On Thursday, 15-year-old Haroon Kareem TK took his SSLC IT practical examination along with 4.2 lakh students in Kerala. What set apart the class 10 student however, is that Haroon is reportedly the first student to use assistive technology to write the Kerala state board exams, without scribes. For this, he says he had to convince the Kerala government in order to secure a permission.
Studying in Mankada Higher Secondary School, Haroon was born with a total visual impairment - a condition which not only made school an isolating experience for him, but limited his access to classroom resources. However, over the course of his decade-long classroom education in a disability-unfriendly education system, Haroon learnt that where people failed, technology could come in and transform lives of those like him.
Stigma at school
Until 2017, Haroon studied at a school for the blind. But in class eight, he had his first experience at a 'normal' school, where he was put among 40 students and teachers who were ill-equipped, at best, to teach a student with visual impairment.
"On my first day of school - June 5 - there was quiz contest for World Environment Day. I participated in the written quiz with the help of a scribe. Usually, toppers of the school are appointed as scribes. I won the quiz that day, but instantly felt bad as I overheard three students and a teacher credit my win to my scribe. That is when I realised the kind of discrimination students like me face," he says.
Apart from stigma and insensitivity, there was also a bigger battle against a non-inclusive education system which failed to engage students like him.
"The teachers would not check my notebooks because they didn't know the Braille script. Nobody asked me to submit notes or bothered to correct me. When I pointed this out to a few seniors with visual impairment, they told me to relax. They told me it didn't matter if I engaged with the class or did my homework. Whatever I do, the school will allow me to pass, they said. And this situation was simply not acceptable to me," Haroon adds.
By the time he finished class eight, Haroon started looking for technological solutions. Having been introduced to computers from class four, he realised that if he typed notes in his laptop, his teachers would be able to read and correct them.
In order to navigate the computer, he used screen-reader applications that are built for persons with visual impairment. Screen-reader applications work with the Operating Systems (like Windows) and read out everything displayed on the screen, including icons, menus, symbols etc. Haroon uses NVDA and Linux-based ORCA – a popular screen-reader - to navigate his laptop.
"After getting permission from the school, I started taking notes on my laptop. I would record textbooks by making my friends read out chapters. This changed things for me. I was no longer isolated from a typical classroom experience. My classmates would refer to my notes. Teachers began correcting and marking my homework which I printed out and submitted. I solved a tiny bit of my problems," he shares.
Technology to the rescue
While the screen-reader apps helped Haroon to an extent, he was determined to be 100% independent in his academic journey. This proved to be difficult in two subjects, mathematics and science, because the screen-reader apps were only limited to reading English, and could not read the symbols and signs used in the two subjects.
This was when he happened to meet Ram Kamal, who ran Chakshumathi, a non-profit based in Thiruvananthapuram that helps print-disabled children, i.e. those unable to read printed material due to perceptual, physical or visual disability.
Haroon attended an ‘Eyesfree camp’ organised by Chakshumathi. At the camp, he was introduced to an online library called Book Share for the blind -- an international community which gives free access to books. “In these textbooks, everything is read out including diagrams, tables, images and footnotes. They even mark page numbers and paragraph numbers and allow you to book mark pages. Where earlier I struggled to get to the page number which the teacher announced, now it was a cakewalk," Haroon says.
At the camp, he was also introduced to softwares like Dolphin Easy Convert and InSpy reader for easy reading of mathematics and science. Haroon realised that he could use InSpy to write for mathematics too.
Armed with technology, the 15-year-old then moved his school to seek permission to allow him to use his laptop to write his board examinations. The request, a first to be received by the Education Department in the state was initially rejected, citing SCERT norms. However, with the help of Kerala Assembly Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan, Haroon finally received permission on Wednesday to write the exam with assistive tech.
While Haroon is the first student to write his Kerala state board exam using assistive tech, students from CBSE and other boards have previously availed this alternative to write their exams, says Ram Kamal. In fact, since 2013, the central government and NCERT have allowed the use of assistive technologies for students with print disabilities.
Braille has its limitations
"I always knew that if I had to keep up with other students, I had to move beyond writing in Braille. I cannot write ‘x square’ in Braille, nor use the root and Pi symbols. As a result, blind children are not taught mathematics beyond class 4 level," Haroon says.
With Haroon set to write his board exams from March 10, hopes are that it will open doors for other students with visual impairment in Kerala's state schools to now avail assistive tech to be wholly independent in their schools.
"We need a tech revolution in blind schools in the state. I studied in one myself till class 7. While there is a lot of focus on arts and music, children are not taught mathematics and science beyond a point as the school is ill equipped to do so. And the worst part is we don't even know what we are missing, as we only interact, study and live with other students like us. It makes us more blind," Haroon says.