According to Sulthana, an in-depth analysis of the severity of each student's disability is imperative to know what devices suit his/her condition Image Credit: Supplied

The first thing that greets you on entering the premises of the Assistive Technology Learning Resource Center (ATLRC) is a little placard with the immortal words of Hellen Keller: "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all."

In many ways that sets the tone for what the ATLRC is all about.

The first centre in the UAE to provide Assistive Technology absolutely free of cost, the ATLRC helps promote education of individuals regardless of the severity of their special needs. Established by the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), it caters to a wide range of assistive devices for not only students with special needs, but also to the community at large.

This service is mainly aimed at students with special needs who lack opportunities to pursue education after high school.

Assistive technology is a generic term that includes assistive, adaptive and rehabilitative devices and the process used in selecting, locating and using these devices. It promotes greater independence for people with disabilities by enabling them to perform tasks that they were formerly unable to accomplish, or had great difficulty accomplishing by providing enhancements to - or changed methods of interacting with - the technology needed to accomplish such tasks. Although the ATLRC operates within the Abu Dhabi Women's College, it is open to all.


How it started

Although it was officially inaugurated on May 25 this year by Shaikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Chancellor of the UAE University and Higher Colleges of Technology, the centre has been operational since last November.

Speaking on the occasion, Shaikh Nahyan stated that the maturity of a society is reflected when special-needs services are included in the education system.

"The official launch of the ATLRC is a great occasion for the HCT across its campuses, as it displays our strong bond with the community in providing people having special needs with the appropriate technologies to help them learn new skills, grow in confidence and maintain a positive role in developing our nation." says Dr Tayeb Kamali, HCT vice-chancellor.

According to Dr Farida Badri, manager, Student Support Services, the incentive to form ATLRC came from the country itself. "The Center plays an important role in providing equal opportunities for all students. Recognising this, the HCT was approached to provide a unique service centre of this calibre.We received requests from the ministry, community centres andeven students to start a centre that would cater to physical and non-physical impairments. HCT is the pioneer educational establishment in the country and we thought we should make such a centre operational. We did our homework and figured out how other countries were operating such centres and hired professionals to help us."

"My role here is to facilitate the smooth functioning of ATLRC," says Chris Luscombe-Whyte, associate director, Abu Dhabi Women's College. "We [at HCT] are just as interested in enriching the future of a special-needs student as any other student. We provide an opportunity for them to achieve, not just educationally but on a personal level too."


The operation

The centre caters to students suffering from Asperger's syndrome, attention deficit disorder, blindness, dyslexia, low vision, physical and locomotive impairments and speech and hearing impairments.

The centre provides software and hardware devices for education and empowerment of special-needs students. Nafees Sulthana is the special-needs specialist at the centre. Her role is to train and to consult, recommend and identify special assistive devices for specific needs and help in the purchase of devices for students. "The special-needs department conducts an in-depth analysis of the severity of each student. So we have only students with mild and moderate difficulties." says Sultana. For instance, for the blind students the centre has Braille translation software, speech-enabled software (which reads out every key typed into the system), talking typing software and standalone reading systems, to name a few. A physically impaired student would have to use touch screens and hands-free software, and so on. For hearing-impaired students, there are powerful hearing aids and FM listening devices. For the visually as well as hearing impaired, there is hardware and software that can read whatever is typed in Braille.

The mode of operation of ATLRC starts when a student is identified with a particular disorder. The appointment is made through their college or even individually for a consultation. The professionals at the Center provide the student with a demonstration of all the devices available depending on the difficulty level to identify the most suitable device. The student can start using the facilities in the centre where he/she can have hands-on training with the device before purchasing it. Confidentiality is maintained as a prime objective. The test centre thus provides the opportunity to try out devices until the student, with assistance from the centre's staff, finds which particular system will help him or her best so that they can purchase it for their daily use.

