A technology revolution is increasing educational and employment opportunities for students with disabilities in India
Bharat Vaya wants everyone to know how to make education inclusive for students with disabilities. “Technology is the solution! Anyone who is skilled at using a computer can succeed in school and find work,” he says. Bharat should know. Blind since birth, in his 48 years he has experienced the limitations of traditional education for the visually impaired, the advantages of technology and digital books, and the benefits of including students with visual impairments in mainstream classrooms.
Assistive Tech through the Years: From Cassette Players to Android Phones
As a young student, Bharat had access to braille books in basic subjects. When he reached university, however, not one single braille book was available for his courses, so he had to record lectures on cassette tapes and recruit students to read textbooks aloud. He ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees and succeeded in spite of limited resources and support.
Bharat started his own technology journey in 2003 when he acquired computer skills. In 2010, he started using Bookshare, an ebook library for people with reading barriers, to read books in English, Hindi and Gujarati on his computer, mobile phone, and DAISY player. “It’s wonderful because I can download so many books including reference manuals for software apps and the internet, English literature, and books for pleasure reading such as mysteries and science fiction.”
Paying it Forward: Bringing Technology to the Next Generation
Bharat brings his advocacy for technology to his position as the principal at one of the leading institutions in Vadodara in the Gujarat state. Serving visually impaired students as well as students with special needs, the school is supported by a Public Private Partnership between a philanthropic foundation and the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment. Under Bharat’s leadership, students learn braille, computer skills, orientation, and mobility. They also learn how to use a screen reader, NVDA, on their Android phones and computers. The English language is a challenge, but the students are picking it up quickly and mastering Word, Excel, PowerPoint, internet browsing, and other essential technical skills.
Assistive Technology Empowers Inclusive Education in Mainstream Classrooms
Bharat sees the power of technology to transform education for students with visual impairments and make it possible for them to succeed in mainstream classrooms. Several years ago, Bharat conducted computer training for 96 primary teachers who then trained other teachers on internet use and software applications. At the same time, twenty-one visually impaired students from his school joined mainstream classes. One key to success was having accessible versions of their required textbooks in Bookshare so the students could read the same books in class alongside their peers.
How did the general education teachers react? Initially they were not happy with the arrangement, but gradually they accepted the students. Bharat is pleased to report that the non-disabled students have been good peers by helping the visually impaired students with their studies and including them in their activities.
Technology Skills Carry Students Beyond Education to Employment
What is the biggest obstacle to employment after graduation? “The resources are there, some funding is available, but the programs are not properly planned,” explains Bharat. “Students fail to get jobs because they don’t have all the necessary skill sets. The solution is introducing technology at an early age, so future generations don’t experience this barrier when they graduate from school.”
Bharat agrees that the potential for increased employment is huge for students with computer skills and the ability to work in corporate settings. He sets a positive example with his academic degrees, professional career, computer skills, and a high degree of independence. Dr. Homiyar Mobedji, Disability Expert and Program Director for Bookshare Asia and Africa, is a strong supporter of Bharat’s work at the school. “Bharat is soft spoken, intelligent, has no enemies, and even the sighted teachers rally around him to get things done.”
Years ago as a blind university student, Bharat couldn’t have imagined what was possible with a world of ebooks and technology. Thanks to his dedication and vision, inclusive education is becoming a reality for students with disabilities, and the future looks bright indeed.