Technology helps disabled people, but is expensive

Asia-Pacific, March 8 2011

India, Mar 08: Rohit Parekh Jain, a 20-year old from Chennai, with cerebral palsy and has not been able to communicate verbally all his life.

Rohit Parekh Jain

Rohit Parekh Jain

But just over a year ago, in February last year, he spoke a sentence for the first time in his life after using 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.

A former student of Vidya Sagar, Jain was in Class 12 when he first used Avaz. “Using Avaz, he can now say anything that he wants to and can communicate with people on his own,” says Kalpana Rao, principal of Vidya Sagar, Chennai. Last year, the innovators at Invention Labs in Chennai launched Avaz (priced at a moderate Rs 30,000), which won the National Award for Empowerment of People with Disabilities in 2010. The device was conceptualised during the Silent Revolution Conference (2005) in Chennai. “For 10 years before that, we were importing a similar device, but this was very expensive,” Rao adds.

India is home to nearly 70 million people with disabilities. But recent advancements in technology have produced many applications that help make the lives of disabled people easier. Assistive Technologies (AT) not only help them communicate with others, but also develop important life skills.

Some of the most popular AT hardware and software products include speech recognition, which allows data entry by voice commands rather than a mouse or keyboard. Similarly, on-screen keyboards provide the image of a standard or modified keyboard on the computer screen, and touch screens allow direct selection or activation of the computer by touching the screen. Further, modern technology has made many useful tools for people who read and write Braille, such as electronic Braille notetakers, which are portable devices with Braille keyboards that visually challenged people can use to enter information. Other technologies range from electronic wheel chairs, computers to automatic page turners.

Arathi Abraham, principal designer, 99&1 Design, Chennai, has developed Slate, a content development tool aimed at parents and teachers. She says, “The software enables teachers to create audio-visual communication aids for children with learning disabilities, autism and low vision. It can also be used to create a custom media player for movies, music, audio books and websites that can be accessed independently.” Currently, Slate is used in special schools in Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai.

However, experts feel that though technologies can bring about a revolution in the lives of disabled people, they are very expensive, and to make them affordable for everyone is still a distant dream for many in India. “Specially challenged people need affordable and locally usable technology solutions to empower them and overcome challenges. Many of the technologies like JAWS, which costs more than Rs 4 lakh, are beyond the reach of the poor,” said Aqeel Qureshi, Manager of Disability News Asia.

Qureshi, who is also the Vice-President of Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments, says that as of now, there is no policy or law to support technologies for people with disabilities except the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995. Although Dr Madhumita Puri, executive director of the Society for Child Development, New Delhi, feels that technology has revolutionised the way people with visual or hearing impairment participate in society these days, “There is space for development. A thrust must be given to vernacular languages. Also, as most of the materials are in English, there should be more programmes that deal with translation works”.


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