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Empowering blind students to adapt to distance learning during COVID-19

FCI is working with State Schools for the Blind to understand and meet the immediate needs of blind and visually impaired (BVI) students.

Photo of Sensika Niyathapala
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As the global pandemic deepens and the human costs of COVID-19 rise for our vulnerable citizens, the demand for programs that leverage data to adapt quickly has heightened. We’ve directed our efforts to serve vulnerable communities that are impacted by both first and second order problems caused by COVID-19.

What is the need are you focusing on?

As schools across the country close, General Ed. Teachers and teachers for the Visually Impaired have been asked to teach remotely. However, BVI students and their families are nowhere near fully equipped to handle distance learning. For example, teachers and families receive conflicting guidance on accessible digital education. BVI students themselves are not well trained on digital tools. For BVI students who are already falling behind compared to their sighted peers, it's yet another obstacle holding them back.

Currently, our educators and service providers are trying their best to provide equitable access to education and services by experimenting with various ideas. However, at a state and federal level, there isn’t a full system level understanding of the challenges of distance learning and impacts of social distancing on BVI students. With only anecdotal understanding of the challenges and successful solutions, State Educators struggle to develop a unified response.

Which type of submission are you sharing?

  • Sharing an actual pivot your organization has already made

Describe the business pivot or adaptation in 3-4 sentences.

Originally we were in the process of developing a data collecting solution for state schools to measure how well their services and programs were performing. This data collection tool would be used by the school's outreach teams who canvas the state and provide Direct Services to BVI students. Now that schools have shut down, we've pivoted by leveraging the data collection tool to quickly understand the most pressing needs of BVI students and their families. This tool is able to rapidly collect information via questionnaires so that state schools can focus on solutions to meet the needs of BVI students and their families.

Do you plan to implement this solution?

  • Yes

Describe the impact that this solution will create in the world.

The data collected from this initiative will enable state schools to understand and quickly adapt to local needs. Service providers can then direct their efforts to communities determined to be in the most need. Social entrepreneurs and policy makers can also create and design more equitable programs. The state school that we've currently partnered with serves approximately 800 BVI students. Once this solution is scaled nationally to other state schools, the potential number of BVI students impacted is approximately 600,000. Our timeline for deploying our first questionnaire is May 1, 2020. We're planning on scaling the solution to 3 other state school within the next two months.

What is the name of your business or organization?

Future Communities Institute

What does your business/company do? Whose needs does your business/company address? Who do you serve?

Future Communities Institute (FCI) is a joint initiative of University of Southern California D-Health and the Milken Institute. Our mission is to dismantle barriers faced by the most vulnerable among us by harnessing data to identify inequities and coordinate responses. We build coalitions with public, private and community organizations to address the complex, multi-faceted problems that face vulnerable populations. Together, we research, deploy, and scale sustainable programs to effect long term social change.

What is your profession?

Product Manager

Where are you located (country)?

United States

Where are you located (region)?

  • North America

What industry is your business/company in?

  • Technology

How old is your business/company?

  • 1-2 years old

Which classification describes your organization/business?

  • Nonprofit/NGO

What kind of stakeholders and partnerships are needed to pursue this solution?

  • Funding- Grants
  • Stakeholders/Partnerships- NGOs
  • Stakeholders/Partnerships- Private Sector
  • Stakeholders/Partnerships- Government
  • Stakeholders/Partnerships- Civil Society Groups
  • Stakeholders/Partnerships- Grassroots/Community Groups

Do you need help building partnerships and finding partners?

  • Yes

If Yes to the above, please share 1-2 sentences describing the specific help you desire.

We are seeking partners to scale this initiative across the United States and the rest of the world to create the most impact and value for students and children with visual impairment.

What do you think are the main barriers to implementing this solution?

The biggest barrier for implementing this solution is ensuring that we can access all BVI students and families regardless of their age, race, digital access, or socio-economic challenges. In this crisis, there is an even greater risk of allowing inequities to deepen and disproportionately affect the underserved. To overcome this barrier, we need to partner with as many organizations that work with BVI youth as possible.

If you are currently working on a pivot, what have you learned so far?

There is an extreme lack of funding for this community, especially during these times of crisis. Despite 9/11 happening almost 20 years ago, there hasn't been a change in planning and response for people with disabilities during national emergencies. While many others are concerned of the effects of COVID-19, a fear in the BVI community is that their lives won't be valued at the same level as their sighted peers due to their disability, causing many to fear going to the ER and health systems. Parents are desperate for help and are not prepared to support the needs of the children during this transition to virtual learning environments.

Are you aware of any open source efforts, hackathons or other collaborative efforts related to your solution? Are you participating in these efforts?

Other organizations are trying to collect information on to assess the needs on from a systems perspective. We are augmenting their efforts by focusing on the granular challenges so that educators can adapt their services to provide immediate assistance.

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1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Isaac Jumba

Hi Sensika Niyathapala , really exciting to learn about FCI, a joint initiative of University of Southern California D-Health and the Milken Institute. pivot and your focus of working with State Schools for the Blind to understand and meet the immediate needs of blind and visually impaired (BVI) students.

We thought it might exciting to have you be part of the COVID-19 Reimagine Learning Challenge: where you could share your concept, learnings and connect with other community members (such as schools, educators, students and innovators) re-imagining learning at this time and beyond.