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In India, hardly any visually impaired (VI) person pursues Science and Maths beyond the seventh grade or takes up a career in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. This is despite the country producing more STEM graduates than any other in the world or being home to the largest population of VI persons. While Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) products are increasingly being used in improving education and professional activities, the inherent visual bias in ICTs forces VI persons to depend on other Assistive Technologies (AT), which are seen to have a huge potential in making their personal and professional lives more accessible. We, however, do not find much evidence of ICTs/ATs being designed or used to address the above incongruity in the Indian education and professional space where VI persons continue to be excluded. Through this study, we seek to understand the motivations behind the existing design focus of ATs and the reasons behind their low relevance in STEM education for VI persons in India. Through an ethnography involving both the demand and supply side stakeholders in this space, over a 9-month period and close to 100 interviews with both VI and sighted persons, teacher training centers, technology design labs etc. and using a multidisciplinary approach to disability, we find an absence of integrative principles and structures guiding ICTs/ATs design and use. In conclusion, we distill our findings to propose recommendations which lead to the creation of an assistive technology ecosystem that can bridge the existing gaps in practice by allowing the different players to transcend their traditional disciplinary orientations.
Creating an Accessible Technology
Ecosystem for Learning Science and Math:
A Case of Visually Impaired Children in
Indian Schools
Supriya Dey
Vision Empower
Vidhya Y
Vision Empower
Suprgya Bhushan
IIIT Bangalore
Mounika Neerukonda
IIIT Bangalore
Amit Prakash
IIIT Bangalore
In India, hardly any visually impaired (VI) person pursues Science and Maths beyond the seventh grade
or takes up a career in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. This is despite the
country producing more STEM graduates than any other in the world or being home to the largest
population of VI persons. While Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) products are
increasingly being used in improving education and professional activities, the inherent visual bias in
ICTs forces VI persons to depend on other Assistive Technologies (AT), which are seen to have a huge
potential in making their personal and professional lives more accessible. We, however, do not find much
evidence of ICTs/ATs being designed or used to address the above incongruity in the Indian education
and professional space where VI persons continue to be excluded. Through this study, we seek to
understand the motivations behind the existing design focus of ATs and the reasons behind their low
relevance in STEM education for VI persons in India. Through an ethnography involving both the
demand and supply side stakeholders in this space, over a 9-month period and close to 100 interviews
with both VI and sighted persons, teacher training centers, technology design labs etc. and using a
multidisciplinary approach to disability, we find an absence of integrative principles and structures
guiding ICTs/ATs design and use. In conclusion, we distill our findings to propose recommendations
which lead to the creation of an assistive technology ecosystem that can bridge the existing gaps in
practice by allowing the different players to transcend their traditional disciplinary orientations.
Disability, visual impairment, assistive technology, STEM Education, accessibility, bio-psycho-socio
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over a billion people are estimated to live with
some form of ‘disability’ (World Health Organization, 2018). This corresponds to about 15% of the
world’s population. Of the 285 million people in the world who are visually impaired, 90% are in
developing countries. While 39 million people are blind, 246 million have severe or moderate visual
impairment (India Today, 2018). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with
Disabilities (CRPD) states that “Persons with Disabilities include those who have long-term physical,
mental, intellectual or sensory impairment which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their
full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others” (, 2018). India ratified the
CRPD in the year 2007 and a new Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPD) was passed in December
2016 (, 2018).
Persons with disabilities, especially the visually impaired persons, are widely using Information and
Communication Technologies (ICT) products in recent years for improving their personal and
professional lives (Neff et al., 2009). Visually impaired persons could, however, be at a disadvantage
because of an inherent visual bias in many ICT products (Chaudhry and Shipp, 2005). People with visual
impairment may further require Assistive Technologies (AT) to access these ICT products. According to
Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA), an AT is “any item, piece of equipment, software or
product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals
with disabilities”. These include screen readers, smart canes, mobile applications such as TapTapSee,
Refreshable Braille Displays and products such as Kurzweil Education to scan and convert the printed
material to accessible formats.
The increasing professional aspirations among the visually impaired due to availability of ATs has been
studied by many researchers (Pal and Lakshmanan, 2012). However, it has also been found that most of
the visually impaired persons do not opt for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)
related professions (Pal and Lakshmanan, 2012). In India, visually impaired people are often influenced
and directed by educational institutions, governmental agencies, or non-profits towards specific careers.
They are frequently encouraged to work in teaching or in human resource functions. Other popular
career areas include medical transcription and telemarketing. Underemployment is particularly high
among visually impaired who have higher technical skills. In general, they are either offered jobs related
to technology training, accessibility testing or have to work in positions with much lesser technical
responsibilities than they are capable of. Blind programmers are offered salaries much lower than their
sighted colleagues (Pal and Lakshmanan, 2012).
On the education front, despite innovations in assistive technologies, visually impaired people are under-
represented in STEM related areas even in developed countries such as the United States of America
(Center, 2018). ATs can make the learning process accessible, and technologies such as talking
calculators, tactile graphics, haptic devices, three-dimensional models and laboratory data collection aids
such as TalkingLabQuest (Mulloy et al., 2014) can aid learning of STEM subjects by the visually
impaired. Yet, students with vision impairments are encouraged to take on ‘non-technical’ areas of study
that includes arts, social sciences and humanities instead of what may be their preferred choice (Pal and
Lakshmanan, 2012).
In India, there are more than 1.1 million visually impaired children in the age group 5-19, 68% of who
attend school (, 2018). Of the visually impaired children that attend school, very few
continue with Science and Mathematics beyond the seventh grade (Taraporevala, 2016). Despite
producing 78 million STEM graduates in 2017, which is the highest in the world (, 2018),
there is an apparent inadequate motivation among the visually impaired students (henceforth referred as
VI students), for studying these subjects and taking up STEM related careers. Since ATs have been found
to act as artifacts of capability enablement or enhancement and could help to create a positive impact on
the aspiration of individuals with visual impairment (Pal et al., 2015), we inquire into the AT design
process and the challenges of STEM education for the VI students in Indian schools.
The rest of the paper is organized as follows. In Section 2, we present a review of existing literature
highlighting the predominant focus on medical aspects of disability, which have consequently guided the
design of AT. We thereby justify our use of a multidisciplinary “biopsychosocial” framework (Engel,
1977) to structure and analyze our primary data gathered through ethnographic methods of research in
India, from teachers and students in schools who create the demand for ATs and resource providers and
technology designers, who are the suppliers of ATs, as highlighted in section 3. In section 4, we draw
upon our findings to suggest changes in the AT design process to create AT ecosystems which
incorporate a holistic appreciation of the notion of ‘disability’. Section 5 presents a list of proposed
recommendations based on the analysis, thereby leading to our conclusion on the need for a
collaborative AT ecosystem.
Only a few studies concerned with disability identify and tackle the problem inherent in working with
misplaced assumptions and attend to social and cultural issues. Fine and Asch (1988)’s piece on
addressing social stigma attached to disability brings up five different myths plagued in disability studies
and draw parallels with the racial oppression that Blacks or Hispanics have faced over the centuries,
supported by reports which show that 45% of disabled people see themselves as a minority”. One of the
most important assumptions in terms of disability studies and research is that disability is located solely
in biology; the level of functional capability of persons determines their participation in society when, in
fact, the converse could be equally probable. The level of adjustment and adaptation of the environment
might eventually determine the level of participation and comfort of a disabled person.
Another assumption which affects disability studies is the perspective that a disabled person is always
the “victim”. It is assumed that the disabled person copes by suffering self-blame or by reinterpreting the
suffering to find positive meaning. Studies show that this victimization of the disabled seems more vital
to the non-disabled than the disabled because this treatment provides them both a sense of fear and
power; fear because they remind them that no one is invincible and power because they are seemingly
more functionally capable than the disabled person which instills in them a false sense of control. Most
disability studies are carried out with an assumption that disability is crucial to the disabled person's
self-concept, self-definition, social comparisons and reference groups”. Further, there is evidence of
downward comparisons to current situations to preserve self-esteem (Fine and Asch, 1988). This is,
in all senses, degrading to one's concept of self and survival. Fine and Asch (1988) further question the
validity of such notions and voice their arguments that such states of “helplessness” wouldn't exist if our
living environment and society were more accommodating and, if better and improved technological aid
would be accessible by everyone.
Hahn (1988) expresses similar concerns of policies and research not being able to weigh in the
“functional-limitations” and the “minority-group” concept of disability equally. He mentions how the
current “functional-limitations” model is transforming into a “minority-group” model and this change in
thinking can be traced back to the change in definitions, from a medical definition to a new socio -
political approach. While the medical viewpoints focus on improving the functional capabilities of the
disabled individual, from the socio-political vantage point, a strong need for policies and regulations can
be seen important to battle discrimination. Hahn (1988) presents two additional corollaries which spring
up due to the socio-political definition. First, that the architecture and social institutions present in
today's world are designed by a non-disabled group of policy makers and these inevitably place
stringent requirements on persons with different levels of functional skills”. Human expectation that
everyone ought to achieve the highest levels of functional capacities blindfolds us from the potential
alternative of tweaking the living environment to help achieve the desired levels of functionality. Hence,
there is an urgent need to mold this design approach into a more suitable and accommodating one. The
second corollary related closely by explaining that public policy, in the past as well as in the present,
suggests the public/social attitude as a vital component of the society that the disabled person has to
grapple with on a daily basis”. Hahn (1988) argues that the principle issue lies in societal and
professional attitudes which entertain the view that the disabled people achieve their unequal status
from their inability to achieve “normal” levels of modal functional capability instead of challenging it.
Similar to other minority groups “who possess characteristics that allow them to be victimized, like their
skin color or their ethnicity”, disabled people also have such visible physical characteristics and research
and technology should stop amplifying this view by retaining this in their works, but should help
challenge such “prejudicial attitudes”.
Keeping in mind these varied perceptions of disability, it is important to understand this concept
through a multi-disciplinary framework, like the “biopsychosocial” framework developed by George
Engel (1977) .The term “biopsychosocial” attributes equal weightage to all three known causes of
disability: biological, which implies the functional limitation caused by the impairment, psychological is
the personal or individual interpretation of one's own impairment and social, which refers to how
impairment causes disability to the person when in a social setting or while interacting with various
other environmental factors. We realize such a multidisciplinary perspective, with its holistic and
inclusive understanding of disability, can open up avenues for improving existing solutions, both
technologically as well as socially.
Technology designs in the area of disability are found to be largely guided by most of the misplaced
assumptions mentioned above. Shinohara and Wobbrock (2011), therefore advocate a much needed
change in the design and outlook of ATs and propose an alternative, based on interviews they conducted
on a sample of disabled participants with varying demographics of age, gender, disability and economic
and employment status. They find that the aesthetics of design, which is influenced by both social and
psychological needs of the user, are never given enough importance in designing AT, and this, according
to the authors can be a possible reason for abandonment of AT. Pape et al (2002) found that people with
disabilities were more likely to abandon the AT if the device socially excluded them or if it clashed with
cultural values. Their research shows that although some participants claimed that with these devices,
they could express to the world their equal capabilities, a lot more were self-conscious and desired to
keep their disability hidden in the fear of embarrassment during social interactions. The research
concludes that free choice to withhold or communicate something about their disability is, therefore, the
prerogative of the user. Their approach to address this problem and misperceptions is to have a “Design
for Social Acceptance”. As designers of technology, it is pivotal, therefore, to remember that technology is
used in a social context. Thus, designing technology that is either more accommodating of such
marginalized groups or designing AT which molds into society less vigorously is a crucial requirement.
Studies on perceptions of ATs by the disabled as well as the legislative steps taken towards making these
technologies accessible reveal a hopeful attitude in people with disabilities towards emerging ATs, but
simultaneously a need for “neutral” technologies prevail, the design of which do not reveal the disability
of the user unless they choose to (Boucher, 2018). Regulatory framework and policies also need to be
redesigned to work towards the integration of the disabled in the society. Hence, while ATs might have a
positive implication on their users, it is essential to embed them in an ecosystem fostering the
aforementioned ideas of accessibility and inclusivity.
The high level of discordance between the issues faced by the disabled and the technological solutions
and policies that are being offered as solutions to combat them is rooted in the basic understanding of
what causes disability. As aforementioned, retaining prejudicial stereotypes while designing solutions
may only cause perpetuation of those unwanted views and perspectives. We, therefore, suggest that
looking at this socio-technical issue through a multidisciplinary “biopsychosocial” lens might be a useful
way to come up with better solution designs. In the rest of the paper, we explore this aspect further by
studying the existing system of Math and Science education for VI children in Indian schools and the
manner in which its various constituents invoke ATs in their respective functions. This is intended to
help us gain better insights into the question of how ATs should be designed to make STEM education
more accessible to children with visual impairment.
This research was a first step to create a social enterprise which focuses on education processes and
technology requirements of VI students in Karnataka, India. The research was aimed to inform the
strategy to address the grand challenge of low number of VI students taking up STEM education or
STEM related professions in India.
We gathered data from public reports regarding VI persons, their education and the current processes
and technologies being used by them in India. For the primary research, we used a mixed ethnographic
approach of data gathering through participation and observation (Spradley 2016). These included
participant observation (Dewalt and Dewalt, 2011), through constant interaction with stakeholders and
field immersion exercises such as observing classroom lectures, conducting institutional workshops and
participating in teacher trainings as active participants in a peripheral membership role (Adler and
Adler, 1997). We adopted qualitative modes of study such as observations and structured questionnaire
to understand the present scenario of STEM education of VI persons in India, in terms of availability of
resources for education, employment opportunities, technology use, design of various technologies,
support systems available such as resource providers and families/mentors.
Data was gathered through interviews with students, teachers, resource providers and technology design
teams. Of all the respondents, 75 were VI persons and 22 were sighted persons. Respondents were
identified largely using the snowball sampling technique. Of all the interviews, 6 were conducted in
groups and 27 were one-on-one interviews, 13 of which were face-to-face and 14 were telephonic
interviews. A structured questionnaire with 11 questions was sent out to an online group for VI persons
in higher education to which 11 persons responded.
The details of the interviews are given below:
Table 1: Details of Interviews with Visually Impaired Participants
School students
3 face-to-face individual interviews at
school; 2 telephonic interviews; 1 focus
group of 15 high school students; 1 focus
group of 10 middle school students;
Participant observation of middle school
students from August 2017 - March 2018
at 4 hours per week.
College / University
15 at focus group interactions at
Hackathon event Jan 18-19 2017 at IIITB.
5 interviews at IIITB with VI programmers
on Jan 18-19, 2017; Telephonic interviews
2 interviews at school with Math and
Computer teacher; 1 focus group of 12
teachers at Teacher Training (Nov 7 - Nov
11 2017) at an NGO
Telephonic interview on July 25 2017;
Face to Face interview on Nov 20 2017
Table 2: Details of interviews with participants who are not visually-impaired
Non Visually Impaired
Participant Count
6 face to
interviews; 2
focus group
3 teachers at school; 3 teachers from
coaching institute; Focus group at
Teacher Training (6 teachers Nov 7 -
Nov 11 2017) on Focus group at
NCERT (5 teachers) on March 13-
Mar 15 2017
5 face to face interviews on 5th April
2018, 12th March 2018, 13th March
2018, 6th Dec 2017, 20th April 2018
One or more authors interviewed all the participants. All interviews were open in nature, and questions
were formulated depending on the conversation. However, a questionnaire protocol with basic questions
to direct the interviews was followed.
We observed participants in 5 different events, some of which had both visually impaired and non-visually
impaired participants. These included i) Teacher Training for teachers from schools for the blind ii)
Inclusive Hackathon of 12 teams: Each team comprising of 2 visually impaired programmers, 2 sighted
programmers from industry, 1 engineering college student. ii) Student demonstration: Science projects
at a private training center iv) Summer Camp: 10 VI students of fifth standard and 3 teachers v) Teacher
and Textbook Authors Workshop. Participants were also observed in Science and Math lectures in a blind
school with 10 students of fifth grade from August 2017 to March2018 for 1 hour per week during Science
and/or Math periods and 3 hours of interaction time per week during which interviews and observations
were made, and experiments such as tactile methods of teaching and activities for learning Science and
Math was administered to the class. Some interviews were audio-recorded on approval of the interviewee,
while field notes were taken for others. This allowed us to revisit the details of what the participants
articulated and reflect more closely on their discourse. Transcripts of the conversations were made for
easier analysis. These transcripts were then scrutinized multiple times to gauge patterns, and certain
words or groups of words were highlighted as ‘codes’. Entire sets of codes dealing with specific topics were
then grouped into categories and conclusions drawn from them using an interpretive approach.
ATs and policies for their adoption have rarely included the lived experiences of the visually impaired,
especially in the developing countries (Pal et al., 2015). To comprehend these lived experiences, our
primary research adopted ethnographic methods and focused on stakeholders in the education system for
the visually impaired, particularly in the southern Indian province of Karnataka. The key stakeholders
include students, teachers, enabling agencies involved in providing resources to the VI students and
technology designers in labs and corporate organizations. The detailed information sources are described
in the Methods section in the Appendix. Our findings have been classified in terms of three major
challenges being faced by the stakeholders and their views on the possible ways to address them:
Accessible Science and Math content.
Instructors for the VI students and their capacities.
Infrastructure and technology aids for the visually impaired, and the process of their creation
and use.
