Accessible to All: Creating Learning Materials for Children with Disabilities in Cambodia, Kenya, Rwanda, and Tajikistan
For students with disabilities, quality education can offer an entry point into a society that may otherwise remain inaccessible. School provides students the opportunity to learn language, literacy, and numeracy skills, foster a social network, and develop marketable skills for a future career. However, numerous barriers exist that can prevent access to such education for students with disabilities. Most notably, students need accessible learning materials. This issue is often exacerbated by poverty when specialized materials and additional professional development for educators are unavailable.
COVID-19 and the resulting school closures have created new challenges for students with disabilities, specifically in access to relevant, quality learning materials. With more than 85% of the world's learners staying home at the height of lockdown, schools have turned to distance learning models using web-based programs, radio and television programming, and take-home materials when available. For students with disabilities, this transition has been difficult as they face the additional challenge of learning content that was not intentionally designed to be accessible from the start.
Rising to the Challenge: Creating Meaningful Materials Accessible by All
Even before the pandemic, USAID had taken on the challenge of supporting the creation and provision of learning materials accessible for all students, including those with disabilities. By designing learning materials to be accessible from the beginning (known as born accessible), all students have access to the resources needed to thrive, while content creators can avoid the added cost of revising or supplementing previous materials. In times of crisis, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, born accessible materials enable Ministries of Education and other education providers to be more flexible with the delivery of instruction, knowing that all students have access to resources responsive to their needs. These materials further enable students to engage in self-guided learning and empower parents who may require materials in accessible formats to be more engaged with their child’s learning at home. These initiatives build on the research-based principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), promoting flexible learning environments and materials that are accessible and effective for all.
Around the world, USAID has partnered with organizations to address the education needs of students with disabilities, refusing to let these students fall behind in such unprecedented times. Through intentional programming that applies good practices in the development and provision of learning materials, new accessible content is being created and students are continuing to progress. Below are examples of how good practices in the provision of accessible learning materials are being put into practice.
Expanding access through Universal Design for Learning in Cambodia: All Children Reading
All Children Reading Cambodia (ACR) has applied principles of Universal Design for Learning in the development of supplemental teaching and learning materials for Cambodia’s early grade reading program for children with disabilities. Implemented by RTI International, ACR integrates new techniques and tools to help educators effectively meet the instructional needs of students with disabilities. Supplemental textbooks contain larger fonts, a less dense layout, and a varied color scheme to support those with low vision. Braille versions of supplemental textbooks and stories were also created and published. Video versions of decodable stories were also produced, including narration in Khmer and Cambodian Sign Language to increase accessibility for all.
Applying a user-centered design approach in Kenya: eKitabu and Deaf-led Sign Language Video Stories
As COVID-19 cases increased, schools in Kenya shifted to distance learning, largely depending upon state-sponsored television programming in place of live classes. These programs, however, were often inaccessible to students who are deaf or hard of hearing. To address this issue, the All Children Reading Grand Challenge (a partnership of USAID, World Vision, and the Australian Government) funded e-Kitabu (“Book” in Swahili), a local education content organization, to produce more inclusive programming. They launched “Digital Story Time”, a 30-minute broadcast program for children and families, currently reaching more than four million households through Youtube, eKitabu’s website, and a television program run by Kenya’s Ministry of Education. Each story contains Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) produced by a Deaf-led team of native KSL users, captions in English and Kiswahili, music, audio narration, and tie-ins to online learning resources. eKitabu’s programming was developed by end users, such as deaf adults, to ensure access to early literacy for all children. eKitabu has seen such success that Digital Story Time now airs twice per day and programming is being translated and adapted for use in Rwanda.
Promoting sustainable accessible standards in Rwanda: Soma Umenye
In Rwanda, USAID has partnered with Soma Umenye (Read and Know) in a program implemented by Chemonics International to improve the quality of early grade reading instruction and to strengthen systemic capacity throughout the education sector to sustain reading improvements. In October 2020, USAID Soma Umenye released video storybooks developed with Rwandan Sign Language. They further committed to working with the Government of Rwanda to finalize a Rwandan Sign Language dictionary and to standardize the Kinyarwanda braille code. The provision of such storybooks and learning materials ensures that Rwandan students who are deaf or have a vision disability have the opportunity to read the same stories as their peers, allowing for rich, interactive, and inclusive learning.
Supporting underserved languages in accessible formats: The Global Digital Library
As a member of the Global Book Alliance, USAID contributes to the Alliance's flagship Global Digital Library (GDL). Hosted by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), the GDL is an open-source, web-based platform that offers free, high-quality learning resources in 72 languages, with more languages being added regularly. The GBA recognizes the need for storybooks to be accessible to students with disabilities and has prioritized this on the GDL, beginning with updates that allow the GDL to accept books in audio and video modalities, and the addition of stories in Cambodian and Kenyan Sign Languages, along with dozens of other underserved languages. In March 2020, the Global Book Alliance and the All Children Reading Grand Challenge for Development named winners of their Begin with Books competition, which will further expand the GDL’s collection of accessible books. Over the next two years, the four winners will create thousands of new leveled books in seven underserved spoken languages and nine sign languages, serving regions where children have little access to early grade reading materials. These materials will be openly available through the Global Digital Library.
Fostering parental involvement in Tajikistan: USAID Read with Me
In Tajikistan, USAID’s Read with Me project aims to improve reading outcomes for early grade students by increasing the availability of age-appropriate materials, providing educators with in-service training, increasing government support for reading through capacity development, and increasing interventions and partnerships that support literacy outcomes. Close attention has been paid to the needs of students with disabilities by increasing accessibility of reading materials for students and their parents with vision and hearing disabilities. In 2020, USAID distributed 600 braille books to schools across the country, allowing students to take books home to promote learning during school closures. With these accessible storybooks, students have been able to continue reading and share their learning with family members.
USAID has also partnered with Tajikistan’s Ministry of Education and Science, the Dushanbe Puppet Theater, and the national children’s television network, Bahoriston, to create a series of television programs based on the books from the USAID Read with Me project. The daily shows “I Can Read Fluently” and “Time to Read” are aimed at early grade readers. They increase familiarity with Tajik letters and sounds, enrich vocabulary, expand world views, and encourage reading. Working with UNICEF, these videos have been produced with local sign language interpretation so that everyone can access and enjoy the same stories together. Access for all also means that parents who are deaf and use sign language can enjoy these stories with their children and support their children’s learning at home.
For students with disabilities, appropriate learning materials can mean the difference between access to the same education as their peers and early dropout. It can mean the difference between societal inclusion and isolation. While COVID-19 has resulted in additional challenges in ensuring such inclusive education, it has also provided an opportunity to build back better with stronger, more inclusive systems benefiting all students, including students with disabilities.