The implications for Africa are enormous. There are huge opportunities, indeed demands, for the continent to absorb, integrate and optimise all aspects of 4IR to maximise its human potential. In aiming for this inclusivity, it is essential to take note of the more specific issue of the inclusion on every level, of people with disabilities. And it is essential for those require AT for the improvement of the quality of their own lives, as much as it is for our societies which will surely benefit from their contributions.
AT is all about enabling people with various disabilities, be they physical or cognitive, to live their lives with less discomfort, pain and distress, and to have increased capacity to fulfil their dreams, unlock benefits and open doors in endeavours ranging from sports and careers to education. It’s a field of intriguing and exciting ideas – ideas that have made previously science-fiction concepts a reality that has the power to provide opportunities that before, for many, could only be dreamed of.
Bionic prostheses and exoskeletons for mobility and strength; sophisticated eye-tracking to enable speech, conversation and computer operation; apps to enhance walking navigation for the blind; implants that enable hearing; sensors to allow the flexible operation of prostheses from thought alone; wheelchairs that can climb stairs – all these are technological wonders that are unimaginably expanding the horizons of a world that has been, until now, one of frustrating and often painful constraint for many among us.
And the question is, how can we best guide these technologies so that their impact, potential and effect is maximised to everyone’s benefit. And the University of Johannesburg (UJ), as a leader of challenging and innovative academic thought on the continent, is asking this question, as part of its innovative Cloudebate programme to interrogate the effects and demands of 4IR.
The fourth Cloudebate of the year, addressing two aspects of this question, will be held on the 8th of October, and everyone’s invited. The first aspect is the more general one of inclusivity and opportunity for people with disabilities, and the kinds of revolutionary tools that are becoming available to enable them to participate more fully and more comfortably in the life that most people simply take for granted. There are many facets to this, not the least being that of general societal consciousness and awareness, as well as issues for affected people, of employment, sport, culture, government and – critically – education.
Education is of course central to what UJ does. That’s why the second part of the Cloudebate discussion on the 8th of October will focus specifically on the ever-expanding opportunities in the classroom for people with disabilities. These disabilities might include physical constraints, such as paraplegia or quadriplegia, which can be overcome with eye-tracking, breath-controlled, or light operated mouse and keyboard (Lomak) technologies, infrared scanners that sense head motion, or even foot pedals for computer and mouse operation.
There are cognitively-based challenges as well, which are being addressed with amazing tools that include scanning pens whose stored information can be read back, various types of voice readers, computerised and app-operated Braille managers, talking spell-checkers and calculators, proofreading programmes, screen readers and FM personal listening systems that amplify speech and minimise noise. Intriguing developments such as abbreviation expanders and organisers and alignment tools can help those with difficulties in the areas of writing and maths, to make great strides in learning.
All of these, and many other technologies and techniques besides, as well as the implications, effects and importance of integrating them in education will form a key part of the discussion as to how the lives, potential and sense of fulfilment of individuals can be changed unrecognisably for the better. And in fostering this discussion, UJ will be contributing towards eliminating educational and economic barriers within our society while at the same time working to expand its cultural and ethical reach.
Our societies must wholehearted embrace the best ways to create opportunities for universal progress. Our continent needs to be fully committed to a truly inclusive vision and to address 4IR developments in all their aspects, and for everyone. We need to rigorously examine our ability, willingness and determination to offer equal opportunity physically, educationally and economically to all who live in Africa. And a key part of this is the necessity of examining the full extent of technological breakthroughs for those of us who face greater challenges.
That’s why, if you’re affected in any way by disability of any kind, or have an interest in the potential of AT, or if you believe in the ethical issues at the heart of this question, then you should join UJ in investigating the questions, the solutions and the possibilities.
It’s only through this kind of informed debate that we can all contribute to the future we want to see for our children. In fostering curiosity, focusing on challenges, and exchanging ideas on its Cloudebate platform, UJ continues to demonstrate its passionate commitment to creating tomorrow.