A three-day international conference on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (A.A.C.) held in Chennai recently allowed the users and professionals in the filed to discuss issues involved in its indigenisation. Here is a report on this pioneering conference.
Vidya Sagar and Indian Institute of Technology (I.I.T.), Madras, recently hosted a conference for non-verbal people with multiple disabilities, ‘Silent Revolution’ on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (A.A.C.).
It was a conference with a difference. It did not have the usual issues of polemical debates on its agenda. Instead, a practical workshop was held in which two detailed case studies and some video films were shown to I.I.T. students and faculty members, software professionals and designers.
The goal of the conference held from 18 to 20 December 2005 was: 1) Getting together people interested in A.A.C. and showcase products that already exist 2) Workout an indigenous A.A.C. designs that are low cost; and 3) To lobby with the government to provide such devices at free cost to people who need them.
Slate, a multimedia design developed by Arathi Abrahem and Aruna of 99&1 design in collaboration with Vidya Sagar, was launched during the conference. The conference pooled technology experts, urban professionals and community based rehabilitation workers under one umbrella.
On the inaugural day, Leela Samson, Director of Kalakshetra who was the Chief Guest, expressed her views through gestures from classical dance form of Bharthnatyam. She proposed the idea of setting up a Unit in Vidya Sagar for non-verbal communication through the fine arts.
During the plenary session that followed, Dr. Sudha Kaul of Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy (I.I.C.P.) said that communication means full participation in everyday situations. She pointed out that the Rehabilitation Council of India has recognised A.A.C. She also made a presentation based on views of the A.A.C. research team of I.I.C.P., who are also A.A.C. users.
The next session was on A.A.C. technology in India. Students from Vidya Sagar highlighted the problems faced by A.A.C. users. They demonstrated this through a small conversation. The issues that came up from this demonstration were loudness, lack of clarity in speech, etc.
S. J. Dutta, Project Coordinator, Webel Mediatronics Limited from Kolkotta, presented an Icon based Education and Communication System designed for students with Cerebral Palsy. Pictures associated with audio & texts were used.
The post lunch session concentrated on A.A.C. and Policy. Rajiv Rajan, Coordinator, Disability Legislation Unit, South, Vidya Sagar called for an action to form an advocacy group comprising of disabled people, rehabilitation professionals, N.G.O.s, parents and other concerned people.
Prof. Sudesh Mukhopadhay from the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (N.I.E.P.A.) dealt on enhancing communication in the educational process. She stressed the need to rethink on inclusive education.
Manavi Jalan from A.A.D.I. shared her experiences in capacity building in the field of A.A.C. She identified challenges in resources, policies, practices in organisations and designing appropriate A.A.C. devices.
Anuradha Naidu, Senior Special Educator and ex Disability Advisor to C.A.P.A.R.T. and ActionAid, India spoke on ‘Multiple Voices: Communications and Conversations’. She highlighted various provisions under the Disability Act and other existing policies. She pointed out that in most cases the disability laws provide for access to education or school life and not access to curriculum, which doesn’t mean an inclusive set up. She stressed on the need for A.A.C. training to all.
Pradeep Kumar, Assistant Disability Commissioner, of Karnataka, spoke next. He pointed out that filing Public Interest Litigations under Article 14 is a better way if executives don’t respond to the needs of disabled people.
A parallel post lunch workshop on A.A.C. design was also conducted in which challenges faced by two A.A.C. users in communication were presented to the participants of the workshop. Then the participants were facilitated to form into five groups and select a design focus.
The day ended with a session on posters where representatives from N.G.O.s, medical and software professionals put up their posters on Augmentative and Alternative Communication.
The second day started with plenary session by Arun Mehta on Technology, Abilities and Disabilities. Arun Mehta is known for the software he designed for Stephen Hawkins. He presented his software named elocutor, which is an open source software and can be downloaded free of cost from www.holisticit.com. Illiterate and visually impaired people have a print disability, which according to him can be dealt with by this software. He also claimed that synchronization of text with speech is also possible with daisy standards and it allows searching and scrolling (www.daisy.com). He has initiated an online programming workshop free of cost on all Sundays from 10.00 a.m. to 12.00 noon. Arun Mehta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next session was on A.A.C. and Special Populations. Dr. Rubina Lal, Associate Professor, Department of Special Education, S.N.D.T. Women’s University, Mumbai spoke on the effect of A.A.C. training on language development of children with mental retardation. She shared experiences from her research. She concluded that A.A.C. is very effective in enhancing language skills in children with mental retardation.