The mode of operation of ATLRC includes screening tests which examine the students for different special needs such as reading, spelling, vocabulary, vision and so on, conducted using a software programme. At the end of the test, a report is generated indicating the specific difficulty. This report also recommends referrals of the students to therapists or educational psychologists who conduct a complete diagnosis of the case and further help in providing special accommodations at college. ATLRC also helps raise awareness about people with special needs. The staff is continually trained on the latest devices on the market. HCT teachers and counsellors play a critical role in identifying the disability of a student.


The challenges

"Irrespective of the difficulty, these students have to face many more challenges. Social stigma is one of them. Identifying the exact problem is another. As much as possible, we try to recommend support and special accommodation (in terms of assistive technology) for most of these cases. Special accommodation here means support during examinations, classroom adjustments and so on. For example, if a student has visual impairment, we provide them with hardware products like enlarged keyboards and video magnification devices and software such as screen magnification software, " says Sulthana. "One of the students in Sharjah Women's College with vision impairment, has been able to excel with A grades, with the use of such assistive technology."

Abu Dhabi Men's College student AB suffered from a severe hearing disability and with the use of an FM listening device, the student was able to complete his examination successfully. Similarly, the centre lends products to other campuses during examinations to ensure that the students are provided with the opportunity to succeed.


The students' input

The IT and business students at Abu Dhabi Womens College, have composed a screener identical to the dyslexia screener, in Arabic, as their final-year project. If this screener is viable, they hope to have it implemented in every educational institute and centre so that all students with disabilities may benefit from it. "We made the students understand the screener completely and incorporate similar components into their project,' says Nafees.

A few IT students, including Amal Rashad, gave an insight into the program they developed: "There are six tests that examine the student in different areas like reading, spelling and vocabulary," explains Rashad.

"First we developed the software in groups. Another group developed the pictures and sounds," adds Khowla Abdullah.

Another student, Fatima Saleh Al Hashim feels that her work with the ATLRC would change lives. "This is the first program [of its kind] in Arabic and we are proud that we created it. It will change the lives of a lot of students when it is implemented," says Al Hashim.

Fellow student Reem Abdul Rahman, agrees, "My niece had dyslexia. Since we didn't know about it, she was always reprimanded for being ‘lazy'. Even if they do know, most parents are unaware of how to deal with such a situation. I hope our screener will dispel all such problems in the future."

Role of the IT Department

Nadja Pizika who is chair of the IT and engineering programs has presided over all the IT programs developed for the ATLRC with meticulous supervision. "Frommy perspective, this [ATLRC] project has extreme value for nurturing professional skills [in students]. IT currently influences every facet in life. If you imagine that all informative technology was shutoff for even a minute, life wouldbe in chaos."

"When we develop modules for special-needs students we are trying to convince them that they are also special individuals. If we deal with students in a positive approach, it rubs off on them and they in turn start to think proactively."

"This is a small attempt but I am sure we could take on more severe cases and provide more complicated and intellectual solutions."

For Ned Nedumaran, lead faculty of IT, the association with ATLRC was an eye-opener. Nedumaran supervised the final year ‘Dyslexia Screener' project of the students. "To understand what exactly we were trying to achieve, I had to researcha lot on dyslexia. And the results were very enlightening. We have developed service-oriented software which is not at all commercial. When you are judging people on matters of the mind, there should be an integral quotient to base it on. There should be a wide database to choose from. Before we can say our software is accurate, we have to first establish a standard which will be the average score of the normal people in the country. Since we don't have that, we are using an internationally accepted standard. We hope that this will be applicable to the UAE too."


Future plans

"We are only a small centre," says Dr Badri. "Also, our commitment to the community in terms of awareness is not yet complete. We are striving to improve in all these areas. Our vision is that every special needs student in the country should have an opportunity to study further and not just stop with high school."

"We would like to implement ATLRC in all HCT colleges step by step and ensure that all students with special needs in HCT are provided with special support in terms of Assistive Technology, which will support them not only in education and in their daily lives but in seeking employment, thus making themself-reliant in all walks of life,"says Sulthana.


Zenifer Khaleel is an Abu Dhabi-based freelance writer.