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After a full day of school, as soon as six-year-old Ari gets home he wants to share what he has learned with his grandmother. He searches for “My Brain is My Boss” on his tablet and pulls up UNICEF’s Accessible Digital Textbook (ADT) on the BookFusion app.
He’s clearly at ease manipulating both the app and his tablet. Reading, signing along with the sign language demonstrator, mouthing the words – Ari guides his grandmother through the story.
With this technology, Ari is breaking down barriers to his learning and communication. He was diagnosed with Auditory Neuropathy as a baby, a disorder that hinders sound transmitting from the inner ear to the brain. But this does not hold back Ari from finding new ways to express himself. In fact, he has already taught himself Jamaican Sign Language (JSL) using YouTube.
“Ari’s disability made me realize that I do not need to take the world as seriously as I do,” says mom, Stacy-Ann Sturridge. “We have people going through way more difficult things than we are. I am not even sure Ari knows he has a disability. So, when you look at Ari and realize he is happy and has a disability, why should we not take a page from his book and try to be as happy as he is?”
Having partial access to the world of sound has not prevented Ari from being sociable and shining his light. His best friend, Ma’Kayla, is a hearing individual and together they love pretending to be each other’s teachers.
Ari already shows remarkable leadership skills. He’s the first to identify a mistake on the chalkboard; and always assists in lining up the students! He’s an example not only to classmates but also to decision-makers about what children can achieve when provided with equal learning opportunities.
Ari’s success story helped to motivate UNICEF to pilot the Accessible Digital Textbooks for All, an initiative catering for children with and without disabilities. The Eleva Foundation has funded the ADT rollout in six Latin America and Caribbean countries: Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay.
The app is designed for all children to engage with it as comfortably as Ari. The stories can be downloaded so they are available on the tablet without WiFi.
Here in Jamaica, UNICEF has established a technical working group with the Special Education Unit of the Ministry of Education and Youth, eBook company BookFusion and special needs teachers to implement the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) methodology, which is at the heart of ADT. The first two full accessible books were launched in late September 2022 and the working group is on track to convert the remaining 10 titles in the popular, curriculum-linked series known island-wide as Literacy 123. This push is also intended to support the learning recovery after school lockdowns caused by COVID-19.
The Ministry of Education and Youth already had a headstart with digitized content from BookFusion’s previous work with the Digicel Foundation. For the Jamaican pilot, two books were converted into ADT format following UDL principles: My Brain is My Boss and Harriet Hen, and The Hawk.
At the Danny Williams School for the Deaf in Kingston, which Ari attends, teacher Patrice Matthison is using the My Brain is My Boss to help the class grasp the relationship between the brain and the body. Patrice projects the eBook onto the whiteboard and turns on the sign language feature. The eBook has accessibility features that cater to all students, including a screen reader; text provided in font catering to students with dyslexia; and illustrations in colours that are selected to help those with issues such as colour blindness.
Supported by these features, children are better able to navigate the eBooks independently, so self-guided learning at home can complement in-school teaching, as demonstrated by Ari.
“Students enjoy technology. It stimulates their interest and curiosity and gets them engaged,” says Acting Principal, Heidi-Ann Mitchell-Dillon. “The books will help students develop confidence and a love for reading.”
Over the next year, all twelve of Jamaica’s Literacy 123 books will be available in the new format on Bookfusion. Subject to additional funding, the programme will be expanded with eBooks for Grades 1-3.
“One of the things we have been trying to do is embed capacity building with our partners and the government. We hope to see an Accessible Digital Textbook Unit evolve within the Ministry of Education and Youth through its Special Education Unit,” says UNICEF Jamaica Education Specialist, Rebecca Tortello.
Back in the living room of his home, Ari’s bicycle and toys await. Having completed reading with his grandmother, he hurries to the play corner and pulls out his bicycle, pushes it out the gate, hops on, and rides as fast as he can pedal. Occasionally, his grandmother holds her hand up for Ari to freeze. Then, with excitement and giggles, Ari holds still. Then he’s off again when his grandmother signs, “Go”. The two of them play until the sun sets, filling the community with sounds of joy.
What's UNICEF doing?
A total of 12 storybooks will be converted to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) format as part of the first phase of UNICEF Jamaica’s Accessible Digital Textbook (ADT) project, aimed at ensuring all children have equal access to quality educational content. Teachers and book industry professionals are being sensitized to the use of this inclusive technology in classrooms.
Parents are also involved so that children with and without disabilities can explore this new interactive way of learning at home as well. The Jamaican content will be available on a regional portal alongside similar UDL teaching and learning material from other countries by 2024. Creating these ADT books with sign language, voiceovers, inclusive font, music, and activities builds on UNICEF Jamaica’s steady support for inclusion. This support includes the development of a special education course at the early childhood level, the revision of the national Special Education Curricula, and sustained advocacy for the finalization of the Special Education Policy.