Eye-tracking tech helps children with disabilities to attend school
Thanks to an eye-tracking device provided by UNICEF, Bohdan can go to school and interact with other children
In a sunlit classroom in Chervonohrad, western Ukraine, seven-year-old Bohdan is hard at work, counting the green balls that are pictured in a textbook with confidence.
Bohdan has a complex developmental disorder, which means that he is unable to move or speak on his own. However, this has not prevented him from entering the first grade this year, thanks in large part to a special eye-tracking device provided by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Using the sensor technology, Bohdan can express his thoughts, interact with his classmates and answer his teacher's questions.
"Four balls," he says through the eye-tracker, smiling.
The youngster must prepare for his lessons in advance by uploading textbook pictures onto a tablet and adding the words and expressions needed for a class. To respond to a question, he has to focus on the tablet’s screen.
Teacher Halyna Machynska is impressed by the device.
"At the introductory lesson, the children and I folded origami birds out of paper. “Bohdan used the eye-tracker to draw a pigeon on the tablet. We were all impressed. The children perceive him as a strong participant in the learning process.”
An eye tracker is a high-tech device that tracks the direction of a user's gaze and head movements. It is a type of assistive technology that provides children with educational needs with access to learning and socialisation. These technologies also include screen readers, keyboards with special features and hearing aids.
“He can't speak, but with the help of the eye-tracker, he can express himself,” says Bohdan’s teacher. “When a child feels comfortable in their class, they will study well.
Ivanka, Bohdan’s mother, accompanies him during his first days at school. She explains to the teachers about the eye-tracker and supports her son.
"He's been using the eye-tracker for a year now,” says Ivanka. “First, it was tough, and we studied how to work with the device together. But he liked the educational games available in the library and, thus, understood how to operate the eye-tracker".
"The device offers him many opportunities – for example, going to school with his peers, saying 'hello', asking them about how they spend their time, and telling them about his favourite activities. The eye-tracker opens up new prospects for Bohdan such as studying in an inclusive class at school and, in the future, getting a higher education and a good job"
Before the eye-tracker, Ivanka used pictures and gestures to communicate with her son, trying to guess what he wanted. But as Bohdan's vocabulary grew, there were no longer enough pictures and gestures to express himself.
To prepare for school, Ivanka and her son visited an inclusive centre in Chervonohrad where the boy worked with a speech therapist and a psychologist.
Today, the boy can read, identify vowels and consonants, count to five and transcribe words. Most of all, he likes drawing and communicating using his eye-tracker. He often logs on to the messenger to send messages and photos to his family.
"Bohdan wakes up in a good mood and tells me that he has to get dressed and go to school soon,” says Ivanka, happily. “The teacher told the children to bring notebooks and books, so Bohdan reminded me about his backpack. Now he goes to school like all the other children.”
Ensuring access to education for all children, including those who live with disabilities, is one of UNICEF's priorities. UNICEF also supports local partners specialising in service provision for children with disabilities to provide rehabilitation services, assistive technology and inclusive supplies, critical hygiene supplies, and non-food items to children with disabilities and their caregivers.