Dr. Tony Booth of I.S.A.A.C. chaired a panel discussion on A.A.C. in so-called regular schools. He stressed that we connect our care to our action, as any action done without care will not be effective.
Anuradha Naidu chaired the post lunch session on A.A.C. and Inclusion. Swati Lahiri, Coordinator, I.C.T. (Information Community Technology) and Ms. Madhuri Kapur, Electronic Data Manager and an A.A.C. user highlighted using assistive technology for continuing education & vocational training. They felt that educational boards and Universities should provide more I.C.T. facilities. Madhuri shared her experience of giving lectures to her students using her A.A.C. devices.
R. Sundaresan, a speech pathologist spoke on Sight word reading as a facilitator in Language development. He said reading could be a multidimensional approach in language therapy. Mallika Ganapathy, Consultant for Autism & Inclusion recommended Visual communication using charts and the like for persons with Autism. Simi, a physiotherapist at Vidya Sagar spoke about three A.A.C. users, she is been working with in the I.C.F. Railway School that Vidya Sagar partners with, to develop inclusive practice. All of them have been included in a mainstream school and have made a good progress within six months time. Mythra Mahesh, Speech Pathologist, I.S.H., Bangalore spoke about the effectiveness of A.A.C. usage in community.
I.I.T. professors chaired a workshop held in parallel post lunch. Teams worked on selected challenges during this session. The day ended with a poster session like the previous day.
Dr. Orit Hetzroni, Head of Special Education Program, University of Haifa, Israel spoke in detail on Assistive Technology & Autism at the Plenary. She said every one could use assistive technology. The low-tech solutions can still be very effective. She said there is a gap between research into Assistive technology and its use. She classified it into two categories: Technology needed only during learning and not otherwise. The other is compensation support prosthesis which is needed always like crutches to her. Then she spoke on Autism. Autistics functioned best in a controlled environment. Repetition, organised controlled procedures, multi-sensory stimuli – mostly visual, object oriented presentation, familiar environment, retrieval techniques and practice can give better results. She also gave examples of how computers matched all these criteria.
The next session was on A.A.C. and Technology, chaired by Arun Mehta. There was a presentation on A.A.C. Technology by Media Labs. Kalpana Rao pointed out the leaps in the existing communication technology. She expressed her dream that technology should make every A.A.C. user independent.
A session on A.A.C., Language and Literacy chaired by Malliga Ganapathy was held as a parallel session. Jyothi spoke about the role of A.A.C. in developing language for literacy. She presented the case study of a child with multiple disabilities, where they have used different A.A.C. devices for the child’s different needs. Preeja Balan, spoke on communicative interaction between children with motor speech impairment and their mothers. She felt that mothers’ interaction is necessary. She presented a study in which it was found that mothers interact very less with non-verbal children when compared to verbal children. She also stressed that mothers need to be taught to give more time for children to respond.
Archana Shyam, Special Educator, Vidya Sagar presented on the title: Com (plete) munication. She said that different children prefer different modes of communication. She has used different modes of communication for her students simultaneously. She showed a short video clip depicting the approach. She also said that successful communication depends on high motivation and less frustration both among students and teachers. Anne Panghat, spoke on A.A.C. with language disorder, citing the example of her son, Ravi. She also spoke about issues she had to face in schools and various other settings with her son Ravi, who has aphasia and is unable to understand the spoken word. She also pointed out that professionals who worked with her son didn’t listen to her ideas regarding the approach that really worked for him. Usha Ramakrishnan, Vice Chair person, Vidya Sagar, who followed Anne Panghat read out Ravi’s letter addressed to the conference and also mentioned the challenges faced by him and his determination to win.
Post lunch session was on design presentations, in which all the five ‘techie’ groups presented their designs. A panel, which included Professors from I.I.T., judged these designs. Audio based portable device, computer based pointer software, web cameras tracking eyeball movement, icons of alphabets, electronic communication board, menu driven speech enabled electronic device were a few among the innovations.
The conference came to a close with the Valedictory function. Prof. MS Ananth, Director, I.I.T., was the Chief Guest. He expressed his willingness and support for the cause. He gave the prize to the winner team for creating the best device of the workshop. Poonam Natarajan, Director of Vidya Sagar and now also the Chairperson of National Trust, gave the vote of thanks. She ended with the following lines: - “Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence” – Lin Yutang.