Harnessing the power of innovation for disability inclusion

Author: Caroline Kiarie- Kimondo
Head of Exploration, Accelerator Lab, UNDP Kenya

A student on the Autism spectrum access content produced specially for children with disabilities using Virtual Reality Technology. Photo: Action for Children with Disabilities

COVID-19 has brought devastation, loss of lives, and instability across the world. However, the impact of COVID-19 has not been homogenous. The pandemic has affected persons with disability disproportionately, deepening and exacerbating pre-existing challenges faced by persons with disability. More than 15 percent of the global population — over 1 billion people — are estimated to have a disability, 80 percent of whom live in developing countries.

According to the 2019 census, 2.2% (0.9 million people) of Kenyans live with some form of disability. Persons with disabilities have, under normal circumstances, challenges in accessing health care, education, employment, and many other services and opportunities. They are also nearly three times more likely to experience sexual violence than people without disabilities. These challenges are more pronounced during the pandemic due to the measures to control the virus’s transmission, impacting the socio-economic aspects of life and service delivery.

COVID-19 has demonstrated how extreme crises can fracture support systems accessible and available to persons with disabilities, exposing them further to physical, social, health, and economic hardships, including exposure to crime and violence. Designing disaster response mechanisms with inclusion in mind is crucial to ensuring that vulnerable populations are not impacted negatively or excluded by the responses. A society that is conscious of and plans for vulnerable populations can recover and build forward better.

Early Childhood Development (ECD) teachers reviewing the Somesha Stories episodes, a platform that provides accessible child-friendly stories for early literacy and inclusive education for children with disabilities. Photo: The Action Foundation

From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed Kenyans’ ingenuity to create solutions to the challenges posed by the crisis, cutting across sectors such as agriculture, health care, transport, commerce, and sanitation. These innovations validate Kenya as a hub of brilliance and creativity. However, access to innovation for many Kenyans, be it consumers or developers, remains unequal, with structural barriers within the innovation landscape still in existence. This is particularly so for persons with disabilities.

Most solutions developed to address present-day challenges are not designed with persons with disabilities in mind. For persons with disabilities, innovation limitations exist in various forms: access to information, enabling infrastructure, access to opportunities, including financial resources, education, networks, and markets. Further, within the talent pool of technology creators and innovators, persons with disabilities are marginally represented. Accessible and inclusive innovation represents a massive opportunity for Kenya to ensure that its growth is genuinely inclusive and transformational.

In November 2020, the UNDP in Kenya, through the Transcending Foundations of Peace and Security Program and the Accelerator Lab with support from the Government of Sweden, launched an innovation challenge inviting solutions and approaches responding to the socio-economic challenges experienced by persons with disability as a result of COVID-19. In establishing the innovation challenge, UNDP seeks to accelerate disability inclusion and social cohesion and provide a stable, secure environment for persons with disabilities to thrive. Through the innovation challenge, UNDP sought to map and amplify homegrown accessible and inclusive innovations and facilitate the scaling of the same to ensure increased impact for the persons with disability. The challenge invited applications focusing on five thematic areas; Access to Technology, Access to Information, Access to Healthcare, Access to Education, Access to Opportunities, and Access to Financial Products/Services.

Submissions of applications from across the country revealed different gaps and opportunities, and through a rigorous evaluation process, five winners emerged. Each of the winning organizations received a grant of US$ 8000 to assist in further development and scale-up of the solutions. The winners are below;

1. Action for Children with Disabilities (ACD)ACD’s solution tests the use of Virtual reality (VR) to support children with intellectual disability to learn. Virtual reality (VR) is a user interface immersing a person in a digital 3D environment instead of watching on display. Computer-generated imagery and content aim at simulating a real presence through senses (sight, hearing, touch). The organization intends to develop educational video tutorials for children with Autism Spectrum disorders and create simulations on the challenges that persons with disabilities go through in their daily lives. The simulations would also be used to conduct community sensitization and awareness sessions with community members.

2. KytabuKytabu aims to provide and integrate education content within the Kenya School system accessible to persons with disabilities, particularly for deaf teachers and learners. Adding a mobile-based school management system to the institutions supporting deaf learners will help them track the deaf learner’s progress and institutional needs and create sharable reports to partners and stakeholders. This data can be a tool that promotes better decision-making in Special Needs Education education’s resources.

3. Riziki SourceRiziki Source seeks to connect persons with disabilities to job opportunities by automatically creating a job-seeking database of job seekers with various types of disabilities and gender in Kenya. Users can download the mobile application on android phones or those without smartphones- the use of a text message facilitates registration to the database. At the same time, those who can access the internet can register directly through their website. Employers will be able to connect to persons with disabilities seeking jobs and thus understand their various qualifications, how to interview them, and how to work with them once hired through Riziki Source’s support.

4. Signs Media Kenya — Signs TV developed an application called Assist All, which enables deaf people to access sign language interpreters on demand, thus facilitating ease of communication in spaces where the same is not available. The app has a database of sign language interpreters made available by the touch of a button through a virtual interface.

5. The Action FoundationThe Action Foundation seeks to launch and expand Somesha Stories Project, a platform that provides accessible child-friendly stories for early literacy and inclusive education. Learners will access educational content specifically designed for all persons at their schools, from the comfort of their homes, and via the Somesha Mobile Based Application. As a result, the platform provides multiple opportunities for further learning and parental support to achieve the desired learning outcomes. The Somesha Stories are in audio, visual, print, and sign language formats hence accessible to learners who are blind, deaf, and those with intellectual disabilities.

A facilitator presents to Early Childhood Development (ECD) teachers the Somesha Stories episodes a platform that provides accessible child-friendly stories for early literacy and inclusive education for children with disabilities. Photo: The Action Foundation

Innovation has and will continue to play a significant role in the country’s response and recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic. Investing in research, partnerships, and networking building and solutions can improve the lives and experiences of persons with disabilities is critical for an inclusive, resilient future.

The Transcending Foundations of Peace and Security Program and the Accelerator Lab continue to map the systems and partners that will contribute towards integrated and inclusive development. One of the partners identified doing great work in this area is Innovate Now. Innovate Now is Africa’s first Assistive Tech Accelerator.

With a focus on innovative products, new service models, and global capacity support, the accelerator programme seeks to reach 9 million people directly and 6 million more indirectly to enable a lifetime of potential through life-changing assistive technology. They have supported two of the innovation challenge winners in their third accelerator cohort themed, “The ‘Future of Inclusive Employment” We look forward to continuing to work with different partners to amplify disability-inclusive innovation and help shift the narrative towards building a more inclusive and accessible country for all.

In #Kenya, UNDP works with the Government and communities towards inclusive and sustainable socio-economic and human development. https://www.ke.undp