By Nathan Edwards
Information and communication technology (ICT) first made an impact on the life of Fernando Botelho when he was in his late teens. Then, Botelho was a recent high school graduate suffering from increasingly impaired vision. Now, he is the founder of F123, a non-government organization developing low-cost open-source assistive technology for the blind.
“In high school I was ranked 11th in a class of 43,” Botelho recalls. When he entered college he was given access to assistive technology and it instantly impacted his success, “instead of 11th I was fourth, and instead of a class of 43 it was a freshman class of 904.” The qualitative impact that the right technology can have on someone’s education and life left a lasting impression on Botehlo, “same person, same brain, same level of education, but suddenly you are in the top percent”.
Although Botelho was granted the assistance of ICT’s in education, he does not represent the majority of disabled people. Eighty percent of people with disabilities around the world live in developing countries and even in wealthy economies such as the U.S., many cannot afford the software.
While working for the United Nations Agency in Switzerland, Botelho realized he wanted to take what had created opportunities in his life and make it more financially accessible to others. He addressed the issue of cost by developing an open-source version of this technology.
His organization, F123, has created a software that can be customized to any computer. “We identify free and open-source technologies that are effective and we adapt them for use by the blind in the context of school and work,” explained Botelho. The system includes common software applications, an electronic reader and screen magnifier, educational materials for teachers, and training instructions all costing 2 to 5 percent of the price of a standard e-reader.
Open-source software is technology produced and distributed including its source code. The source code acts as a recipe for the product allowing any person or entity to understand how the software operates and make improvements to it. According to Botelho, “there are clearly monopolistic practices going on in the software world,” and rather than build his product on top of a monopoly, he wants it to be freely accessed.
F123 has had great success in producing a low-cost, trilingual software used by people all over the world.
However, the question remains: To what extent can ICT’s like F123 help create equal opportunities in education?
“Just technology on its own does not really level the playing field, but it is a very large piece of the puzzle,” Botelho said. “Education does not need products; education needs strategy.” The products are just part of the strategy; “the rest of it is training for teachers and material that insures that the products and services are available to everyone.”
Fernando Botelho has found a way to implement ICT’s in education for disabled persons, however they can be also be utilized in other areas of education.
For any innovative use of ICT to succeed, “it has to fit in the social context of where it is going to be used,” Botelho stated, “using it should not be a burden neither financially, culturally, nor technically.” He believes the most common error with ICT initiatives is that people get too caught up in the hardware and software and don’t understand how to implement the product.
F123 is headquartered in the developing nation of Brazil, a nation where ICT’s are becoming increasingly popular in non-formal education. International non-government organization, Ashoka has partnered with the Institituto Embratel Claro to learn more about how ICT’s can help bridge gaps in education caused by physical, social, or geographic barriers. These two organizations have initiated a challenge called, Tecnologia é Ponte.
If you are interested in joining a dialog about the inclusion of ICT’s or learning more about the competition you can visit the Ashoka Changemakers’ website.
Nathan Edwards is a sophomore Sociology and Anthropology major with a concentration in cross-cultural studies at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. This summer, he is working as an intern with the international non-government organization, Ashoka, in its São Paulo, Brazil office while conducting anthropological research on the NGO sector. Nathan is interested in cross-cultural journalism and community development, specifically, in developing countries. He would like to pursue a career where he studies the varying communities, cultures and social dynamics within a nation and then illuminates the diverse perspectives.