Visually Impared Students Learn Computer Programming

Claire Kearney Volpe, an adjunct professor from New York Universitys Tandon School of Engineering, says the training is an extension of digital accessibility Lab, a five-year community participatory project of the University of New York.
Blind students learning HTML during the technology camp at Gulu High School, January 2018.

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Learning how to fully work with computers has never been an easy task for visually impaired persons across Africa.

Some of the hindrances to achieving this objective include high cost of technology, limited access to advanced computing software and low investment amongst others.

However, Oysters and Pearls Uganda, a charity organisation dedicated to increasing access to technology for young people in Uganda, is determined to change this narrative.

The organisation has sponsored a community of 14 visually impaired students to attend a computing training in which they are learning advanced computer programming and website designing.

The two weeks of training is happening at Gulu High School in Gulu district. The blind students are being trained by engineering professors from the University of New York, in the United States. 

The students must be helped to find their ways in and out of class. Uganda Radio Network interviewed some of the students attending the course to find out how they have been able to learn computer programming.

Basil Onen, one of the students says he came all the way from Makarere University to learn website designing using HTML Language.

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Onen arrived in class with the help of Claire Kearney Volpe, one of the two professors of engineering from New York University teaching the students.  Volpe supported him to take a seat near a table in front of a Laptop computer to start from where he left off. He says he is recognising everything on his computer screen with the help of a Text-To-Speech programme.

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Sharon Akuja, 18, from Apac district is another student with lots of passion on Website designing. She hopes to set up a website designing consultancy after the course.  The first day was challenging but she can now duplicate a single website into multiple pages.

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According to Basil Onen, although computer opened a new frontier of employment around the globe, the blind in Africa face the threat of being left behind due to limited access to technology and advanced software.

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He says it is about time, governments begin to rethink means of diversifying the job market for persons with disabilities from traditional teaching and counseling jobs to new domains of computing.

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Claire Kearney Volpe, an adjunct professor from New York University's Tandon School of Engineering, says the training is an extension of digital accessibility Lab, a five-year community participatory project of the University of New York.

Claire explains that the course is the first in Africa empowering special needs students.

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Scott Fitzgerald, an assistant industry professor in the integrated digital media programme in Tandon School of Engineering, says their target is to commission some of the advanced students undergoing training with the programming curriculum to replicate the training to others in the country.

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Jacob Odur, the Country director of Oysters and Pearls Uganda, says the objective of the training is to make educational materials accessible to visually impaired students.

Odur says the major focus of the training is to make Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) accessible to visually impaired students.

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It is the fifth annual technology camp happening at Gulu High School during school holidays. Last year, blind students were introduced to music production.

Odur says the visually impaired students learn computer programming with the help of JAWS, an audio screen reader software which the New York University professors made accessible.

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According to Odur, a technovation Camp his organization hosted in 2016 saw some groups of girls develop more than 40 computer applications geared towards solving community challenges related to sustainable development goals. The Apps include access to Anti-retroviral treatment, access to clean water and ambulances during emergencies among others. Some of the Apps are based on SMS for residents out of reach of internet.

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Daniel Odoch, the Head of Special Needs Education at Gulu High School, says the school is privileged to pioneer advanced computer programming course for blind students in Uganda.

Odoch hopes the training will eliminate stigma the students face and prepare them to be all inclusive in the job market.