The future looks bright for visually impaired students

Lawrence Momanyi (left) and Johnson Riungu show some of the blind learning gadgets during the unveiling of the UAP Old Mutual Foundation & Kenya Society for the Blind corporate support at the KSB headquarters in Nairobi. KSB supports approximately 30,000 pupils with visual impairment and is the central support in the East Africa. April 22nd,2016. Photo/Elvis Ogina (Nairobi)

Every Kenyan has a right to education, a right that is enshrined in our constitution.

It is with this in mind that, in 2010, the Government committed to providing free primary education, as well as including persons with any sort of disability in education and training. Indeed, inclusive education could not be more important given that there are more than 1.3 million people in Kenya living with a disability.

According to a 2012 Draft Education policy, the enrollment of learners in special institutions represented about one-third of the expected number of learners with special needs. It is such exclusion from education that perpetuates the cycle of disability and poverty.

Yet given a chance, persons with disabilities are just as capable as the next person – disability is not inability.

This is made crystal clear by Lawrence Momanyi and Johnson Riungu, both teachers at the Kenya Society for the Blind (KSB) in Nairobi. I meet this duo during a recent visit to the KSB headquarters where I found Momanyi consulting with one of his students in the Adaptive Technologies Centre.

Informed of my presence, he walks up to me and after a greeting leads the way to his computer at the corner of the room. Although Momanyi is visually impaired, he sure knows his way around a computer and after switching on the machine, he calmly explains how he is able to operate it.

"Whatever I do on the computer is spoken back to me by accessibility software. Most computers and smart phones have them,” he says pointing at a pair of speakers on the desk.

Before long, he has opened a Word document and is typing faster than average. A skill he says he learned using a typewriter.

In 2013, Momanyi surprised the nation after he emerged the best visually impaired student in KCSE that year. The Nakuru Boys High School graduate scored a mean grade of A minus and is now a second year student at The University of Nairobi, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Economics.

"As you can imagine, my peers at the university were shocked to see a visually impaired student on campus. Although there are daily challenges, I am coping well," he says.

When he is not in class, Momanyi works as an Assistive Technologies trainer at KSB teaching other visually impaired youth basic computer skills, using assistive voice technology.

Momanyi tells me he lost his sight as a toddler due to retinal detachment.

"When I lost my sight, I was taken to Kilimani Primary school where I had to learn how to become independent. That is where I learned Braille," he says.

From there Momanyi joined a mainstream class at the school and often, he was the only student in class.

"My parents were very supportive and luckily my dad is a mathematician and he inspired me to be curious and learn. I probably have some math genes,” he jokes.

Out of his experience as a visually impaired student and now as a trainer, Momanyi says the key to teaching others like himself is to have patience. He says this is the only way to create understanding and transfer knowledge in spite of all the challenges.

"In this part of the world, visually impaired learners still have to contend with issues such as lack of Braille books or other assertive learning equipment. We still do not have access to the kind of equipment our peers in the developed world have," he said.

On his part, Riungu, the go-to man for Adaptive Technology training, believes technology has really opened up doors for people with visual impairment.

“We are no longer limited to the traditional Braille methods of education. A person with visual impairment can now interact with machines, create documents, surf the internet and there are now visually impaired coders,” he says.

Riungu shows the various adaptive technologies that can be used to carry out these tasks and they include an array of educational, clinical and leisure devices from talking calculators, talking bibles to sonar technology smart canes.

"This device scans printed documents and reads it back, while this is a Braille computer," Riungu says as he demonstrates how each gadget works.

Riungu lost his sight when he was ten-years-old so he is able to associate with visual concepts. He is passionate about technology and has been trained in the mastery of assistive technology through various programmes in the United Kindgom and in Ghana.

"We have blind students from all walks of life coming here to enhance their skills. Some are high school graduates while others became blind in adulthood and they come here to train on adaptive technologies to enable them live their lives as normally as possible," Riungu says.

He continues: "Previously, we were limited to just teach law, music or education. But now, with these new technologies, visually impaired people can study subjects such as mathematics, economics and sciences. We can now stand at the same footing with everyone else. The sky is definitely not the limit for us".