Monday, 25 November 2013

ICT for the Differently-Abled

Some of the most relevant and innovative applications of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) can be found in interventions developed for the differently abled. In India alone, close to 20 million people suffer from some sort of physical disability. Of these, over 10 million people, i.e. just under 1% of our population (or 50% of all physically disabled), suffer from disability in sight. This is followed by 0.6% of the population facing locomotive disabilities, 0.2% of the population is speech impaired and 0.1% is hearing impaired. The development of ICT4D presents new opportunities for these individuals to mainstream their activities and lifestyles, promoting their inclusive growth.

Despite having no cognitive damage, most students with physical disabilities are seen lagging behind those without. These disadvantages unfairly suppress their morale, and they seem to withdraw from regular schooling. This is chiefly because they are unavailable to find the infrastructure and environment to support their learning needs.  ICT4D has the potential to greatly support students with disabilities, and provide them with the opportunities to learn to the fullest, alongside their peers. When we discuss ICT interventions for disabled students, there are several types of interventions that come to mind. There are tools that enable easier access to technology such as computers or cell phones, making using these devices simpler; newer technology or devices designed to cater to their specific needs; and applications accessed through smart devices such as cell phones and tablets.

Presented below are some innovations that have really helped those with physical disabilities. They have really helped to bridge the gap between learning and access of these individuals and that of those without disabilities. 

Devices and Softwares

 JAWS (Job Access with Speech) is one of the most popular and effective softwares developed for the blind or visually impaired. The software enables visually challenged readers to read a computer screen with the help of a text-to-speech output or a refreshable braille display. Such easy computer access for the blind would be unimaginable without JAWS.

Similar to JAWS is the ‘Shruti’ system which is currently deployed in 40 schools across India by the Government of India. It works in almost the same way as JAWS, but is much cheaper to access.

Computer usage, hitherto impossible for the blind, can now be accessed for a wide range of learning purposes.

Sparsha is a toolset for the blind. Sparsha can translate the text on screen to Bharati Braille – a unified Braille script used to write English languages using cells containing six braille dots. Apart from English, the languages supported by Sparsha include Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, Marathi, Gujarati, Oriya, Telugu and Kannada. Not only can it represent the text on screen in Braille, but it can also transliterate English into any of the above mentioned scripts. It has the facility to save the document, as well, so that it can be later printed using a Braille printer.

Sparsha goes a step beyond being just a screen reader and also allows for reverse transliteration, so that Braille can be converted to text on screen. This has greatly reduced the communication gap between the visually impaired and other sighted people, making it far more seamless.
Since its inception in 2001, Sanyog - a project of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur - has impacted the lives of several speech impaired children, and enabled them to express themselves in creative ways. It is an Alternative and Augmented Communication tool that enables students with high motor disability use special access switches to represent their thoughts through icons and images. It then takes these images to form syntactically and semantically correct sentences in English, as well as in Indian languages such as Bengali and Hindi. Further, it also enables users to personalize icons to further represent their thoughts more accurately. The sentence thus formed can then be spoken out using the text to speech system made specifically for Sanyog.


Applications for the blind 
Some interesting applications for the visually impaired are available in the market such as Ariadne GPS. This app uses GPS to track the position of the blind, and helps them navigate using talking maps. It vibrates the device when crossing a street, and can also announce bus and train stops. This application can be used on any device enabled with Google maps, and has made commuting fairly easy for the blind.

Other apps for the blind that can be used to procure information are Colour ID and VizWiz. Color ID helps the visually impaired recognize the colours of the things around them. All they have to do is click a picture of the object and the app recognizes its colour and says it aloud.

Similarly, any product information can be gathered from VizWiz by clicking and submitting its pictures. The picture can be sent to a web worker, an online repository or to a contact through email or twitter. A question must be asked with the image by recording the question, and a verbal response is received.

Applications for the hearing impaired
Z4 Mobile is a valuable app to help the hearing impaired communicate. It enables them to make point-to-point calls by creating a video session with an interpreter. The interpreter interprets the sign language of the hearing impaired caller and translates it into speech for the hearing member.

Many times, the hearing impaired are in danger as they are not able to hear the alarms and alerts set off by danger. To address this, Tap Tap is an app that will vibrate and flash light from the device if there is any noise in the vicinity. For example, if there is knocking, if someone is shouting or if smoke alarm goes off, Tap Tap will send an alert to its user so that the person with hearing impairment can be alerted.

 Applications for the speech impaired
Communication is very frustrating for someone with speech impairments, simple because it is so hard for them to express themselves. The development of applications for such students has really benefitted them by reducing the stress of daily communication. For example, Proloquo2go is an application that uses pictures in place of words. Students choose pictures that symbolize different nouns, verbs or phrases and the application would form a sentence and read it aloud. This is a lot more effective for students with speech disorders than text to speech type applications, and has really helped them.
TaptoTalk is another application that uses the same principle of image-to-voice to help children with speech disabilities talk. A feature of TaptoTalk is also its ability to store photographs and pictures from other sources, making the images used for communication more relevant and specific.

Games such as Speech with Milo, Speech Hangman, and Tiga Talk Speech Therapy games allow students with speech impairments to articulate and practice speaking and sequencing sentences in a fun way.

Such developments in ICT4D have opened up a new world for those with disabilities. They have helped students better cope with their day-to-day requirements, empowering them to live more independently. They facilitate communication, paving way for more inclusive classrooms, and better access to technology for accessing online resources, making documents, etc. Further development and research in this area will truly benefit and impact the lives of the differently able students.