Adding muscle to open doors

Enabling technology for people with disabilities

Bionic limbs. Exoskeletons. Stair-climbing wheelchairs. Eye-tracking. Lomak. Sip and puff. Walking-navigation apps. All these, some of whose names and workings are still strange to us, and many others that are perhaps a little more familiar, are part of a swiftly developing and creative branch of what is known as assistive technology, or AT – technology intended to revolutionise the capacity, and therefore actualise the potential, of people with disabilities. And this revolution is of course part of the wider, all pervasive Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) which is changing the lives of individuals and society globally. The issue is – how can we ensure that it changes everyone’s lives equally.

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.

Enabling potential

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.

Questioning challenges

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.

Learning technology

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.

Creating tomorrow

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.


Prof. Ylva Rodny-Gumede (Facilitator)

Ylva Rodny-Gumede (Facilitator) is the Senior Director: Division of Internationalisation and also Professor in the School of Communication at the University of Johannesburg.

She is a Senior Associate Researcher with the Stanhope Centre for International Communications Policy Research at the London School of Economics. She holds a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University as well as an MA degree in Politics from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and an MA in Journalism from Cardiff University in the U.K. Ylva is a former journalist and has also worked in marketing and PR. In addition, she has consulted for several government, private and academic institutions in Europe and Southern Africa on issues concerning media and democracy, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, and the SADC Parliamentary Forum. Ylva holds a C 3 rating from the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) and is the current President of the South African Communications and Media Association (SACOMM).

Eustace Dogo Postgraduate Student

Eustace Dogo Postgraduate Student at the Institute for Intelligent Systems, University of Johannesburg

Eustace Dogo is a researcher and has over 10 years of Industry experience working in Russia, Europe and Nigeria before joining the academia. Eustace holds a BSc and MEng in Electrical Engineering from Peter the Great Saint Petersburg Polytechnic University Russia. He has published in reputable journals and conferences. He recently co-wrote a Springer book chapter titled “Toward Sustainable Domestication of Smart IoT Mobility Solutions for the Visually Impaired Persons in Africa”, in a book that highlights Technological Trends in Improved Mobility of the Visually Impaired persons. The chapter provides an assessment of smart IoT mobility solutions with practical application cases where mobility solutions are being tested and put into practice, such as IoT solutions in Africa. Eustace is currently pursuing his doctoral degree programme at the Institute for Intelligent Systems, University of Johannesburg.  His research interest includes, theoretical and applied Machine Learning, Intelligent Systems, Computing Networks and Cloud Computing.

Prof Maximus Monaheng Sefotho

Maximus Monaheng Sefotho is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Johannesburg. Passionate about Career Guidance, Disability, Philosophy of Education, philosophy of science and philosophy of mind, he includes the excluded through hephapreneurship, a neology he coined for persons who are Neither in Education, Employment or Training. Prof. Sefotho’s work is a socio-political act geared towards transformation and social change. He chooses to use the phrase ‘differently abled’ instead of ‘disability’ because he encourages ‘seeing abilities in disability’. He spans an extensive experience in career guidance. He visited CEDEFOP, a European centre for Career Guidance in Greece, Universidade de A Coruna in Spain and Morelia in Mexico recently all in the name of Career Guidance and disability. Prof. Sefotho completed a post-graduate diploma in disability studies with the University of Cape Town in 2016. In 2018, Prof. Sefotho edited a book: “Philosophy in education and research: African perspectives” on which his workshops on philosophy and research are based. Of particular interest is the inclusion of a chapter on the philosophy of disability: African perspectives. Prof. Sefotho’s work yielded a brainchild in the form of an envisaged Centre for Visual Impairment Studies, (As co-director) currently being developed as well as an Advanced Diploma in Visual Impairment Studies envisaged to start in 2020/2021.

Chelsea Williamson – iSchoolAfrica

Chelsea’s qualifications include a BA in Performance and Visual Arts where she majored in Drama Therapy with a dissertation on Drama Therapy for Deaf learners. She also has her Honours in South African Sign Language as well as a Speech and Drama teaching licentiate. She is passionate about Deaf education and has been working actively in the Deaf community for ten years.

At the age of 9 she was diagnosed with a host of learning disabilities, but with a great support team she never let anything stop her from achieving. This has fueled her passion for special needs education as she has experienced first-hand how technology is a powerful tool to overcome barriers.  She is committed to using technology to support communities with special needs.

Nicoline du Toit – ASP Sign Language Interpreter

Nicoline du Toit will provide South African Sign Language Interpreting Service during the debate