A blind person in Kenya can’t get a computer science degree. That’s unacceptable
Have you ever tried to surf the web while your eyes are closed, or watched a movie without sound?
Or perhaps tried to write an email without the benefit of your hands?
These are the typical challenges people with disabilities go through every day. And in case you thought they are relatively few, statistics show that 10 per cent of Kenyans are challenged in one way or another.
This translates to over four million Kenyans, of whom 26 per cent have mobility, 19 per cent visual and 22 per cent audio or speech challenges.
In absolute terms, over one million Kenyans are physically challenged, 800,000 are visually impaired, and close to one million are deaf or have hearing challenges. How do these people access or use information technology?
It’s not something that strikes your mind, particularly if you belong to the 90 per cent of Kenyans who do not experience these disabilities. But it struck me when I met one George Kimani, who was delivering a computer-mediated presentation at a recent ICT workshop.
ANY VISUALLY IMPAIRED STUDENT
George is both physically challenged and blind, but most people in the audience did not realise that, even if he successfully delivered a 30-minute presentation. He was using assistive technology to access, use and deliver the presentation.
The policy, legislative and regulatory framework for people with disabilities is quite comprehensive, with the Commission for Gender and Equality and the National Council for Persons with Disabilitiesplaying lead roles.
However, this framework has not quite been disseminated into mainstream society. This was clear when George asked me what plans my university had for admitting blind students to take a degree course in IT, computer science or engineering.
I realised that despite having served for several years in academic leadership positions, this question had never crossed my mind, that all universities should be not only ready but also equipped to serve any visually impaired or deaf students willing to register in any of their courses.
Yet this is what the Constitution and the 2003 Persons with Disabilities Act prescribe and expect. Non-discrimination is the key word. By not providing these facilities, we indirectly discriminate against people with disabilities.
So how can a regular lecturer train a blind student to be a software engineer if he or she has never even thought about how blind people browse the web, or how deaf people watch online movies?
They perhaps have never heard about braille, the signature code for the blind, let alone braille keyboards, which are just a small set of what are known as assistive technologies.
How can this same lecturer train regular computer science or engineering students to think about developing the next generation of assistive technologies if this conversation is not mainstreamed within our curriculums?
And if our science and engineering graduates are developing solutions that have little or no reference to assistive technologies, then who is out there ensuring that the many e-Government initiatives being deployed are actually sensitive and compliant to the needs of people with disabilities?
We urgently need to find ways and means of mainstreaming the people with disabilities agenda into the socio-economic day-to-day realities of Kenyan life. Otherwise we risk leaving behind a significant part of our population in our rush to achieve the targets of Vision 2030.
Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at the Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT.