Meku Tola is a blind Amharic teacher at Fitawrari Lake Adgeh preparatory and secondary school. She uses a specially made braille edition of the textbook that she gets from the Ethiopian Blind Association, which she is a member of. “As far as I’m aware, braille textbooks are available to teachers and students who are blind, but they must be able to access them. If they are unable to read it themselves, someone must read it to them, or they must rely only on what they are taught in school,” she said.
To that effect, the Ethiopian Blind Association, Zuzu for Health and Education, and Teraki App representatives came together to launch a new initiative dubbed “The Talking Books.” The goal of this project is to make educational texts available in audio format to visually impaired Ethiopian students and teachers.
A representative from the Ethiopian Blind Association, Sebsebe Yilma, explained that while braille textbooks are available, converted, and printed in accordance with the specifications, they are insufficient to be used by the majority of the blind community in Addis Ababa, let alone throughout the entirety of Ethiopia.
“There are many factors preventing us from getting enough braille textbooks. For instance, even though we have the machine, which was donated to us, accessing the paper is challenging because it is imported and the paper is very expensive,” Sebsebe explained.
It is exceedingly difficult to prepare and deliver enough braille textbooks because the paper is so expensive, according to him, however, they have managed to prepare as many books as they could, which they put in libraries so that people can access them.
He says a significant issue that requires attention is the lack of statistics on the percentage of blind students and their access to resources.
The new curriculum textbooks have also not yet been distributed to any instructors since the start of the academic year due to copyright concerns. The first three chapters have been made available solely in pdf format.
“Although the books are currently being printed, neither the braille nor audio versions are yet accessible to blind teachers or students. We are attempting to convert it to braille and publish it, but it is a very lengthy procedure and probably won’t be finished even by the end of the school year,” Sebsebe stated.
As a result, the majority of children depend on their teachers, who may or may not have visual impairments.
“We have volunteers who come and record specific audio versions of textbooks and fiction, but this is not done actively with the aim of providing educational support for these children, and our association has realized that it needs to focus more on this,” Sebsebe told The Reporter.
Melikte Paulos (MD), founder of Zuzu for Health and Education, started The Talking Books journey as a medical student during her internship at Yekatit Hospital. She observed the significant demand for audiobooks while working at the Ethiopian Blind Association. At that time, there was only a single small studio, which led her to believe that pupils who are blind or visually impaired may benefit more if there are more studios and prepared materials.
“Audio books are easier to transmit to any school or institute in Ethiopia, and I recognized that if we worked together to prepare them, we would be able to enhance the accessibility of instructional literature,” Melikte explained. She says this is how the project began, and later she decided to register it as a non-profit organization dedicated to inclusiveness and increasing opportunities for Ethiopian disadvantaged people.
Twelve materials for the 11th and 12th grade exit exams were recorded, and four of them were entirely edited.
These were delivered to the Ethiopian Blind Association during the launch to distribute to their registered members.
The Teraki App, an audio streaming service that offers East African audiobooks, podcasts, and radio shows to its audience, allows those with smartphones to access the books as well.
Zuzu for Health and Education also plans to make audio content about topics like mental health, period hygiene, and menstrual health. Their main objective is to promote accessibility and inclusivity for all people.
Melikte believes everyone should feel a sense of belonging in schools and other educational institutions. “We should not expect everyone to tailor the system; rather, the system should be capable of accepting everyone. Accessible and inclusive sectors should be worked on as a system, and that is what Zuzu intends to achieve in the future.”