For Students with Disabilities, Personalized Technology is Great Equalizer – Qatar
David Banes has been advocating for the use of technology for people with disabilities and special needs since 1994, but he’s just getting started. As connectivity and applications have multiplied and diversified, Banes has been a leader in seeking out ways to apply technology to creating accessibility for an underserved population. Now CEO of Mada, Qatar’s Assistive Technology and Accessibility Center, Banes and his team are working to make the center a core service and source of knowledge in assistive technologies for both children and adults across the Middle East. Mada provides schools and parents with a range of free services including loan of technologies, AT (assistive technologies) provision, training, needs assessment and ongoing support. We asked Banes to share his thoughts on accessibility, and found he has a lot to say about the role of teachers in educating all students – regardless of ability.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
My contribution has often been to find socially responsible ways to use new technologies. In the UK, I introduced the use of remote presence to evaluate the assistive technology needs of people with a disability through video conferencing and screen sharing. I also developed the use of user generated videos to raise awareness and provide training through sites such as YouTube. Furthermore, I promoted the application and distribution of free and open source technology for people with disabilities through the web and even peer-to-peer networks such as Bittorrent. Examples of the types of playlists that I’ve developed for embedding in learning platforms are at www.youtube.com/davebanesaccess. I also initiated GATE, the Global AT encyclopedia – using a widely available, but free wiki platform.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
One of the areas that I have worked on extensively has been the adoption of innovative technologies into schools, including the use of e-book readers to support pupils with physical disabilities, touch and gesture-based computing, and importantly, the distribution and installation of technology that supports accessibility across entire organizations. Many PC’s are shipped with additional software for CD burning or security, so I worked with IT companies to identify and package open source access technologies onto every computer on a network. The model added to the technologies included in the operating system and increased ease of access throughout a school. The processes developed have proven to be as effective in schools as they are in large companies; the principles and user needs are remarkably consistent.
How can other educators facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through this project?
One of the things that I find disappointing is that as technology flourishes and the pace of technology feels to be always accelerating, many teachers and professionals want to be given a solution, for a specific need to be used in a specific way. Few people seem to have the time and/or confidence to look at a device or piece of software and wonder how it can be applied to a different problem. I’ve recently spent time looking at Bluetooth chat apps on portable devices, designed to facilitate private chat in quiet places, but actually a very real solution for literate people with hearing loss as an alternative to expensive, bespoke technology. Jonathan Hassell recently spoke about innovation being at the intersection of user needs and technology opportunities, and I’d love to see more teachers encouraged to explore that zone.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
My focus is on the education of pupils with special needs, and many of those needs can be very effectively met through the use of technology. But consistently in countries I have worked in, it is remarkable how little is known by all teachers about the availability of technology for people with disabilities. So many opportunities to assist have been missed as a result.
What is your country doing right to support education?
In 2010, we established Mada as the Qatar Assistive Technology Center. It brought responsibility for all aspects of access to technology for people with a disability under one roof. Accessible publications, websites, applications, and assistive technologies are all promoted and distributed through well-planned and funded awareness, assessment, training, provision and support, all programmed to support pupils with a very wide range of needs.
What conditions must change in your country to better support education?
I think we need to maintain the momentum and current direction — there is a great deal of work being done to increase the inclusion of pupils with additional needs into mainstream classrooms. Successful implementation will be dependent on greater awareness of needs, effective training programs for teachers and support staff, innovation, creativity and most importantly time to reflect.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
I was at one time a head teacher of a school and left to work for an NGO that focused on technology and people with disabilities. Fundamentally because I felt that the innovation and creativity that was most likely to change the lives of people with a disability was going to happen not in schools but through ICT. I’m sure that I was right to make that move. One thing I think is going to influence teaching materials in the future is mashups, which allow teachers to take ideas and resources and represent them in a way which will be most successful to the groups they are working with.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
You have to take risks and explore, but above all you have to enjoy what you are doing. I think I’ve always been good at talking about technology and education because I remain in awe of computers and constantly amazed by what it does. I think at heart I’m still the same boy who got to play with his brother’s ZX81 in the 1980’s and went, ‘wow!’ My other advice would be to take a good look at what other people are doing, copy it, share it and build upon it. If you are producing materials and have no great commercial interest, then publish under creative commons and let others use your work in new and creative ways. You can always take the results back again later and use them all over again!
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be?
There is no one educational tool, I don’t agree with those who argue that all children should have a tablet, or a piece of software or access to an interactive whiteboard. I think I would focus on understanding the idea of personalized technology for all; we need to stop thinking that any single device is the answer to all ailments afflicting education and instead really consider how we effectively customize and personalize content and access. Beyond that I’d give every child internet access and a really old fashioned tool: skilled, informed and creative teachers!
About David Banes
David Banes is Chief Executive of Mada, Qatar Assistive Technology and Accessibility
center in Doha Qatar. A former teacher and head teacher of children with special needs, David has over 20-years background in supporting people with disabilities through technology in Europe, Middle East and Africa. As Director of Operations and Development of an access technology NGO in the UK, Banes was responsible for the development of services and products to ensure equal access to technology for people of any age and any need. During this period, he worked extensively across Europe to support the introduction of new services with training and consultancy. Since taking up the post of Mada CEO, Banes is currently exploring the center’s next stages of the growth, building international links and networks with public, private and not-for-profit organizations. He has also established the first eAccessibility services within the country, and has supported the development of Qatar’s eAccessibility Policy. Banes is a regular contributor to conferences
and publications, and is the author of four books on IT and special needs related subjects.
Current residence: Doha, Qatar
Education: B.Ed in Special Education, Advanced Diploma in Special Education and M.Ed in education research and special needs
Website I check every day: www.bbc.co.uk, but my most useful resource now is twitter (@davebanesaccess and @madaqatc)
Person who inspires me most: There is no one person who I would say inspires me, there are many people I admire and who have influenced me, one inspiration, in an odd way, was my careers teacher at my secondary school, when I was 12 I had my first careers interview, when I explained that I wanted to teach children with disabilities he thought that was very well meaning but I needed to think about a proper job!
Favorite childhood memory: Mostly friends, many of whom I haven’t spoken to in 30
years. One of the pleasures of social networking is that I’m starting to reconnect to one or two people from my childhood and student years which I think otherwise would have been impossible.
Next travel destination: Tokyo
Favorite book: Almost anything by Terry Pratchett – complete relaxation
Favorite music: The Eels, but my guilty pleasure is Blue Oyster Cult