Global Accessibility Awareness Day: How technology helped build a learning haven for students with disabilities

Hemani Sheth Mumbai | Updated on May 21, 2020

Growing up with dyslexia and ADHD in a small industrial town, Senthilkumar Govindarajulu could never explain to his teachers why he couldn’t read and write like other students or retain lessons, as well as his classmates, did.

Years later, with access to technology, Senthilkumar returned to his hometown to ensure that children like him do not get denied a future.

Pursuing higher education with his learning disabilities, Senthilkumar did his doctorate in clinical and medical social work and volunteered with the United Nations and other agencies.

A year later, it was a lecture in Delhi that had changed the course of his future.

“I attended a lecture by Neelam Sinha, JNU’s national coordinator for the open school system, where she spoke about disabilities and learning,” he said.

He opened the Helikx Open School and Learning Center almost two decades ago to educate children with learning disabilities.

The school has been catering to the learning needs of children aged 7-17 years with a range of specific learning disabilities.

The school had relied on traditional teaching methods in the initial years when computers were only available for office administrative services. All this changed in 2009 when it acquired a few affordable laptops to see how technology could be integrated with the teaching curriculum.

“Once we acquired the laptops, there was no looking back,” said Kishore Kumar, the shool’s IT head and a Helikx School alumni with a Bachelors in Electronics.

The school has leveraged technology to broaden its curriculum and provide wider access in order to engage with children who have similar learning disabilities. It has implemented Microsoft Learning Tools on OneNote to teach and engage with students.

Technology for students with disabilities

Teachers apply multiple tools to help students with specific areas of learning, based on the difficulties they face. For instance, they use the Immersive Reader tool widely to enhance the reading skills of children with dyslexia, who suffer from difficulties in reading, writing, and poor memory.

Similarly, for students with ADHD, teachers use OneNote to teach vocabulary by encouraging the students to create mind maps, linear and web charts to increase their attention span and memory retention.

For young students, many of whom are first-generation learners in their families, teachers also include picture dictionaries to help with memory retention.

“I can see the difference in confidence in children when they start using technology. For older children with dyslexia, who are learning to write, the Dictate feature helps them write simple internal sentences without worrying about making spelling mistakes,” says Vidhya, a remedial teacher at the school.

Other tools that are being used in the classroom are Sway for visual learning and Kahoot for quizzing students, to test their retention.

It is students with autism, however, who need the most attention. The teachers have turned to a tool called Flipgrid to help students with autism.

Take the case of Sanjeeva. “Sanjeeva loves to tell stories. When I tell a story in class, he takes characters from it and creates a whole new story. His imagination comes to full play on Flipgrid,” says Vidhya.

The school has deployed Microsoft Teams for all the teachers and students. Kumar has created separate channels based on their grade. This enables them to learn remotely, especially given the current Covid-19 situation.

“Most of our students don’t have laptops , but they are still able to attend the classes on their phones,” said Kumar.

To replicate the test environment, teachers are also sharing Microsoft Forms on Teams, which they need to fill and send back.

“Considering that students are currently not in school, we are also creating PowerPoint presentations with audio clips and OneNote pages with immersive reader and picture dictionary, which they can download and use,” adds Pradha Senthil, another teacher at the school.

Digital access for all

Senthilumar’s story is just one among many that highlight the importance of digital inclusion, marking the ninth Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). GAAD brings to the forefront the discussion around digital access for the more than one billion people with disabilities and impairments globally.

When Senthilkumar returned to his hometown in 2000, he could have never imagined how impactful his vision to help others like him could be with the right tools.

Today, the school has helped more than 700 children, mostly from low-income groups, overcome their challenges. “We are guided by the principle of ‘can you teach us the way I can understand,” said Senthilkumar.

“Each child that comes to us has immense potential. It is our job to find the right methods to simplify learning for them,” he said.

Many of his students have managed to make it to the regular workforce.

“One student completed his engineering, worked for some of the biggest IT companies in the country and now runs a start-up in Bengaluru,” he chimed with pride in his voice.

“We have seen the productive outcome of technology over the past couple of years. We have even established an innovation lab and are keen to expand and upgrade ourselves with tools over the next few years to see our children fly high,” he added.

Published on May 21, 2020

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