Accessible Science and Math content
We found that children in schools for the blind do not possess individual text books. There is usually one
Braille book for the entire class which remains with the teacher. Before tests, most of the students refer
to the notes which the teacher dictates in class. Students in lower grades depend largely on learning in
the classroom and rarely do any additional homework. The text books are often authored by sighted
persons and their descriptions are not always comprehensible by a blind student. “I am blind by birth, I
cannot understand a curve description which says L-shaped or V-shaped,” said a student of ninth
The students in the school for the blind where we conducted our fieldwork were not exposed to 3-
dimensional (3D) models or tactile diagrams. In an experiment designed to introduce tactile diagrams to
the students of fifth standard, 70% of them were not able to relate to a tactile diagram of a flower or the
sun, since they had never used such material earlier. Those who have taken Math in high school are
exempted from learning Calculus, Geometry or Trigonometry for their exams - these subjects are,
therefore, not taught in these schools. There is no equivalent for these topics and students often scor e
low marks in the Class 10 Board examination since they cannot attempt those questions. On the other
hand, VI children who attend inclusive schools face challenges in following class lectures and teaching
methods which are largely visual and use the black board extensively. Even if a college or school admits
the visually impaired, in most cases, no specific support is provided to help these students with their
coursework. Most of their study material is not fully accessible since OCR software does not recognize
them or screen readers do not read the content. Moreover, there have been limited efforts in making
mathematical notations accessible. All our respondents shared that they had to frequently rely on
volunteers, friends and family members for help with reading out the study material or recording them.
There are a few resource centers in the not-for-profit sector that provide Braille, Audio, E-Text and
format books on demand to the students. A doctor who heads a rehabilitation programme of a
leading ophthalmologic research institute in India shared that their institute had created a large-print
and Braille books library for non-curricular books in addition to providing accessible curricular
resources such as tactile maps and Braille text books on demand. However, the doctor said that the
demand for Math and Science books were very rare until very recently. An expert who heads such a
resource center and is blind himself said, For the visually impaired student in India, S and M stands
for Sanskrit and Music, and not Science and Math.”
Socio-technical issues such as the need for
affordable braille displays and the need for creation of accessible Science and Math content for VI
students are being highlighted at the behest of certain forerunners who are themselves visually impaired
(Taraporevala, 2016). In a conversation with us, the Director of another resource center said, “There is a
great need to make the Science lab accessible through technology”.
He also shared that he loved
Science as a student, but could not study it due to lack of content and other resources. He therefore
pursued Sociology for his higher education.
Since lack of access to diagrams in Science and Math is one of the key deterrents for the VI students, an
AT research lab has created tactile diagrams along with the Braille printed NCERT
curricular books for
all grades. The cost of each page of tactile diagram varies from INR 290 (USD 4.40) to INR 680 (USD
10.25) per page for a new design, creation of 3D moulds and thermoforming, depending on the degree of
complexity and, at this rate, is not affordable by many special school students who come from lower-
income households.
Instructors for the visually impaired and their capacities
Teachers in the schools for the visually impaired highlight the need for development of independent
living and mobility skills for their students. The Principal of one such school shared that students also
undergo additional vocational training such as on horticulture and dairy farming, to prepare them “for
employment with which they can easily cope”.
While many of our student respondents from schools are
Excerpt from an interview conducted with a 5th grade student on August 18, 2017.
DAISY is an acronym for Digital Accessible Information SYstem.
Discussion with Head of a resource center on July 7, 2017.
Discussion with Head of a resource center on November 17, 2017.
National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is an autonomous organization of the
Government of India which advises the Central and State governments on policies and programs.
Discussion with Principal of a school on September 15, 2017.
interested in studying Science and Math, work beyond school hours is limited. They do not practice,”
said a Math teacher. “Our teaching has no problems, but if they don’t practice, they cannot score,” he
The classroom of a non-government organization for the blind which offers a 2 year diploma on special
education for teachers was filled with tactile artifacts of maps, human body systems and models of urban
structures. Supporting the use of sensorial teaching methods, the Principal of the school said, “When we
teach the children about plants, roots, branches, leaves…we make them touch plants…the Montessori
sensory system of education is adopted for primary school”. However, when we spoke to the specific
subject teachers and students, we found that chemical equations are skipped in high school Science
lessons, laboratory experiments are entirely omitted and the students have no exposure to the
experimental procedures. “They will find lab work very difficult”, said a teacher.
There is also no effort
to teach diagrams in Math and Science. There are no accessible and affordable 3D models or tactile
diagrams for any of the topics in the classrooms which the children could relate to. Middle school
students of a school for the blind shared that the Science lectures in their class are largely theoretical,
and are conducted without the use of any sensorial artifacts. By contrast, in an international school in
Bangalore, which is largely attended by students whose parents are employed in senior positions in
multinational corporations, and is open to admit VI students, a designated teacher helps the VI student
in the classroom during regular classes. She uses Wikki Stix (Mcdonald, 2018) to create tactile
equivalents of board diagrams drawn by the class teacher on parchment paper. During exams, a school
designated teacher copies the answers typed in by the student on a computer onto an answer sheet for
correction by the subject teacher. The print-out of the student’s Microsoft Word answer sheet and the
teacher’s handwritten answer sheet are together submitted for correction to the examiner.
Out-of-school coaches and mentors who are trained on special education strongly stressed the need to
provide accessible resources for the VI students to help them comprehend Science and Math. They are
confident that given the right tools and exposure, VI children can grasp concepts as clearly as their
sighted peers. They suggest that it is critical that special skill learning for these students should run
parallel to academic learning. They lament the stereotyping of visually impaired into professions which
do not require much intellectual prowess. A group of teachers, who support VI students with their
academics, demonstrated the use of various tactile models and toolkits which they use to ignite interest
in Science and Math from a very early age. A center which employs such coaches has begun to create
manuals for helping instructors teach Science and Math.
There are 27 organizations which train teachers on the pedagogy of special education in Karnataka with
aid from the government (, 2018). The government also runs one institute offering
Diploma in Special Education for teaching VI students. The minimum requirement to join the course is
completion of a Pre University Course (, 2018). In a workshop for teachers from
schools for the blind, we found that all the participating teachers, both sighted and blind, were indeed
qualified with this additional diploma. Yet, most of them were not graduates and some VI teachers of
Math and Science had not studied these subjects beyond seventh grade. A Math teacher of a special
school, who is a software engineer by training, shared that by teaching these VI children, she felt she was
serving society. She said that the school has geometry kits and algebraic tiles which are used by the
children for learning Math, though she was herself not trained to use the tiles and was learning their
usage from her students. She considered “geometry and algebra difficult for them”. Another Math
teacher, who was blind herself, and had not been trained on Math or Science, expressed the urgent need
to learn how to explain the basic Math concepts to the children. The Principal of a special school shared
that lacking a qualified Science teacher to teach Science to high school children, he assigned the task to a
Humanities graduate who was otherwise working as an office helper. In another school, the few Science
and Math teachers often combine the students of eighth, ninth and tenth standards for Science and Math
lessons. Teachers from one of the oldest schools for the blind in India said that they send their students
to the district high school, while continuing to support them with resources, due to the dearth of
qualified teachers for Science and Math with a willingness to take up these jobs. VI students who are
Discussion with Teacher of a school on October 6, 2017.
pursuing STEM related subjects in higher education feel that teacher training and orientation towards
the needs of VI students is critical.
