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At the crack of dawn, Shemoya Walker’s parents, Tameka and Kirkland, drop her off at Hope Valley Experimental School. Nestled among Kingston’s lush mountains, it is one of the few schools in Jamaica that caters to children with and without disabilities. Born with cerebral palsy, Shemoya, aged 11, faces challenges in learning at the pace of the traditional school system.
Worldwide, many children with disabilities are left outside the conventional school system which ultimately can exclude them from mainstream society as adults. Hope Valley Experimental School, meanwhile, sees itself as pioneering inclusive education in Jamaica with a mixed student body.
In this all-inclusive learning environment, Shemoya is a social butterfly. She is greeted by playful students with disabilities ranging from mobility issues to intellectual and sensory impairments. Many of her fellow students have no disabilities at all, such as her best friend, Mary, who helps Shemoya by pushing her wheelchair to classes and the playground. Seeing differently abled students learning and interacting together invites you to close your eyes and imagine an inclusive society in the future.
Children with cerebral palsy often face coordination challenges and experience difficulties with thinking, seeing, hearing, and speaking. For Shemoya, turning the pages of textbooks is challenging because of finger mobility issues. Cerebral palsy also affects her ability to retain information. “She needs repetition to grasp knowledge,” explains her father, Kirkland. Even with these challenges, her mother Tameka, cherishes dreams that she “can become everything she wants to be.”
The last day of September represents a new chapter in Shemoya’s eight years at Hope Valley. Friends and teachers crowd around her desk as she flies through a new digital textbook on her tablet. The new Accessible Digital Textbooks for All (ADT) initiative in Jamaica, is part of UNICEF’s global effort to push children with disabilities into the mainstream education system.
Funded by the Eleva Foundation, UNICEF Jamaica launched ADT in Jamaica in partnership with Jamaica’s Ministry of Education and Youth and local eBook company, BookFusion. Phase one facilitates the transition of Jamaican digital books into an accessible digital format available on BookFusion’s app. Plans are in place to link the content to additional Ministry-operated platforms.
Jamaica is the region’s first English-speaking nation to pilot ADT, with other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean being Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay.
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 fully 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.
The pilot aims to support mixed-ability teaching and learning in a fun, engaging way. The accessibility features include a screen reader, accessible font, sign language demonstrations, and image descriptions. Everything was localized, from the accessibility features such as Jamaican Sign Language and using Jamaican voices and faces – helping children build confidence by learning from familiar faces, scenes, and voices.
“Jamaica needs this program because the population with disabilities is proliferating, and all of them must learn to read,” says Anthony Grant, the visionary principal of Shemoya’s school. His colleague Kadian Lemard, Head of the school’s Special Education Unit adds her support of the technology. “We have never had something like this before.”
While Jamaica is still expanding its internet capacity across the island into harder-to-reach areas, the app is designed to bypass challenges in regularly accessing Wi-Fi as both the app and its stories can be downloaded to a tablet or phone in one sitting. Most importantly, all accessibility features are available even without an internet connection.
“We must continue to go into new frontiers on behalf of the children. I can see the vision of all our children gathered around this device to access the reading app, not just when they are alone, but when they are with others, inclusively in a group, enjoying learning,” says Fayval Williams, Minister of Education and Youth.
Classmates encircle Shemoya as she completes the comprehension exercises of the Accessible Digital Textbook. “I will learn from my tablet!” Shemoya exclaims, victoriously throwing her hands into the air. It is the beginning of a brighter future for her, hundreds of children with disabilities in Jamaica, and potentially, approximately 240 million others worldwide.
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.