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People with disabilities among most adversely affected by communication barrier: Anupam Basu

“Assistive Technology is still not considered as mainstream research as the number of beneficiaries are less, but the segment of people most adversely affected by the communication barrier, includes millions of people with physical and mental disabilities, who need to be empowered by affordable information and communication technology," says Anupam Basu, Professor Department of Computer Science at Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, in conversation with Nupur Mishra and Parvinder Singh

Picture of Anupam Basu

1. Please elaborate the pioneering project titled Communication Empowerment Laboratory?

The Communication Empowerment Laboratory Project is inspired by a dream to develop and deploy appropriate and affordable information and communication technology and tools to empower people to a better life. We identify communication barrier and insufficient access to education to be the major hurdles in bridging the digital divide.

The segment of people most adversely affected by the communication barrier, includes millions of people with physical and mental disabilities. Consequently, the standard means of imparting education is often not applicable to this segment of population. They need special or remedial training methods and access to special equipments, which are scarce and expensive. The Communication Empowerment Laboratory is dedicated to develop technology to a) enable education and communication of the sightless people and people with low vision, b) enable education and communication of children with neuro motor disorders (such as cerebral palsy) and speech impairment, c) to impart vernacular based education to the rural school children through participatory authoring of multimedia courseware and test ware.

2. In what ways is your project and research beneficial for persons with disabilities?

The visually impaired and the hearing impaired people in India face a tremendous problem in their education and other folds of daily life.

We have just started developing assistive systems for hearing impaired people – such as systems, which will convert text to Indian Sign Language. The ultimate dream is to recognize natural speech and convert them to sign languages. Another aim is to recognise gestures and convert them to text and speech as many people with hearing impairment have speech impairment also. We have a very good working system that can convert series of selected icons to a natural language sentences and deliver through speech. However, for the hearing impaired people, we have just started treading the required path. We hope to come up with the first version of a working system in a year’s time.

We are involved in working towards development of assistive systems for the visually impaired for the past ten years.

3. Can you please elaborate these initiatives?

As a result of our research, we have developed the Sparsha system. Sparsha has the following features:

1. Transliteration from text into Braille: Sparsha can accept input text in large number of file formats, allowing the visually impaired to access information from a wide variety of sources. It accepts English as well as Indian language texts (Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, Oriya, Kannada) and converts them into Braille. Sparsha can support almost all commonly used Braille printers or embossers to take out the hard copy of the Braille.

2. Conversion of mathematical expressions: Sparsha has a mathematic and scientific notation engine that can translate complex mathematical and scientific expressions into Braille, thus obliterating the need for tedious manual translation. This has proved to be a boon for those visually impaired students who want to pursue higher studies in science and mathematics.

5. Sparsha-Chitra: Sparsha-Chitra, a module that can display geometrical figures and elementary pictures or drawings as a pattern of Braille dots, has been integrated into Sparsha. Braille text and graphics can now be combined and printed too, helping visually impaired students to work better on subjects like geometry, geography, and biology, etc.

6. Reverse Transliteration: A coded Braille file can be converted into corresponding visually readable text, enabling a visually impaired person to communicate with sighted persons via email.

7. Sparsha integrates regular keyboards with audio feedback to enable sightless people type in through regularPCs. It is also being integrated with a Text-to-Speech system to provide Screen Reading and File Reading facility.

Sparsha is a very successful project if the metric were the feedback from the users. We have deployed it to several places all over India. Higher educational institutions are also in the process of using Sparsha to make the educational material available to the sightless students.

Further, we have developed Shruti – an Indian language Text to Speech System that can read out texts to the user.. Shruti has been integrated with Sparsha to provide the sightless users with on-line reading facility. Thus they can now read materials written in Bengali or Hindi through a PC and need to take the print out only when they find that the material has archival value – thus the cost of Braille printing is minimized. Moreover, with this feature, the people will be able to work on a PC with speech feedback. We are also working on development of Speech Recognition Systems in Indian languages.

4. Tell us about the programme, particularly with reference to education and communication of people with neuro-motor disorders.

A large number of people in India have different types of motor disorders. A majority of this segment has cerebral palsy and 40% to 60% of this population is non-verbal. Though cognitively quite capable, this segment of population is deprived of access to the modern tools for education and communication that could have alleviated their problems partially. The reasons for this deprivation are manifold some of which are,

Sanyog is a communication device (presently based on PCs) through which the children with such disorders can communicate. The system allows selection of icons (communicating concepts) through special indigenous access devices (as these children cannot use the mouse due to motor disorders). The system can then automatically form natural language sentences, which can be inflected for the different moods and tenses. The sentences can then be spoken out through the system. The system is available for Bengali, Hindi and English. This system is being effectively used at a number of schools for the children with cerebral palsy. This system has received the Da-Vinci Award by the Engineering Society of Detroit and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Michigan as a path-breaking product. Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy has been closely associated with this development and the funding has been provided by Media Lab Asia.

5. How do you market/publicise your products?

People now know about our product and they approach us. We deliver it through Association for Supporting Marginalized Aspirations (A.S.M.A.) – the society formed. We also invite companies to come forward to launch these products. But as of now we do it through A.S.M.A.

6. What steps are being taken to include 'design of assistive technology' a part of the mainstream education curriculum.

I am talking about this need at all the forums I attend. We are also planning to put forward a proposal to the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology to this end. We also suggest that the NGOs talk about it. Days are gone when we can afford to be unaware of the technology in these activities.

7. What are specific concerns that you feel must be kept in mind while developing such technology in India. Say cost effectiveness and its delivery to target groups?

There are quite a few concerns:

a) We always say that we need “affordable technology”. The affordability should be in terms of Indian reality and not in “dollar” terms.

b) Availability of sensors and actuators are real impediments in research in this area. More research should be focussed on materials and manufacturing so that such devices – for example piezo electric cells - are affordably available in India.

c) The encouragement and impetus to research in Assistive Technology has to be enhanced. This is still not considered as mainstream research as the number of beneficiaries are less in number compared to the “haves”. Educational institutes should include courses on Assistive Technology to generate technology savvy manpower that can work in the schools and organisations for the physically challenged.

d) The deployment of technology is a very crucial issue. We have developed technology – that we deploy ourselves. It is not possible to carry on such deployments and maintain the support without any funding. The research institutes should also have a deployment wing with separate funding support. It is very difficult to come up with a “Business Model” in this case, given the economic constraints of the physically challenged population.