Infrastructure and technology aids
Some resource centers in India provide advocacy support for VI students requiring print access, financial
access, education access and independent living besides spreading awareness about the lives of persons
with blindness and low-vision.
In schools for the blind, usage of AT is limited to screen readers such as Non-Visual Desktop Access
(NVDA) on the computers. Students are taught to type on a QWERTY keyboard and use Microsoft
products such as Word and Excel. The computers are not used as learning tools for other academic
subjects and basics of programming is not included in the Computer lessons. By contrast, high school
students in inclusive international schools use a computer to type in their notes. They use Braille for
Indian languages, but rarely use Braille for English text. Upwards of sixth grade, they take subject tests
on the computer. While students in schools for the blind do not get any reference material other than the
school notes, caregivers of students in international schools create scanned copies of printed academic
books and other reference material to complement their learning in school. For additional tactile
diagrams for their specific needs, these students enlist assistance from private tutors trained in special
education. Most students from schools for the blind belong to either rural areas or from urban low-
income households and cannot afford such assistance. Talking calculators which cost three times as
much as the normal scientific calculators are used by VI students for higher level Math in international
schools. They are, however, exempted from performing lab experiments in Science. Instead, they are
tested on their knowledge regarding the experiments and the findings. These students highlighted the
need for technologies to make high school Science experiments accessible through devices which may
help to record observations and measurement and provide audio output.
VI students who are now enrolled in higher education programs strongly condemn the limitations placed
on VI students in schools and demand that they should be allowed to study any subject of their choice. In
their view, VI students should be integrated with others at inclusive schools at the earliest. In fact, many
such respondents feel that there is no need for special academic institutions for the blind. All schools
should be aware of the needs of differently abled and use technologies that can make their studies
accessible. Currently there is no standardization on the facilities available to blind students even if they
are provided admission to institutes of higher education. “In fact, some urban schools have better
facilities for the blind than the engineering college I attend,” said a VI engineering student. “My biggest
hurdle was the lack of awareness in terms of accessible technologies both on my part and that of others
around me,” said a student of Finance. While there are various categories of visual impairment, most
ATs rationalize across their specific needs. Specific needs of a large number of low vision students, for
example, are not met. Moreover, our respondents felt the need for Persons-with-Disabilities cells in
colleges such as those available to students in leading universities elsewhere. University students seek an
option to write their exams on computers instead of compulsorily taking the services of a scribe, who
mandatorily has to be of lower academic qualification, and is difficult to explain to. In their views, with
the advances in technology, a voice to text technology in exams is not too much to ask for.
While educational technology is a key area of research at a leading engineering college in the country, we
didn’t notice a specific focus on assistive digital technologies for education. However, some student
startups have gained recognition by creating innovative haptic interfaces for VI school children. The
founder of one such firm shared that after interacting with school children at various schools for the
blind and interning at a resource center, she found it was extremely important to create a fun-filled
learning environment and introduce more interactive games to foster healthy competition to motivate
the VI students. She is working on creating a channel for schools to adopt the tactile products with
haptic interfaces. The challenge she faces is affording expertise from multiple domains, so essential in
creation of AT. For example, she was keen on collaborations with firms which had already developed
expertise or the physical hardware ready to hold devices such as smart phones which are being effectively
used for the camera enabled apps. However, such an alliance is not always a priority for the larger firms.
In a lab specifically dedicated to creation of ATs in another engineering college, technologists create
solutions to address the challenges of mobility and education besides helping to create awareness among
the youth towards the needs of the differently abled. Graduate engineers and research scholars engaged
in the lab have created a range of products for the education of VI students. These include Braille
readers, patented technology to create high resolution tactile graphics, a catalogue of 3D printed models
and an audio labeller. The engineers also actively contribute to the NVDA screen reader platform
through enhancements, while research scholars pursue projects on innovative ATs. In the same lab, a
team comprising of mechanical engineers, hardware and software experts and CAD designers have
dedicated more than six years to create a portfolio which is being moved to production through their
commercial arm, in collaboration with industry partners in various states of India. Dedicated engineers
are also working on two versions of refreshable Braille displays, which are being tested through various
beta sites. In an attempt to remain competitive, the technologists originally created a largely trimmed
down version of a product, only to find disparate acceptance criteria by the low cost users. This forced
them to go back to the drawing board and recreate the design with inputs from users at the very outset.
The products are now at various stages of acceptance testing and the lab is working closely multiple
resource centers.
Assistive Technology is also a focus area of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) departments of a few
technology firms in India. One such firm created an analog-digital interface computer access switch to
help children with cerebral palsy to type on computer keyboards in collaboration with students at an
engineering college. This product was priced attractively at INR.350 (USD 6) while the prevalent market
price for such products at that time was about USD 150. The product was taken to the children after
seven rounds of prototyping through four years of design with the help of a design firm and advice from
physiotherapists who treated children with autism. According to the Program Director, the product was
functionally complete and designed by technology experts and packaged attractively to look like a child’s
toy, yet the product was rejected by its targeted users, due to issues with the ergonomics of the device.
These had to be corrected through various trial and error conditions and a “base lined approach” on the
user story, to inform the optimum feature set requirements to be included in the product. Armed with
the learning from its previous product, the firm initiated a product for the visually impaired in
collaboration with a leading eye hospital. They designed a text to speech conversion device for libraries in
rural schools, which would scan books and provide students with a way to access print material easily
and on demand. However, since the market price of this device is far beyond the reach of most schools,
the firm aims to bring down the cost drastically through innovative design principles.
