It's time technology abled disabled kids in India
Aparna Nair, Bangalore                In: Deccan Herald                    Date: 07 July 2010


When Indian engineer Arun Mehta put together the Elocutor to help paralysed scientist Stephen Hawking synthesise information probably at the click of a button, his aim was to usher in a revolution.

To him, use of technology for the differently-abled could help make many Stephen Hawking, who get lost because schools in India don’t have facilities.

Arun Mehta will be one of the main participants of an international conference on Assistive Technology to be organised by Spastic Society of Karnataka (SSK) in association with the State government on July 23 and 24. The conference aims to be a platform for exchange of information on assistive technology (AT), which could help change the world for the disabled. “The forum will bring together engineers, NGOs, teachers, architects, medical fraternity, students and teachers for an exchange of information on the topic and for paving the way for more research,” says Nalini Menon, special educator at the SSK. Vendors of softwares will also participate in the two-day conference.

Assistive technology is in its infancy in India, despite the country having an estimated disabled headcount of 6 per cent of the population. But globally, it is used widely to impart education, for communication and for a host of other needs for which the disabled require help. A motorised wheelchair is part of a disabled person’s life in the US and Europe, whereas in India, it is still the priviledge of a few. “There is a lot of focus and research going on in the US, partly because of the need there to cater to those who get disabled in war or accidents. Yet AT is coming up in India in a big way. There are government institutions like IIT Chennai where the technology is being developed,” Senthil, a computer engineer who works with disabled kids, say.

Government intervention in the area could help immensely, especially if AT has to be taken to the rural side, where disabled population exists in large numbers, unseen. But considering that many government offices have not even implemented the provisions of Persons With Disabilities (PWD) Act to set up a disabled-friendly environment in public places, it is to be seen how far AT will reach the disabled in villages even if people in big cities have access to it.

In India, SSK is probably the first institution that employ AT vastly to train differently abled students as well as educators. It had adopted AT two years ago, after a national survey found it to be the place where the technology could be introduced.

Even before that, the Society was using picture exchange communication programme, which helped students who have difficulty communicating verbally but were strong visually. “The programme was tailormade to help such kids develop their language,” says a faculty at the SSK.

Now SSK has a vast array of equipment from switches to key boards to book readers, to help its students explore their talents despite their handicaps. The latest to join the stock at SSK is ‘Aawaz’, a device developed by a team of IITians, which can be mounted on a wheelchair and process speech.

According to Kavitha Sharma, an educator at the SSK, the use of AT could greatly help those with learning disabilities even in normal schools. “The idea is to introduce it in normal schools, so that students won’t have to drop out for the learning disabilities they develop or have,” she says, adding the rate of learning disability among school children in the country is about 10 per cent.