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Tech as eyes and ears

- Refilwe Mabula

Wits alumnus, Elash Mistry was elated when he became the first blind person in Africa to be admitted as a fellow of the Actuarial Society of SA in 2017.

During his time at Wits, almost 20 years ago, Mistry was assisted by Rykie Woite, then of the Wits Disability Unit, who transcribed Mistry’s material from print to electronic format. Fellow students read and recorded Mistry’s lecture notes onto “ancient” cassette tapes and he would transcribe them into braille. This was tedious for Mistry and Woite because of the editing required to adapt the study materials. Mistry later used screenreading software and raised graphics that Woite created for him to access his notes, study, and write examinations.

Fast forward to 2017 when an array of advanced assistive technologies are available to improve the functional capabilities of students with visual, physical, learning, and hearing disabilities, and enable equal access to education. Dr Anlia Pretorius, Head of the Wits Disability Rights Unit (DRU) says technology is an integral part of her unit to facilitate easier learning for students with disabilities.

“Technology is changing the world and for our students with disabilities, it can be life-changing in that it can improve accessibility, break down barriers, allow access to information and provide greater independence. It forms a vital part of how the DRU is able to support our students and we are proud to have specialist computer centres at Wits, all of which are accessible and equipped with state-of-the-art assistive technologies,” she says.

Jermaine George, a blind fourth-year Bachelor of Music student, uses VoiceOver for his studies. This is a screen reader built into his MacBook, which converts text into speech and allows him to work on his computer. George, who has been blind since birth, is a “speed freak” who prefers technology to braille.

“Braille is a very slow medium and I need to get things done immediately. I don’t have time to sit and read something first and then process it, and then think about it and then do something about it. I just do everything electronically,” he says.

Although George is able to enjoy technology like sighted people, mobility on the large Wits Braamfontein East campus remains challenging for him and other students with visual and physical disabilities. To address this, the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) at Wits launched the Wits Campus Personal Navigator Challenge in 2017. The Challenge aims to find digitally innovative ways to assist students with visual and physical disabilities by providing them with a ‘personal navigator’ that guides them from one campus location to another. Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Director of the JCSE, notes that most students at the DRU have mobility challenges and although most buildings on the Wits campuses have wheelchair ramps, it is still difficult for students with disabilities to move around.

“This unique navigation system may work independently or in conjunction with relevant existing or future systems with improved software, apps or maps, to provide visual or audible directions and information to the student. To do this, the proposed system might also use multiple sensors installed at key points on campus which will provide location information and alerts to a base unit installed on a walking cane, wheelchair or wearable device,” he says.

Andrew Sam, an Adaptive Technologist at the DRU, researches the latest ATs and trains students to use them. He says that although ATs for students with visual impairments have advanced, challenges remain for Deaf students.

“Supporting Deaf students with Sign Language is still difficult, as there are only a small number of interpreters who are qualified to sign at an academic level. Currently, technology is unable to reliably replicate Sign Language interpreting because, just as languages and dialects differ per region, the same applies for Sign Language,” he explains. “In addition to providing Sign Language interpreting, the DRU uses real-time captioning where spoken content is typed using a laptop and seen in real time by a student on another device like a tablet or smartphone.”

Assistive technologies used at the Wits Disability Rights Unit 

Blind/partially blind students: 

  • Screen reading software (Window-Eyes, Jaws, NVDA)
  • Screen magnifiers (ZoomText)
  • Braille displays
  • Braille embossers, printers and graphics printers
  • BraillePen (portable note taking smart device)
  • Software for Braille music
  • Eye-Pal reader (scanning device which converts printed text into speech)
  • Large print keyboards
  • Digital recorders

Deaf and hard of hearing students: 

  • Real-time captioning
  • Loop system (portable or permanent)

 Learning disabilities (dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia): 

  • Read & Write (software reading and highlighting content on the screen)
  • Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software (speech to text software)
  • Screen reading software

 Physical disabilities 

  • Eye-trackers (device which allows users to control the mouse with their eyes)
  • Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software (speech to text software)
  • Motorised wheelchairs
  • Adjustable furniture

Read more about the interface between humanity and technology in Wits' new research magazine CURIOSITY, the iHuman edition.