In an inclusive hackathon organized in the course of this research, participants consisting of technology
designers from industry, VI programmers and non-VI engineering students were teamed up to create
product prototypes over a 48 hour period. Twelve prototypes were designed to near completion through
this exercise, and each design was completely accessible. AT products were designed and demonstrated
even in such a short exercise through collaborative effort of an inclusive team of designers.
This paper studies the grand challenge in India related to the underrepresentation of VI persons in
STEM education despite innovations in ATs and a policy level endorsement of the United Nations
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The ATs which are examined in this paper
are targeted at VI students. Our findings indicate that the demands for accessible content and ATs arise
from the VI students and their teachers, while the resource providers and designers of AT artifacts form
the supply-side of this eco-system. We therefore analyze our findings from the perspectives of both the
demand side and the supply side stakeholders using the aforementioned “biopsychosocial” lens. In doing
so, we highlight the gaps from the supply side stakeholders in servicing some of the well-articulated
needs of VI persons, as well as the probable gaps in articulation of needs by the stakeholders on the
demand side.
Demand Side Perspectives
On the Biological needs of VI students
Braille device and Taylor frames are widely used to learn Math and Science. These technologies help
child in learning the subject through non-visual means. Most of these technologies are designed purely
from a medical standpoint so as to overcome the functional challengers to develop the capacity to learn
these subjects.
As the mainstream methods of teaching these subjects are highly dependent on visual capacities for
learning and practicing, special efforts have to be taken to assist these children in sharpening other
sensory skills such as feeling and listening so as to let them to grasp Math and Science concepts taught
Many of the VI students in schools expressed a desire to pursue careers in the STEM field. However,
schools specially designed for educating the visually impaired do not provide Math and Science
education due to the high levels of perceived difficulty in teaching these subjects which rely on visual
means for diagrams and equations. Extra effort is required to teach these subjects, be it in procuring the
technology (3-D models, tactile diagrams) and making Braille content accessible or in training the
teachers and equipping them with special skills and methods needed to teach VI students. Our findings
indicate lack of affordable and easily available technologies, and the lack of vision among stakeholders to
enable teachers.
On the Psychological needs of VI students
While students do not have reference material to study Science and Math, those that exist, are not
necessarily created to suit their needs. For text books which have been translated to Braille, the content
is often not comprehensible by children who are blind by birth. For example, authors do not consider the
needs of such students while including terms such as a “V-shaped” or “L-shaped” curve, which is both a
psychological and biological disadvantage.
Besides, VI students in special schools are also not aware of the possibilities that ATs can unlock and,
therefore, are not forthcoming on their explicit demand for them. In fact, despite relatively better
infrastructure at inclusive international schools, VI students preferred to be included further in the
learning process. For example, though they are presently not expected to perform lab experiments
during exams, they expressed a need to have appropriate ATs to learn the experiments.
We have no evidence to suggest that an average Indian VI student’s perspective, which should be the
most crucial while designing ATs such as the Taylor Frame for them, has been considered during design.
The limitations of design are apparent in the challenges described by students in performing larger
calculations on the device, and lack of inspiration and, therefore, the scanty number of students taking
Math in higher classes.
Lack of awareness in teachers has a causal relationship with the psychological awareness of the child.
Persistent demotivation from teachers and a continuous reminder of the limits of their functional
capacities can have long-lasting negative psychological effects on the child and might even lead to a
negative introspection.
Students in higher education feel the need to be included in ‘regular’ institutions and prefer that these
institutions are sensitized about their psychological and technological needs both in class and
during exams, provide accessible content and learning resources like some of the leading universities
abroad. The VI working professionals also prefer that VI students be not treated with sympathy. They
would rather be enabled through ATs to fulfill the eventual expectations of their employers.
On the Social needs of VI students
A key reason why Braille books are not available to every child is the sheer volume of a text book
equivalent Braille content for every printed book. Braille paper is expensive, heavy and the sizes of the
books are not amenable for ready reference or portability. Digital technologies to provide refreshable
Braille displays are priced above Rs.30,000 (USD 450), beyond the reach of most VI Indian children
attending schools. ATs for education have clearly not considered the socio-economic perspectives of
students in developing countries such as India.
While teachers have the power to change existing social stereotypes, most teachers, although
enthusiastic, are not aware of apt teaching methods or even the fact that such subjects can be taught with
a little help from appropriately designed technology. As a result, they give in to prevailing societal norms
and motivate these children to take up careers which don't require a high visual orientation such as
telephone operators or music artists. We find that they often compel students to avoid STEM related
subjects even if the latter find these subjects interesting.
Supply Side Perspectives
Resource Providers
The focus on assisting VI students in India has largely been on addressing their biological needs, largely
by providing mobility training and vocational courses on basic livelihood and independent sustenance.
Despite a large number of resource providers supporting VI persons in India over the last two decades,
accessible content is still not available to each VI student in schools for the blind. The resource centers
address biological challenges by supporting schools with Braille or audio books on demand and
providing training on ATs. Yet, most of the providers have chosen to remain oblivious to the needs of
children to study Science and Math. The resource centers have rarely advised technology designers on
the needs of VI students until very recently, by facilitating field testing newly created technologies such
as the refreshable Braille displays or tactile diagrams.
While a couple of VI experts pointed out the lack of focus on Science and Math and the need to disrupt
the status quo, there is an overall lack of awareness within the organizations on the psychological
impacts of not addressing this challenge. While dance, music and even sports for the visually impaired
has been focused upon to address some of the social needs, there has been no attempt to recognize or
foster a scientific temperament among them. We came across just one center in our sample, which
attempts to address the psychological needs of VI students by providing advocacy and spreading
awareness about the capabilities of VI persons in the public sphere.
Resource centers focus on social needs of the visually impaired by providing rehabilitation and livelihood
training. Being aware of the ubiquity of digital technologies, all resource centers have acquired
computers and provide training to VI persons on computer usage. Funded through CSR initiatives of
private companies, resource providers enable VI persons to use the computer to perform some of the
desk jobs at corporate organizations. A couple of larger players in this space also provide professional
courses on accessibility testing or programming and have begun to facilitate placement of VI persons in
the industry. As the intermediaries between the corporates and the VI community, they have been able to
highlight the challenges they deemed possible to address in their capacity, often competing with each
other to reach the end user for the same set of services.
