Gladys Rotich's remarkable story serves as an inspiration to disabled students in Africa. Blind since the age of four following an illness, her path to university meant overcoming adversity. Now at the age of 28, Rotich is a lecturer and administrator at Mount Kenya University's Eldoret Campus and pursuing her PhD. But things were by no means easy as a blind student, Gladys told The Star. Lecturers often handed out assignments on ordinary textbooks without considering her special learning needs. And there were no embossing machines - "the available one was used for examinations only," she recalls - which meant she had to incur extra costs hiring someone to convert the texts into Braille. It was an expense that definitely paid off.
The link between disability and poverty is, in the words of the World Bank, "strong, and goes in both directions". Many people with disabilities struggle to survive every day in the wake of conflicts and wars, which swell their numbers. This exacerbates the delivery of basic services hitting the disabled, especially women, even harder. Stigma and exclusion from education often prevail. Thus simply accessing the fundamental right to education becomes precarious.
Yet educating a child with learning disabilities is a sound, long-term investment. Not only does education reduce welfare costs and reliance on household members, it also minimises discrimination and alleviates poverty in the process.
According to estimates by the Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report 2007, most disabled children in Africa do not go to school at all. Currently 72 million children of primary school age worldwide are not in school. And of those, one third suffers from disabilities.
In view of the data, achieving the EFA Targets and MDGs by 2015 may yet prove impossible unless access and the quality of education improve: and eLearning may well hold the answer. Online learning for the disabled has to become user-friendly and take their individual needs into account, whether that means giving the blind more time to use assistive technology or ensuring that audio files for the hearing-impaired are accompanied by transcripts and captions.
Crucial assistive technology in education ranges from low-tech options such as reading stands to high-cost computer technology such as Braille display. Although text-to-speech software has vastly improved opportunities for those with disabilities to engage with ICTs, the real deal comes in the shape of hardware complete with loudspeakers, a Braille keyboard and screen-reader software which converts all text on a screen to audio output. Similar programmes transcribe content onto Refreshable Braille displays.
However, all these assistive technologies come at a cost. Usually, the combined average cost comes to around 9,000 euros. Even with a state allowance, footing such a bill is no mean feat for anyone - disabled or otherwise - living on an average salary. Fortunately, several projects are underway to find affordable solutions.
Thus the question arises: how are educational institutions in Africa faring?
A three-year research scheme piloted by Kenyatta University in 2007 saw the Dolphin Pen project target 200 students in secondary and tertiary education. Conceptualised by the international charity Sightsavers, this Dolphin pen is a lightweight USB drive containing screen reading and magnification software, now available at cost price for organisations working with the blind in Africa and India.
Governments are also doing their part. Last year Malawi, a country in which less than half of 15 - 29-year-olds with disabilities ever go to school, and only 28% find work, passed the Disability Act, thereby guaranteeing the right to non-discrimination in education and employment. The impact remains to be seen.
In June of this year, the World Intellectual Property Organization said that it will negotiate an international copyright treaty to improve access to books for the blind. IPA Secretary General Jens Bammel said: "Together with libraries for the visually impaired, online booksellers and the vendors of smart phones and e-book readers, publishers are producing more and more books in the formats that visually impaired people (VIP) need."
Through the work of initiatives such as these, the opportunities that Gladys had to fight so hard for are being brought within the reach of many.