Bilingual Letter board – a learning aid for children with disabilities in rural Nepal.

In 2017 I had the pleasure of living in the south of Nepal, helping in a day centre for children with disabilities called ABBS. I loved my time at the centre drawing from my experiences with disability support in the UK, volunteering with The Newman Trust. There was a stark contrast from the style of care given in Nepal vs at home but the commitment and devotion given to the young people in both environments were and continue to be exceptional.

The centre was on the ground floor of a large house where 20 children and young adults arrived to receive daily care from 4 local ladies affectionately called ‘Didi’s’ which means sister. This centre is a huge asset to the local community in Bharatpur as disabilities are still seen inherently as a curse in Nepali culture, leaving very little support for the individuals and families alike. Every morning we welcomed the students as they arrived on the back of motor bikes and tuk tuks.

Despite having one of the countries best training hospital’s a short distance away, most of the children have never received a full diagnosis of their condition. For this reason the 3 classes were formed in the traditional format of age rather than ability: under 10s, over 10s and a group needing daily physio. One Didi looked after the young class, one managed the cleaning, cooking and oversaw the older class, and two Didis carried out the physio – moving each joint in the children 5 times, from jaw bone to finger tips.

Before I go any further I want to stress what an incredible job these 4 women do daily. They have very little support from the community, have very little training and rely heavily on donations. They have put their lives into the centre and do everything they can to help the children.

It was clear that due to the class format, the children weren’t necessarily receiving the teaching style that they required. Some of the younger children with physical disabilities were wanting to strive for further learning and some of the older children would benefit from the teaching style of the young class.

On one occasion I spent an afternoon with the physio children and brought down some of posters from around the room. I was taken aback by one of the 4 year olds who immediately started jumping all over the poster, recognising the english letters and miming the picture – licking ice creams and ‘raaawwing’ like a tiger. I realised there was a real opportunity for self learning and development with little supervision if an engaging learning resource was available.

When working with the older students to write Nepali and English characters I noticed that whilst we were going step-by-step through writing the characters that the students had the correct shape, but it was often mirrored or rotated. I thought perhaps if they could engage other senses to help navigate this there might be more success.

I explored this further with the sisters and found out how important it is for the students to have a basic understanding of Nepali and English in order to get future jobs. Also, as I have identified in the problem, the Didi’s made it very clear that they would struggle to add to their current work load and change the format of the centre without additional funding or support.

Through ethnographic research, watching and working with the Didi’s and the children as well as discussing and exploring learning methods, I started to ideate around a resource that could be used independently by the students with no supervision. I also wanted it to be useful for a wide range of the students, not only a handful. Finally, this needed to be an offline solution as there is no access to a computer nor internet connection in the day centre.

Prototype

Drawing on the two examples explained above, it was clear there was potential for a learning tool that helped the students explore numbers, their format and orientation as well as the connection they have to the english number system. I thought back to my own childhood and remembered puzzle letter boards and picture boards. Creating a bi-lingual version of this could be a multi sensory resource helping to facilitate self learning of the characters. It also had the potential to be manufactured simply and cheaply.

Upon returning to the UK briefly, I set out to prototype a board to bring back to the centre. It was a simple CNC’d design with cut out letters and correlating engraved english numbers. The pieces were large and robust to increase durability whilst also being accessible for the students with less dexterity.

I designed it to help build connection in 3 ways. First, the colour connection between the pieces and the coloured hole, the tactile and visual learning as the students familiarise themselves with the Nepali numbers to allow the students to feel the letters, and finally the English engraving which also builds the connection through further tactile exploration. This familiarisation with the shapes and self discovery of the correct orientation should help improve the accuracy of their writing and character recognition throughout their learning progression.

User Testing

A month later I was able to deliver the board to ABBS. The feedback from the Didi’s were that the board was used frequently in between lessons, freeing up their time to give individuals additional care and attention. As you can see from the photo above, students were also able to work together to understand the character puzzle.

This design is nothing revolutionary, it is something incredibly simple that many of us will be familiar with from childhood, however it is a tool which has reportedly helped both the Didi’s and the students in their eduction. It is an example that some of the most simple solutions can create great impact if it truly responds to the users needs.

Evaluation

A range of students used the board but it was favoured by the students under 15. This could possibly be because the older students like to assume a position of responsibility and having a resource that was so favoured by the younger children they may not have wanted to join in.

Should the board be made again I would add a further level of connection by engraving small indented ‘bumps’ along side the cut out. This is so the student could count the indentations and the meaning behind each shape – for example, the number 4 would have 4 bumps along side.

Thanks for reading

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