Technology Designers
Only a handful of the technology labs in the country design AT specifically addressed for the the visually
impaired. Moreover, a clear disparity is seen when it comes to inclusivity of the disabled in educational
research. ATs are designed to overcome the challenges due to the medical condition of the user, as per
the understanding of the designer or the medical practitioner, rarely with inputs from the user. This
results in rework and loss of precious time and resources to take care of demand for better ergonomics or
appropriate functionality.
Our findings suggest that while the vision of these labs is to make positive changes in the lives of VI
students, the techno-centric focus of the engineering team has informed the design of the products,
which are also often not affordable by the average VI student attending a special school in India. Some
designers were unaware of the magnitude of the challenges faced by VI students in acquiring basic
knowledge of Science and Math. Education portals, online learning games and applications to assist
students with their studies in Science and Math do not consider accessibility guidelines in terms of
content and usability. Very few technology companies have expressed their desire to be inclusive in
terms of hiring qualified VI technologists. Moreover, the firms have spent very little effort to understand
the needs of the visually impaired at the workplace. As indicated earlier, we also found that one of the
labs where technology designers are working in close collaboration with resource providers and VI users,
has been able to make a greater positive impact on creation of Science and Math content for VI students.
To address the gaps demonstrated in our analysis of the supply and demand side perspectives using the
biopsychosocial framework of addressing disability, we conclude that in addition to Braille books, an
accessible and affordable online platform for Science and Math content, especially catering to the needs
of VI school students is the need of the hour. It is also essential that print content in Science and Math
books be supplemented with durable 3D models and refreshable tactile diagrams with Braille or audio
labels. The need for a standardized training curriculum for STEM teachers to be equipped to administer
lessons to VI students cannot be overemphasized. Technology enabled interactive learning tools and
games assisted by a teacher are found to reinforce and enhance their learning. For VI students to be
inspired to pursue STEM education, it is essential to create accessible and affordable laboratory
equipment in schools. Finally, our findings also indicate that accessibility needs of VI persons using
technology products may be adequately addressed through active participation of these persons in
technology design teams and eventually increase the adoption of these products. However, the current
under-representation of VI persons trained in STEM disciplines highlights the need to make STEM
education accessible for them in the first place.
To implement the recommendations, the AT design process should be made aware of the biopsychosocial
dimensions of the challenges faced by the users. First, the technology designers should complement each
other’s work rather than repetitively create singular artifacts to address a single challenge. Second,
technology labs and vendors are required to divert focus from only the medical or biological aspects to
also the psychological or social aspects in the design of their artifacts. Third, close interaction between
the various stakeholders on the supply side and the demand side is required to address the challenge of
lack of STEM education. Therefore, the research shows that there is a need to transcend barriers and
bring the stakeholders together into an institutional structure, rather than addressing the challenge
individually, thereby creating an AT eco-system to empower VI students.
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... In general, there is limited use of digital learning tools in the Indian context for students with blindness or low vision [11,28]. In addition, there is a lack of motivation among students with blindness or low vision to learn mathematics and science [12,25]. Students are less interested in learning geometric drawings and frequently use the Taylor Arithmetic Slate for geometric drawing, which is a tool for arithmetic calculation [7]. ...
... Since none of my seniors went to science stream, we never cared to study mathematics in detail". This also indicates a lack of awareness [31] and eventually the motivation to learn mathematics [12]. According to both participant groups, the digital teaching aid by itself should offer a platform to connect to an online community that presents scenarios of the potential use and need of these concepts in post-school life. ...
People with visual impairments in India have low literacy rates and only a few pursue higher education at the country's top universities. We present an insight into the educational experiences of these few university students with visual impairment based on the Frame of Interdependence. We found that educational challenges arise when interdependence fails due to restricted or misfitted assistance from social relations and ableist social interactions. Analysis of practices to overcome these challenges from the lens of Resilience Theory revealed that students develop a sense of self-confidence through successful academic experiences, internalise external stressors into intrinsic motivation, and find ways to navigate inaccessibility with the available social resources. In addition, students express the need to increase the integration of assistive technologies in education and facilitate social integration. Finally, we discuss the implications of these findings for equitable and inclusive education practices.KeywordsVisual ImpairmentEducationAssistive TechnologiesGlobal SouthInterdependenceResilienceInterview Study
The STEM subjects books heavily rely on Non-textual Components (NTCs) such as charts, geometric figures, and equations to demonstrate the underlying complex concepts. However, the accessibility of STEM subjects for Blind and Visually Impaired (BVIP) students is a primary concern, especially in developing countries such as India. BVIP uses assistive technologies (ATs) like optical character recognition (OCR) and screen readers for reading/writing purposes. While parsing, such ATs skip NTCs and mainly rely on alternative texts to describe these visualization components. Integration of effective and automated document layout parsing frameworks for extracting data from non-textual components of digital documents are required with existing ATs for making these NTCs accessible. Although, the primary concern is the absence of an adequately annotated textbook dataset on which layout recognition and other vision-based frameworks can be trained. To improve the accessibility and automated parsing of such books, we introduce a new NCERT5K-IITRPR dataset of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) school books. Twenty-three annotated books covering more than 5000 pages from the eighth to twelve standards have been considered. The NCERT label objects are structurally different from the existing document layout analysis (DLA) dataset objects and contain diverse label categories. We benchmark the NCERT5K-IITRPR dataset with multiple object detection methods. A systematic analysis of detectors shows the label complexity and fine-tuning necessity of the NCERT5K-IITRPR dataset. We hope that our dataset helps in improving the accessibility of NCERT Books for BVIP students.KeywordsGraphical object detectionNCERT booksAssistive readingNCERT datasetDocument layout analysis
This paper argues that, while universities have a crucial role to play in social innovation by democratizing knowledge, fulfilling that role in the Global South requires them to partner with civil society actors such as NGOs. With their history of working with the socially disadvantaged, NGOs have a unique role in clarifying the nature of demand since social innovation must often address ill-formulated “wicked problems”. Similarly, NGOs can fill the “institutional voids” which limit socioeconomic transactions in the Global South. The paper discusses the wicked nature of visual-impairment, which is both widely prevalent and has biopsychosocial attributes i.e., the functional limitations are reinforced by the psychological perceptions of the blind and visually impaired (BVI), and the sociological stigma of impairment. The empirical setting is India where policies for the BVI population are being formulated within a broader framework of social inclusion. The paper investigates how the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore (IIITB) has taken advantage of state policies to embrace an academic mandate which includes social innovation. Specifically, it explores IIITB’s incubation of the NGO Vision Empower, and the partnership that has followed, to overcome the neglect of the BVI in science and mathematics education.
