Opening Literacy to All

Using technology to help children who are blind in developing countries.

GUEST COLUMN | by Nestor V. Custodio

CREDIT All Children Reading RBIThere are an estimated 19 million children who are blind or have low vision on our planet, and 90 percent of them are in developing countries where resources are limited. The average braille machine, for example, costs anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 USD, making them incredibly difficult to access in low-income regions of the world. So how do we help these 19 million children access the materials they need to learn and grow?

In this network, our organization is part of an awe-inspiring family of innovators working in the field.

The answer lies in leveraging technology to lower costs. By encoding text into a computer file and using computer-driven braille embossers, for instance, we can produce in minutes what might have taken months to produce by hand. This is particularly important because studies show that children learn best in their mother tongue language, especially for early grade reading. By bringing down the costs of braille, we can make books and learning materials in mother tongue languages accessible in ways that were not possible before.

In the Philippines, some 3,000 school children are blind or low vision but don’t have access to reading proficiency programs. This limits their ability to learn to read and be tested like their fellow pupils. To solve this problem, Resources for the Blind Inc. (RBI) works with the Philippines Department of Education in 15 intervention schools across the country to develop reading assessment tools and supplemental reading materials accessible to children who are blind/low vision. The project will provide access to more than 500 volumes of online supplemental reading materials and lessons for grades 1-3 in Filipino, English and other mother tongue languages.

We’re proud to say that this new pilot project is funded by All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, a partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development, World Vision and the Australian Government, which works to leverage science and technology to create and apply scalable solutions that improve literacy skills of early grade learners in developing countries.

In this network, our organization is part of an awe-inspiring family of innovators working in the field. In particular, five of the 14 grants awarded in the last round of competition are projects working with children with disabilities, as part of All Children Reading’s focus on improving reading outcomes for learners with disabilities.

Take fellow grant winner, Benetech for example. In the Maharashtra state of India, some 90 percent of children who are blind are unable to read at grade level. To help bridge this gap, Benetech is developing a human-narrated Marathi language text-to-speech (TTS) software so children can hear books read aloud while they simultaneously read braille.

The software is part of their growing Bookshare program, the world’s largest digital accessible library with more than 386,300 books currently available. It will be the first time TTS has been available for the 73 million Marathi speakers, filling a critical gap in multimodal learning experience that will help instill students who are blind with a love of learning.

Meanwhile, in Southern Africa, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has developed the Jot-a-Dot portable brailler, that significantly cuts the cost of a braille machine and gives young learners a fast, portable method to learn braille. CRS’s Literacy for VIPs project, in conjunction with All Children Reading, will provide training and braille technology to teachers and students in Lesotho to ensure that their early grade reading scores improve.

Literacy is the cornerstone of global development. It leads to improved health, better education, broader employment opportunities, and safer and more stable governments. So innovations like these are absolutely essential to ensuring that the 19 million children who are blind/low vision around the world have access to a world of learning. For that reason, we’re humbled to be a part of the All Children Reading cohort of solvers.

On this World Braille Day, we want to honor all of the innovators, organizations, entrepreneurs, and educators working alongside us that are devoting their lives to giving children the power of learning. To check out more technology-based innovations helping all children learn to read, or to participate in future competitions, visit www.AllChildrenReading.org.

Mr. Nestor V. Custodio is the executive director of Resources for the Blind, Inc (RBI). RBI was founded in 1988 by lifetime educator Dr. Arthur Lown who, blind since childhood, dedicated his career to teaching children who are blind. Resources for the Blind provides a full spectrum of services across the Philippines to persons who are blind or low vision.

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