One of the key barriers to inclusive education in Eastern Africa is the inaccessibility of core learning materials. Education approaches in the region often fail to recognize the various learning styles that benefit different learners, including students with disabilities. As a result, students with disabilities are often left disenfranchised, frustrated, less engaged and less motivated to learn. Students with disabilities are at a particular disadvantage when instruction and materials are presented in only one format. Furthermore, since the pandemic, most of the population in Eastern African countries has been largely excluded from remote learning, as many do not have access to electronic devices, such as tablets and computers, outside of school.
Towards a Solution
The Accessible Digital Textbooks (ADT) initiative is implemented by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), under the framework of the United Nations Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD). The objective of the initiative is to promote inclusive education by ensuring that all learners, including learners with disabilities, have equal access to learning materials in inclusive learning environments. In Eastern Africa, this initiative was introduced in Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, and was designed to address one of the key barriers to inclusive education resulting from the inaccessibility of core learning materials.1 Framework can benefit all children. Hence, technology is used to create accessible learning materials. Accessible learning materials help to consolidate inclusion in line with General Comment 4 on Article 24 of the UNPRPD – the right to inclusive education – and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 to “leave no one behind” in learning.
The initiative’s key objectives were to:
- Enhance the enabling environment for the use of quality, accessible digital textbooks.
- Improve the capacity of the education system and the textbook ecosystem to produce and procure accessible digital textbooks.
The ADT initiative aimed to promote inclusive education by applying the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles to ensure that all learners, including learners with disabilities, have equal access to learning materials. This would allow children with different learning styles to access the same content, participate in the same textbook-based activities inside and outside the classroom, and have the same opportunities to achieve positive educational outcomes as their peers. In each beneficiary country, steering committees composed of UN agencies, Organizations of Persons with Disabilities (OPDs), key government stakeholders (Ministry of Education (MoE)), information professionals and publishing companies were established to plan and oversee all the project activities. While United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) focused on creating an enabling environment by promoting the development of supportive policies and guidelines, monitoring Marrakesh Treaty ratification and implementation, and overall knowledge management, the role of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) was to develop, pilot, iterate and scale up the use of (ADTs).
People from different countries and agencies were able to share information and experiences and to work together thanks to the regional and cross-country project activities, especially the regional knowledge exchange and lessons learned forums. This led to South-South and triangular cooperation between governments and agencies. Key outcomes included the establishment of active steering committees in Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda; capacity-building for teachers on the application of assistive technologies and use of accessible digital textbooks; piloting of developed ADTs in schools; ADTs produced, tested and validated with children with disabilities in all 3 countries; ADTs made available to children on the Kenya Education Cloud, REB platform (Rwanda) and Kolibri platform (Uganda); and development of ICT equipment procurement guidelines for OPDs and key government stakeholders.
ADT is an attractive initiative to MoEs, because it represents an innovative, concrete way to respond to the learning needs of children with disabilities, especially after the realization that this population was largely excluded from remote learning opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The strong partnerships that were established during this project through the interagency steering committees are well-placed to advocate for resources to move the ADT agenda forward. For instance, in Rwanda, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is adapting supplementary readers using UDL principles that were utilized in the development of the first ADT in this project. In addition, Rwanda’s Education Board has continued to develop ADTs.
Through the ADT global project, seven replicable critical strategies to achieve sustainable change in the ADT ecosystem have been identified: partnership and engagement; evidence and use; innovation; knowledge sharing; advocacy; policy development and implementation; and capacity development.