Pandemic widens schooling hole for the visually impaired
Schools in Thailand are reopening after the coronavirus pandemic resulted in 18 months of online learning. Some students have found distance learning to be a challenge that set them back from their classmates.
In the town of Nonthaburi, near Bangkok, Thanasat Naksanong listens carefully to an online chemistry class. On a shared screen, the teacher shows the periodic table and the 19-year-old slumps in his chair, knowing that the rest of the class will be impossible for him.
Thanasat is blind and autistic, but attends regular high school according to Thai education policy. This has always been a bit of a problem, but when classes went online last year the hurdles got even higher.
He could no longer rely on a teaching assistant, Braille textbooks, or other learning aids that were available to him at school. His online homework came in a format he couldn’t understand.
“When learning online, I can’t use the documents or pictures the teachers send me,” he says. “I miss studying in the classroom. After all, the teachers were nearby and I could always ask for help.”
Thanasat Naksanong, 19, is a blind and autistic high school student. When classes went online last year, he couldn’t access the extra help that was available to him in a classroom.
Thanasat is one of 1,700 high school students with visual impairment in Thailand. The country has two million people with disabilities and less than one percent of them will be completing a college education.
A high-tech hope
Engineer Songpakorn Punong-Ong knows more than most of the problem. His late father Prayat, himself visually impaired, helped set up a foundation dedicated to improving the education system for blind children.
Determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, Songpakorn has spent the past five years prototyping a device that can scan documents and convert them to braille, online or offline. Users hold the device over text and the braille display appears on a touchpad.
Engineer Songpakorn Punong-Ong develops a handheld device to scan text and translate it into Braille.
He hopes it will help students with special needs through the uncertain times that lie ahead and improve their access to quality education.
“I believe reading is a fundamental act of accessing all knowledge,” he says. “With this device I would like to improve your quality of life and give you more confidence in your ability to learn.”
Users can read the converted text by scrolling with their fingertips.
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When classes were far away, Songpakorn traveled across the country to have visually impaired students test his prototypes. Most had never used a braille device before.
Thanasat was one of them. He says the device is a revelation. More than just a study aid, it was a tool that renewed his hope for the future. “I love it so much! It can definitely lead me to my dream career as a language teacher. I’m glad that I was introduced to it, ”he says.
In the next three years, the engineer-turned-entrepreneur hopes to commercialize and distribute Songpakom, the product in Thailand and abroad. He wants visually impaired children to be provided with learning aids that enable them to have equal access to education.