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Fourth industrial revolution technology enhances social inclusion for those with visual impairments

The advent of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) has seen technology evolving at an unprecedented rate. One of the benefits of this transformation, is that it has made life so much easier and accessible for people with visual impairments like CSDA MPhil graduate, Tunusha Naidoo. When I was completing high school in the late 1990s, subject options were limited for the visually impaired. My severe visual impairment, which allows me mostly to distinguish between light and dark and not much more, meant that taking maths, science or geography was extremely challenging. How do you teach geometry, atomic structures, or explain the fine detail of maps to a student who cannot physically see the lines and shapes that denote mountains, rivers or canyons? There were no innovative ways of teaching such visual concepts to us. All of this, of course, meant that our choice of tertiary studies and career opportunities were limited.

Two decades later and so much has changed. Today, I am a recent masters graduate and am employed at the Centre for Social Development in Africa at UJ. A large part of what brought me here, apart from my own abilities and the support of friends, family and colleagues, I attribute to technology such as screen reading software, which powers applications to read aloud or speak text or images on a screen so that I am able to use a computer or smart device. My use of these technologies has resulted in me being socially, economically, and educationally included in society.

About 15% of the world’s population lives with some sort of disability, according to the World Health Organization. Visual impairment is the common form of disability: estimates suggest that there are approximately 253 million visually impaired people around the world; 36 million of them are completely blind – they’re unable to see. The others have moderate to severe visual impairment.

People with visual impairments are confronted with numerous daily challenges, such as negative or ignorant perceptions by sighted people, as well as trying to navigate a world designed largely by the sighted, for the sighted. These challenges hinder their full participation in society, which can result in feelings of social isolation and invisibility. Visually impaired people are also frequently deprived of human rights, such as the right to access education, and the right to dignity, as they need to depend on sighted people to assist with personal information or tasks in their daily lives. Assistive devices, guide  dogs, white canes and reading material in Braille – have played an instrumental role in overcoming some of these challenges. Now, with the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, digital technologies are offering new opportunities to help people with visual impairments become more socially included.

My love for technology prompted me to investigate whether and how some of these modern technologies are currently assisting visually impaired people. So, for my Master’s dissertation, I conducted case studies of 3D printing, the Internet of Things and text-to-speech applications, examining the role that these digital technologies are playing in the lives of 19 visually impaired people from South Africa, Canada, Australia and the US. It was important not to limit my research specifically to South Africa, but rather to include participants from developed nations; after all, we know that there are large disparities between digital access in developed and developing countries, so the ubiquity and quality of these technologies may differ.

Japanese researchers Tetsuya Watanabe and Kana Sato have written that, for people with visual impairments to understand the shapes of objects, “a touch is worth a thousand words”. That is why 3D printing, the process of converting digital files into solid objects which can be felt and experienced tangibly by people with visual impairments, was one of the digital technologies I focused on. The Internet of Things (IoT), meanwhile, promises to benefit people with disabilities by increasing their levels of independence and quality of life through the use of sensors that connect everyday products to the IoT – think of the smart fridge in your home or the Amazon Echo you use to turn your lights on and off remotely, Smart appliances have been designed with touchscreen interfaces making it impossible for a blind person to use, however once connected to virtual voice assistants such as Alexa, Siri or Google, these appliances become more user friendly. The third technology I focused on was text-to-speech applications which enable the visually impaired to use devices such as computers and smart mobile devices. Text-to-speech enables the visually impaired to search the web, to have social media presence on apps such as Facebook and Instagram, and to independently do their online banking, online shopping and access transport services like Uber.

My findings showed that 3D printing, the IoT and text-to-speech applications were able to help the participants feel more socially included in a number of places – at home, at work, in social and religious spaces and in educational settings. 3D printing was adopted to teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics to visually impaired students living in the developed countries such as Canada and the USA. Studying geometry was a nightmare for me, but now 3D printed geometric shapes allow visually impaired students of today to get to grips with complex concepts like scale dilation. A Masters student from Canada shared with me how, like many other blind people, he imagined the human heart as being shaped like the one we see on Valentine cards. He knew that it had four chambers and, in his mind, tried to stuff those into the shape of a Valentine heart. When the anatomically correct 3D printed heart was handed to him and other blind colleagues, they initially thought it was a turtle or tortoise because of all the strange bumps and curves. With this heart at their fingertips, they were finally able to apply theory to ‘the real thing’.

The benefits of 3D printing expand beyond education and open the world up to visually impaired people in very different ways. One South African participant was a huge fan of the Game of Thrones series. She especially loved the character of Daenerys Targaryen but could, of course, not picture what her famous dragons looked like. So her boyfriend 3D printed a dragon necklace that the character wears. This allowed her to engage more deeply and increased her sense of social inclusion. An Australian participant prepared for a holiday aboard a cruise ship with her husband (both are visually impaired) by printing out a 3D model of the ship so they could learn every inch of it and know precisely where all the facilities were. Once aboard, they could enjoy all sorts of amenities, like the on-board ice cream parlour – yet another example of how 3D printing can deepen social inclusion.

The IoT, meanwhile, featured predominantly in people’s homes, especially through virtual voice assistants, however, once again, this technology assisted with the social inclusion of my participants from the west. And text-to-speech applications were used in all sorts of settings such as educational settings and at the workplace to help people feel more socially, economically and educationally included. This technology was the most accessible to the visually impaired in South Africa than the other technologies were.

One of my key findings was that the degree to which people felt more socially included depended on numerous factors like privilege, nationality and access to technology. This technology is not cheap. Only those of a certain economic standard can obtain it – and this links back to early education. Simply, if visually impaired people don’t access good, inclusive education from the start of their lives, they won’t have the tools they need to ultimately get jobs, earn money and use this for such technology. Education opens doors. South African schools need to be empowered to invest in 3D printers, for instance, so that visually impaired children are able to engage in Science, Technology, engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects from an early age. In this way, their future career options won’t be as limited as mine were.

The study proved that the interaction between the participants visual impairment, and the adoption of 4IR digital technologies was able to shift the experience of disability in a positive way. This led to feelings of belonging, value, recognition, dignity, and self-reliance; all of which indicate experiences of social inclusion.

Digital technology continues to play a huge role in my own life. As I embark on my PhD, I am certain that technology will be key in this journey.

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