Worldwide, there is estimated to be between 93 million and 150 million children with disabilities, though actual numbers are likely higher. Of these children, 80% live in developing countries and less than 3% are in school. Education systems often do not accommodate these children’s needs. A lack of suitable transport and infrastructure; inadequate teacher training; attitudes of teachers, classmates, and communities; insufficient learning support; or a dearth of high quality learning resources prevent children with disabilities from attending school or fully participating in it.
One gap is the limited data and research on early literacy acquisition among children with disabilities in developing countries. The Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA), a globally recognized standard for measuring foundational skills for literacy acquisition, has been adapted for use in more than 65 countries and in more than 100 languages. However, adaptations to make EGRA accessible to children who are blind/low vision are few and thought to be non-existent for deaf/hard of hearing. Which means, too often in developing countries, children with disabilities have been counted out, their numbers and reading skills left unassessed and unknown. “Accurate assessment is important because in its absence, children are commonly labeled as slow learners, mentally challenged, with low intelligence,” explained Terry Jenna of Benetech, an All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) grantee and nonprofit technology company serving children with visual disabilities. “Knowing the issues related to their literacy skills will help teachers and parents understand the real issue, so that they can be helped.”
This affects students like eight-year-old Suraj who attends a school for the blind in India. His access to reading was merely being read to for 15 minutes a week over a loudspeaker. However, Benetech’s ACR GCD-funded project is making reading materials accessible to Suraj and other children in Pune, India through the development of Marathi human-narrated audio of stories which are then uploaded to Benetech’s Bookshare, the world’s largest accessible online library, for children to access. This means Suraj can now learn to read Braille in the language he speaks at home. He listens to the stories on a DAISY Player as he follows along in his braille storybooks. Suraj’s teacher, Mr. Panchal, noted that since the project started, Suraj’s use of braille has improved significantly, his reading speed has increased, and he loves the stories available to him.
ACR GCD and our innovators are tackling the challenge of assessing reading skills among children with disabilities. Along with monitoring and evaluation specialists from School-to-School International and our grantees—Benetech in India, Catholic Relief Services in Lesotho, and Resources for the Blind in the Philippines—ACR GCD conducted several of the first EGRA-Braille adaptations and baselines in the world, to assess children who are blind/low vision.
Resources for the Blind (RBI) used the EGRA to better understand the literacy challenges facing children in the Philippines including Alexa, a nine-year-old grade 1 student with a visual disability
and cerebral palsy. RBI’s ACR GCD-funded project supports the Department of Education to create supplementary reading materials and lessons in Filipino, English, and 15 dialects, provides a package of tools and technology to make materials accessible to children who are blind/low vision, and focuses on improving teacher and parent motivation to support these students. Alexa’s teacher, Ma’am Jen Polo shared, “My pupils, particularly Alexa, are always excited about reading the stories and she can even share the stories with her sibling. Also, because of Alexa’s improved reading skills, she can now create simple stories on her own.”
In October, ACR GCD also coordinated the development of the first known adaptation of EGRA for children who are deaf/hard of hearing in Morocco, making the internationally-recognized literacy assessment accessible to children through the use of Moroccan Sign Language (MSL). The adaptation workshop and ongoing baseline survey is informing the work of ACR GCD grantee, Institute for Disabilities Research and Training and École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Rabat, as they adapt an assistive technology that allows educators to easily create and publish MSL-supported materials.
“We are optimistic that this is the first of many Early Grade Reading and Sign Language Assessment adaptations that will lead to greater knowledge and understanding as a basis for enhancing deaf education globally,” said Deborah Backus, Program Management Officer at World Vision US supporting its grantees’ in Morocco
Historically, deaf and hard of hearing children have faced numerous barriers to quality education. “It’s inspiring to see that things are finally starting to change—that the sign languages of the world are slowly being recognized as an instrumental part of learning to read for children who are deaf and hard of hearing and as an opportunity to reinforce literacy and learning for hearing children,” said Joshua Josa, Disability Inclusive Education Specialist for USAID.
You can read more about the EGRA adaptation process and access the baseline reports of the four grantees who have conducted EGRAs for children with disabilities (as well as other grantee surveys). All grantees will perform an endline EGRA in 2017 to measure project outcomes. If you’re aware of assessments or relevant innovations for children who are deaf/hard of hearing, we’d love to hear from you.
All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, a partnership of USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government, is an ongoing series of grant and prize competitions that leverages science and technology to source, test, and disseminate scalable solutions to improve literacy skills of early grade learners in developing countries. To check out more stories from our grantees, partnership opportunities, or to participate in future competitions, visit www.AllChildrenReading.org or follow us on Twitter.