UNICEF Innovation Fund Accessibility Cohort
It's been almost two years since the UNICEF Innovation Fund embarked on supporting entrepreneurs developing technology tools for children and young people with complex communication needs, also known as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).
The cohort of three companies (Cireha, Ninaad and Yuudee) in the Accessibility portfolio achieved many individual and cohort milestones throughout the course of the investment period — iterating on their products, forming multi-stakeholder partnerships, designing with their users and finding means to collaborate to create open source communication tools for children. This cohort of companies joins eKitabu as alumni in the Innovation Fund’s investments in assistive technology.
Children with complex communication needs (CCN) often require augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools in order to ensure functional development of speech, language, equitable access to education, and social inclusion. AAC technologies primarily consist of PECS (picture exchange communication systems) and text to speech applications to support standard AAC systems.
Despite the saturation of the assistive technology market with these platforms, there are still only a handful of solutions reaching children in UNICEF programme countries.
Addressing the Gap: Cohort Model for Digital Public Goods
Digital public goods are tools that serve to educate us, help us thrive in our professional lives, enrich our cultural experiences, and ultimately do good for humankind. Examples of these goods exist all around us in the areas of poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, clean water and energy, and much more.
Wikipedia may be the most prominent digital public good in the information sector. A multilingual, web-based encyclopedia, Wikipedia is a free, open source content site available to anyone with internet connection.
By investing in three individual companies, the Fund was able to leverage the context specific learnings of each company:
Yuudee in China built an interactive platform that uses games and animation to teach and improve linguistic skills of children with autism.
Cireha based in Argentina developed Cboard, an open source web application for persons with speech and language impairments.
Finally, Ninnad from India created an application that uses icons to enable effective communication for children with speech impairments.
Whether it is increasing the functionality of web applications for persons with disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, or expanding learning evaluation mechanisms to improving linguistic skills of children with autism, all three companies worked tirelessly to ensure inclusion of every child at home and school in spite of communication difficulties.
The capacity to scale is what we are particularly excited about. All three companies are operating in different regions, allowing the Fund to connect open source solutions early in product development stages in order to increase the scope for impact by packaging these learnings into one common digital public good.
Global Symbol Set
Choosing a symbol set with a given child and caretaker/practitioner is entirely a subjective decision but often times users of these tools have limited options that are not fully localized or culturally relevant to them. Furthermore, available materials are not open source or easy to access under a creative commons license. As a result, efforts to create extensive symbols results in duplication of work. During the cohort gathering, the companies recognized this challenge and worked with mentors David Banes and EA Draffan to contribute their symbol sets to a shared digital space, so that users and developers can build upon existing symbols, tailor resources for individuals and curate resources for AAC users for free. To learn more about the global symbol set initiative, visit this link.
Assistive Technology: The Global Landscape
To close off the investment period, Cireha and Ninaad attended the 12th session of the Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with disabilities. At this conference, alumna Accessibility portfolio company eKitabu presented alongside UNICEF disabilities programme division and USAID on learnings of how to use universal design to promote literacy skills for students with disabilities. eKitabu’s implementation of accessible digital learning resources for children with disabilities alongside UNICEF Kenya, the Ministry of Education and the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) signals the necessity for collaboration amongst the public and private sector to ensure inclusive education for every child.
In order to introduce and scale up the availability of AAC solutions for young children with complex communication needs, the UNICEF Europe and Central Asia Regional Office is piloting a global open source AAC app that combines the key features of the AAC cohort companies’ open source solutions. The piloting will take place in Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. Country teams are in the midst of preparing training material for early intervention professionals, developing the research design and the monitoring system of the project. In addition, together with the Global Symbols team, the pilot countries have set up a voting system to build a localized symbol set for the pilot countries and the region which incorporates feedback from AAC users. The AAC platform will include key features from Cireha and Ninaad’s user interface and text to speech engines in order to deliver a broader range of AAC tools to users in the region.
We’re proud of the individual and cohort-wide achievements of Cireha, Ninaad and Yuudee and will be following their individual journeys.