Life changed dramatically for quadropedic cerebral palsy patient Avinash Sonnad a few years ago when he began using a speech recognition software to control a computer mouse with his voice. Today, the 22-year-old Sonnad is pursuing a degree in Bachelor of Computer Application with a contagious enthusiasm and zeal about life.
It was Bangalore-based software engineer Senthil Kumaran who had combined Cambridge University’s research software ‘Dasher’ with an E-speaking software to help Sonnad. Since Sonnad could not use a mouse or speak very clearly, the combined software allowed him to communicate through letters on the screen. “The letters are chosen through basic words like ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘up’ and ‘down’,” explains Kumaran, who is also associated with the Spastic Society of Karnataka. “But this particular combination might not work for another physically challenged child, as each has a unique disability.”(See table)
“Speech recognition software is just a small slice of a segment of technology called Assistive Technology (AT). This helps improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities,” says Ajit Narayanan, co-founder and CTO of Invention Labs, a start-up in Chennai. AT, believe experts, can provide a life-changing experience.
In the very least, AT can help augment a deficient area of functioning. For example, a speech generating device can be used for a child who suffers from a speech disorder attributable to cerebral palsy, while the parents might be able to understand the natural speech of the child with ease. In particular, this technology allows people who are less familiar with the child to communicate with him, furthering his or her development, and may be even facilitating regular schooling.
Globally, the assistive technology market is well-developed and there is a wealth of products available for children, like Braille note takers, voice recognition software and other technologies (including those that allow one to control computers simply by moving a cursor on the computer screen with something as basic as eye-movement).
“However, the extent of inclusion (of disabled individuals) in India is very low compared to Europe and the US,” laments Invention Labs’ Narayanan, who has done his B-Tech and M-Tech in Electrical Engineering from IIT Chennai.
Arun Mehta, president of the Delhi-based Bidirectional Access Promotion Society, puts the reason down to a lack of awareness about AT and its availability: “Now, with some funding from the government, institutions like the IITs are developing ATs. However, due to a paucity of funds, these technologies are available only as prototypes as they are unable to breach the chasm to commercialisation.”
Enter the entrepreneurs
Still, given the huge opportunity in the Indian market, several domestic entrepreneurs are picking up the baton.
Narayanan, together with his colleagues from IIT-Chennai, launched early this year Avaz — a device with a graphical interface, processor, software and a non-contact switch that can be used by children with cerebral palsy or poor motor skills to select alphabets and construct sentences.
The device converts muscle movement into speech and works on the principle of scanning. When the alphabet is highlighted, children move their head, hand or any other part of their body and it gets selected. Avaz costs Rs 30,000 and some 50 pieces have been distributed across eight schools in India.
Narayanan is currently working on a more advanced version that is scheduled to be unveiled next month. “The updated version can be used by children with disabilities other than cerebral pals,” informs Narayanan.
Another entrepreneur working towards this cause is Arathi Abraham, principal designer, 99&1 Design, Chennai. She has developed Slate, a multi-lingual software that will enable teachers to create audio-visual communication aids for children with learning disabilities, autism and low vision. Currently, prototypes of Slate are being used in special schools in Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai.
But Abraham plans a formal launch at the end of the year. “Slate will be priced at less than Rs 10,000,” she says.
Mindtree Foundation has also developed two AT products — Aditi and Kavi. Aditi, or Analog Digital Theremin
Interface, is a device that allows children with muscular skeletal disorders to connect with computers. “The device is attached to the computer instead of a mouse. A child can activate a choice on the screen by a slight movement of the head, hands or legs near the gadget,” explains Raja Shanmugam, CEO of Mindtree Foundation. The device — which allows children to type out words, form sentences and communicate — is priced at Rs 520.
Aditi was initially developed at the IIT Chennai laboratory, and Mindtree took the responsibility to manufacture the device and commercialise it. Kavi, the second AT product, is still in the prototype stage. Clearly, there is no dearth of people helping those who are physically challenged to reconnect with the digital world.