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Reaching out to those with special needs

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Arun Mehta
Arun Mehta

Sangeetha Unnithan

Programmer hails government’s ICT initiatives for the differently abled

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: When astrophysicist Stephen Hawking approached New Delhi-based programmer Arun Mehta and his team for developing a voice communication interface for him in 2001, it was an honour for the entire scientific community of India. That was the first time that Prof. Mehta got involved in developing Information and Communication Technology (ICT) applications for the severely challenged.

Today, Prof. Mehta is an internationally renowned figure in the field of developing software solutions for the differently abled. In the city for a three-day ICT workshop for autistic children organised by Insight, Prof. Mehta is thrilled by the State government’s ICT initiatives for the differently abled.

“In a country where people refuse to even recognise autism as a condition requiring special needs, it is amazing to see a government agency getting involved in this kind of work,” he said.

This is the third time that Prof. Mehta is visiting the city as part of ICT programmes for the differently abled organised by Insight, a joint initiative of the Kerala State IT Mission and the Society for Promotion of Alternative Computing and Employment.

Prof. Mehta, who is currently working as chairman of the computer engineering department at JMIT Engineering College at Radaur, Haryana, has also taught programming as a volunteer at the National Association for the Blind, where his students have become involved in international projects for developing cutting edge software for the differently abled.

Recently, he won the 2008 Manthan Award, along with his colleague Vickram Crishna, for the software Skid.

“Skid is both a software and a training platform for children with neurodevelopment problems such as autism, cerebral palsy and dyslexia. Communication is one of the major issues for such children and Skid helps them in overcoming this barrier,” said the IIT Delhi alumnus.

Our traditional way of communicating using language is a centuries old system. Today we have new communication tools that can be both interesting and engaging for differently abled children and Skid is one such tool, he said. Written in open source code, Skid is freely available on skid.org.

Free software

When it comes to developing software for the differently abled, Prof. Mehta stresses on free software and free service.

“Most of the software that people use these days is costlier than their system and it is ridiculous. When you are developing technology solutions for the disabled and the underprivileged, it is also necessary that it should be accessible and affordable for them,” he said adding that Intellectual Property (IP) was something designed to protect the rich.

“The biggest challenge of developing ICT solutions for people with special needs is in condensing all the application to a single button. This one button should connect them to the world,” he said.

This is exactly what Prof. Mehta did for Stephen Hawking through the software eLocutor. “That was when I first realised what a huge area this was and what little work had been done. It was a tough job and many times we felt like slacking. But when you think that you are doing this for Stephen Hawking, you forget slacking. At the end of it all, it’s a rewarding experience doing something for people with special needs,” said Prof. Mehta who is also an avid disability rights’ campaigner

Prof. Mehta has co-authored a book ‘Technology and Competitiveness.’ He has also written a chapter in the Jolt-award winning book ‘Beautiful Code.’

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