26/05/2016 13:10 BST | Updated 27/05/2017 06:12 BST

Technology Can and Should Level the Playing Field for Children With Sight Loss


As for every child, the formative years are crucial for children and young people living without sight.  One of the key things we've learned at RLSB is that it's absolutely crucial for blind and partially sighted children to know that their future holds as many possibilities and potential for happiness as it does for their sighted sibling or friend. The grim reality is by the age of 11, many vision impaired children are living with depression, a sense of isolation and low self esteem.  Two thirds of them will go on to live life on or below the poverty line, having left school ill equipped to work and will live a life marred by unemployment and loneliness.

As well as offering and promoting emotional support to children and their families, we're increasingly looking at ways in which technology can positively influence the life chances of a vision impaired child.

Here at RLSB, I've witnessed first hand the colossal impact of digital technology on our young beneficiaries. Smartphones, for example, have given many the confidence to leave the house alone for the first time, to travel to a social event. On top of that, there are all the apps that are designed specifically for their use when they're out in the world. It's ironic that something as soulless as technology can bring about such life affirming effects as giving hope, confidence and above all, freedom. And none of these new benefits need come at the risk of feeling conspicuous or different. For the first time, young blind people are using the same technology as everyone else. This ability to blend in and enjoy a shared experience is an enormous asset to them.

In 2014, our Youth Forum, a kind of Think Tank that meet regularly at the charity, floated an ambitious idea that was inspired by the digital age. They posed a simple question: can our smart phones give us the ability to use the tube network independently?

At the moment, if a vision impaired person wants to travel by tube, they have the option of seeking assistance from a member of staff, a service that works well for the most part. However, it is the prospect of being able to get from a to b independently and without need for advanced planning, that is so exciting for these youngsters.

The Youth Forum worked with digital product studio, ustwo through their pro bono Invent Time programme. They use Bluetooth technology and audio navigation to give vision impaired users the option of a fully accessible, stress free journey.

The resulting project is a joint venture between RLSB and ustwo. Known as Wayfindr, it has been a massive success. It is set to become the global benchmark for using mobile devices for audio navigation. It uses existing technology to offer an unprecedented solution to vision impaired people who want to travel independently and spontaneously.

User research was at the heart of the project, which has involved trials in London and Sydney. Its quite a coup for our Youth Forum to have been involved in the foundations of this global revolution, which will have such an impact on their lives, and the lives of their peers.

We are hoping that the Wayfindr Open Standard can be expanded across other settings. A great example of this is in schools. We have just announced our plan to back the creation of a secondary mainstream school where blind and partially sighted students can flourish both academically and socially alongside their sighted friends.

In the same way that Wayfindr aims to take the stress out of travel, we want to see existing and emerging technologies giving vision impaired children a profoundly improved experience at school.

A simple app on their phone or tablet could, with some straightforward enhancements to the design and technology of the building, empower the child to move around unaccompanied. It could tell him/her if their best friend is in the same room, the lunch queue, or where they are located in the playground. With a tablet, for example, VI pupils can take full responsibility for their access needs within their learning environment, receiving content on time and in a format that they have chosen.

This inclusive culture means that the vision impaired children can learn alongside their sighted classmates. The beauty of this approach is that every pupil, regardless of background, aptitude or disability, will have the chance to shine in an inclusive, accessible and child centred setting.

In this way, technology can and should level the playing field for children with sight loss.

This is not a utopian idea, but rather an obvious way in which we can support these young people at a critical moment of their academic and social development. At the moment, far too many are leaving secondary school with low attainment and diminished confidence in their ability. We want to change the game for them. We will continue in our quest to collaborate with the best innovators and designers that want to help us translate ideas into better futures for young vision impaired people.

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