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The conventional educational environment imposes barriers to education for people with disabilities, limiting their rights, which is a non-discriminative education. In turn, hampers their access to other rights and creates huge obstacles to realize their potential and participate effectively in their communities. In this sense Assistive Technology provides alternative solutions, in order to compensate for a lost or diminished ability. Thus the necessary assistance is provided to perform tasks, including those related to education, improving the inclusion. In this paper some researches had been made in the Gabinete de TecnologiaMedica, in the Facultad de Ingenieria of the Universidad Nacional de San Juan in order to solve this problem. The researchers are classified by type of disability; sensory (visual and auditory) or motor. They have been designed, developed and experienced through various prototypes that have given satisfactory results. It had been published in national and international congresses of high relevance.
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This paper considers the barriers to information access faced by visually disabled people in the epoch of the information revolution. The authors question the inadequacy of the popular mechanistic-binary conception of the digital divide and propose a new paradigm "information inequity." This model aims toward a holistic conception of the realities of information access and marginalization for visually disabled people. The paper critiques the mechanistic-binary notion of a "digital divide" where one is either "info-rich" or "info-poor" based on the availability of technology. The paper adopts a cross-cultural perspective, considering digital disablement of visually disabled people in India and the United States. By considering the economic, political, cultural and educational aspects of marginalization, as well as the technological, the authors set out to delineate the relationship between disability, technology and society.
Conference Paper
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Few research studies focus on how the use of assistive technologies is affected by social interaction among people. We present an interview study of 20 individuals to determine how assistive technology use is affected by social and professional contexts and interactions. We found that specific assistive devices sometimes marked their users as having disabilities; that functional access took priority over feeling self-conscious when using assistive technologies; and that two misperceptions pervaded assistive technology use: (1) that assistive devices could functionally eliminate a disability, and (2) that people with disabilities would be helpless without their devices. Our findings provide further evidence that accessibility should be built into mainstream technologies. When this is not feasible, assistive devices should incorporate cutting edge technologies and strive to be designed for social acceptability, a new design approach we propose here.
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This review article examines the development of individualized meanings assigned to assistive technology and how these personal meanings influence the integration of assistive technology into daily activities. A review of the published literature regarding assistive technology use and abandonment was conducted by performing two independent searches using 26 search terms and three databases. Publications were reviewed for whether they addressed device use, device abandonment, coping, adjustment, adaptation, values, outcomes and/or cultural issues; 81 publications met these criteria. The evidence suggests that psychosocial and cultural issues influence the shaping of individualized meanings assigned to assistive technology. Theoretical arguments suggest that the process of adapting to disability is another influential factor. The synthesis of evidence and theories suggests that successful integration of assistive technology into daily lives requires potential device users to explore: (1) the meanings they assign to devices; (2) their expectations of assistive technology; (3) the anticipated social costs; and (4) ways to understand that disability is one, but not the defining, feature of one's identity.
This chapter provides (a) an overview of visual impairments and blindness, (b) explanations, examples, and summaries of research findings on assistive technology-related assessments and assistive technologies for pre-academic learning, reading, writing, mathematics, and science, and (c) discussion of implications of research findings for use of assistive technology with students with visual impairments and blindness. The research summarized suggests the use of assistive technology with students with visual impairments and blindness has the potential to improve many student outcomes related to academics and learning via enhancement of existing sight abilities and/or engagement of other senses (e.g., hearing) and abilities (e.g., oral language). In addition, research findings suggest the extent and quality of assessments are critical determinants of long-term assistive technology implementation outcomes. Discussion of the implications of research findings includes recommendations for practice in assessment, selection of assistive technologies, teaching and encouraging assistive technology use, and prevention of technology abandonment. The chapter concludes with description of areas in need of future research.
This article critiques the assumptions about the nature and meaning of disability advanced in social-psychological writing, suggests the origins of these assumptions, and proposes a return to a Lewinian/minority-group analysis of the situation of people with disabilities. It concludes by placing the articles in this issue of the Journal of Social Issues in context and by presenting questions in need of further exploration.
Although a “minority-group” model has emerged to challenge the traditional dominance of the “functional-limitations” paradigm for the study of disability, research on attitudes toward disabled people has not produced a theoretical orientation that reflects these developments. This paper proposes a new conceptual framework, based on the fundamental values of personal appearance and individual autonomy, for assessing the “aesthetic” and “existential” anxiety aroused by persons with disabilities. Investigations using this perspective might contribute to determining the attitudinal foundations of the competing models that are dividing research on disability.
( This reprinted article originally appeared in Science, 1977, Vol 196[4286], 129–236. The following abstract of the original article appeared in PA, Vol 59:1423. ) Although it seems that acceptance of the medical model by psychiatry would finally end confusion about its goals, methods, and outcomes, the present article argues that current crises in both psychiatry and medicine as a whole stem from their adherence to a model of disease that is no longer adequate for the work and responsibilities of either field. It is noted that psychiatrists have responded to their crisis by endorsing 2 apparently contradictory positions, one that would exclude psychiatry from the field of medicine and one that would strictly adhere to the medical model and limit the work of psychiatry to behavioral disorders of an organic nature. Characteristics of the dominant biomedical model of disease are identified, and historical origins and limitations of this reductionistic view are examined. A biopsychosocial model is proposed that would encompass all factors related to both illness and patienthood. Implications for teaching and health care delivery are considered.
Observation techniques
  • P A Adler
  • P Adler
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