu says: “To see this child doing so well, it actually lifts my spirit.”
Despite Mhlungu’s praise, Jonas’s future is uncertain. When he leaves Sibonile to start high school next year, he will not be able to take the school’s Apex with him and his parents cannot afford to buy the device for him.
“It makes me happy but sad at the same time, this boy is so intelligent. But he will be failed by us, by society, if this is where access to assistive technology ends,” she says.
In Jonas’s home in Daveyton, east of Johannesburg, his elderly father is seated on a ragged couch. He runs his hands across his face, thinking.
“You know, Jonas set this up for us in the school holiday,” he says, pointing to the television stacked on a pile of books on the bare floor. “We didn’t know how it works.”
All the members of Jonas’s family can see, but this hasn’t made him feel excluded.
“You know, Jonas is our last-born but he has surpassed us all.”
Mainstream schools not suitable for all
Pieter Jans Durr, who has a condition called tunnel vision, which renders him legally blind, has been at Swartland High School in the Western Cape for the past two years. At this mainstream school, Durr is the only pupil who cannot see adequately. But it isn’t strange to him. In fact, he says, it has changed his life for the better.
“I used to go to Swartland Primary School, a mainstream school, but when my sight got too bad my parents decided to send me away to Pioneer School for the Visually Impaired in Worcester.”
An enthusiastic 17-year-old, Durr says that leaving his friends and going to a boarding school away from home left him depressed.
“Pioneer was great and I did eventually make friends, but I kept missing my old life.”
In 2013, he became permanently depressed, lost interest in school and lost a noticeable amount of weight. “I actually didn’t even care to eat sometimes,” he says.
Seeing this, his parents, with the help of the province’s education department, made the decision to send him back to Swartland, although now to high school, in Malmesbury.
“We all knew it would be difficult, but everyone was on my side so I knew it would be the best option.”
He also wanted to take on the challenge of learning in a mainstream school “because that is the way it will be if I go to university. I would rather get used to it now before the work pressure gets too much – like I imagine it is at university.”
The national education department released a white paper in 2001 recommending that learners with disabilities, when appropriate, be mainstreamed.
“We saw the need and we assisted with getting the school ready, as well as getting him the technology he needed,” says Chasfred Ahrends from the Western Cape’s department of education.
But a recent report published by social justice organisation Section27 about the state of education for learners with visual impairments highlighted that the controversial issue of inclusive education is not near a resolution.
In the report’s foreword former justice in the Constitutional Court Zak Jacoob, who lost his sight in his infancy, states that, “inclusive education is based on the wrong and harmful premise that every person with a disability must be treated exactly alike in the education system”.
The situation is too “nuanced” and “complex” to be an appropriate strategy for the government to follow, he says.
But Section27 says that there should be “sufficient resourcing for both mainstream and special schools”.
One learner from Gauteng, mentioned by Section27 in the report, explains why she would not return to a mainstream school as a blind learner: “I was in a mainstream school in grade two. I didn’t even manage with [limited] sight. But they forget to accommodate you. You are an inconvenience. Some of my friends went out [to mainstream schools] but they all come back. They don’t have time to accommodate you.”
But Durr says it should be up to the individual to decide. “I know my classmates, well, most of them, wouldn’t like to go to a mainstream school because it is out of their comfort zone or some schools won’t be so accommodating like mine. But I think, if a learner does want to move, then they should be helped in every way possible.”
He hosts a show on the school’s radio station and DJs for friends and family in his spare time.