Assistive technology: towards communication, learning, leisure, and independence

A great deal of devices and apps have emerged over the last two decades that enable persons with disabilities, particularly children, to live and learn with some ease

Updated - May 26, 2023 11:04 pm IST

Published - May 26, 2023 11:00 am IST - CHENNAI

Image for representational purpose only.

Image for representational purpose only. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Be it finishing up his homework for the day, or accessing the computer lab in the school he attends, a simple, yet well-thought-out device is what 14-year-old Madhav*, a student with muscular dystrophy uses. Since he cannot move his arms, Madhav accesses computers and other smart devices hands-free with the help of ‘Mouseware’ strapped on his head. 

From electric wheelchairs and hearing aids to devices like ‘Mouseware’, there has been steady innovation, and an evolution of assistive technologies, to help children with a range of disabilities focusing on learning, communication, mobility, and most importantly- leisure.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines “Assistive Technology” as an umbrella term covering systems and services related to the delivery of assistive products and services aimed at maintaining or improving an individual’s functioning or independence. 

Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

According to estimates by WHO, 2.5 billion people world over need one or more assistive devices. These numbers are expected to increase beyond 3.5 billion by 2050 given a global ageing population and a rise in non-communicable diseases.

Having extensively worked with young-adults who are on the autism spectrum, Kavitha Krishnamurthy, Co-Founder of CanBridge Academy, says technology powered assistive devices which help with communication have been a ‘game changer’. 

Game changer for communication

“For children and young-adults with autism who are non-vocal, or even those who have limited language skills, an app like Avaz AAC is greatly supportive. Children are able to communicate better with this, and we in turn, get some insight into how much they know and have learnt,” she said. 

A picture and text-based AAC app that empowers children and adults with complex communication needs to express themselves and learn, Avaz was created by Invention Labs, a start-up from IIT Madras. During the pandemic when the use of electronic devices increased, parents whose children and young-adults study at CanBridge went through extensive sessions with Akila Vaidyanathan, founder and Director, Amaze Charitable Trust, Coimbatore, on how they can facilitate the use of Avaz better. 

Also read | Mumbai gets Ministry for the Disabled, the first in the country

“Compared to 10 years ago, we are able to do so much more now owing to the technology available. The focus is on making learning, communication, and leisure for children with disabilities easy and intuitive — something technology has played a huge part in,” Ms. Kavitha adds. 

When it comes to communication in particular, there’s a lot of emphasis on independence and what assistive technology can do for the same. Recently, as a part of the Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Alexa, an A.I. service developed by Amazon and Avaz, came together to highlight how children on the autism spectrum can use their tech. 

A non-verbal child on the autism spectrum, Rudransh, a six-year-old boy communicates to his family through non-verbal gestures and prompts them to use the Alexa Device to play a song. Once he started using Avaz, his parents used the app to audio record and pre-program Alexa commands to play his favourite songs- enabling him to independently access the device. 

Assistive technology: homegrown and more

A visit to Chennai’s very own Museum of Possibilities is a clearly shows how far assistive technology has come over the years, and the sheer number of devices available in the market — especially those that are homegrown. 

Vidyasagar, an organisation working with and for persons with disabilities, which collaborated with the Tamil Nadu Government towards setting up the museum, has for long been a pioneer when it comes to assistive technology- especially in their work with children who have a range of disabilities. 

“As a parent or as a professional, we work with the aim of making children and young adults as independent as possible. We are in an era with immense access to assistive technology- and at Vidyasagar, we bring this in as early as possible. With the help of a battery or even a small switch, the toys that children begin to play with can be made accessible, and we then work on helping them use technology to access rhymes and songs online,” said Kalpana Rao, principal, Day Care Centre, Vidyasagar. 

In their work over the years, Vidyasagar hasn’t stopped at simply ensuring the availability of accessible and affordable technologies and devices for children. The organisation has created their own switch - VINNER VBosS - a plug and play USB device, programmed to enable the left click of a mouse. This is aimed to help people with limited motor skills who have a problem with accessing a keyboard or a mouse, and can be attached to a computer, tablet or any smart device. 

For children, apps such as Avaz, and Read Please Plus which facilitate communication through Text-to-Speech, are introduced via laptops or larger smart devices in schools, As they grow older, smart phones come into the picture.

At schools that exclusively cater to children with special needs, there is no dearth of technology like this. An early innovation in the field of assistive technology and something that continues to be of utmost importance - screen readers, as well as audio recordings, tactile pictures and more are favoured by students at the Nethrodaya Free Residential Higher Secondary School for students who are visually impaired. 

The school’s founder C. Govindakrishnan says, there is a whole dimension to assistive technology for the visually-impaired which is often ignored. “There is a certain ‘’traditional’ tag given to persons who are visually impaired and we are expected to still only stick to using Braille. When the world has moved on by leaps and bounds technologically, it is only fair that we be given a chance to explore the same through assistive technology available for us,” he says. 

ALSO READ | Shaping a more disabled-friendly digital ecosystem

Students at the school are introduced to computers from primary school alongside Braille, and become familiar as they grow older with screen reader apps. “In the last few years, I’ve seen students prefer audio recordings of lectures or even their books, which are read out and recorded by volunteers to using a screen reader. The Tamil Nadu Government’s video lessons based on their textbooks which are available online too are immensely helpful,” Mr. Govindakrishnan explains.

The truth is, students have been embracing technology faster than ever, especially after the pandemic where there was an upswing in the use of electronic devices owing to the closure of schools.

“While we insist on using computers or laptops over smartphones for young students, as they grow older, smartphones come to be extremely useful to access tech like this,” he adds. A staff member at his school says that for students, there is no dearth of choices when it comes to screen reader apps. “There are over 100 apps that students can use- the most popular ones among these being JAWS (Job Access with Speech), and NVDA (Non Visual Desktop Access).”

Mainstreaming

Innovations might be aplenty, but easy are these to access, especially in mainstream schools?

With ‘Mouseware’, Pravin Kumar, CEO, Dextroware, a start-up in IIT Madras underscores how important it is for both the parent and school community to be aware of such assistive devices and ensure children have access to them. A head-wearable device, Mouseware has a small sensor box which is mounted on the head of the user who will then be able to control a computer or smartphone with head movements. The clicks can be done through a foot-operated switch, or other switches which can be customise ddepending on the user’s physical ability.  

“The presence of a device like this in the computer lab of a mainstream school for instance, will be of great help to students with disabilities studying there. We need to go beyond ramps and make learning spaces accessible for all children,” he adds.

While there is immense focus on learning and communication for children with physical and intellectual disabilities, assistive technology that facilitates leisure is equally, if not more important, experts say. 

Assistive technology for leisure

For neurodivergent children and young adults who are resistant to go out to public spaces which include parks, movie theatres or the beach, VR and AR devices are proving to be extremely useful. They are encouraged to experience stimulations of these spaces multiple times, till they are comfortable with the idea of visiting the actual space. 

“Virtual and Augmented Reality helps us address several sensory challenges that children might face. What we perceive as extremely normal and typical, might bother them and in this situation, these simulations come in handy,” said Durga Priya, Head of Therapy, Mirra Charitable Trust.

From using an XBox 360 which has games that children with limited movement can participate in and enjoy, to using songs and games specifically designed for children in her sessions, Ms. Durga said that children take to the visual element that these technologies have which makes it easy for them to follow and understand. Working with neurodiverse individuals, Ms Durga said that there are a range of assistive technologies that help address different areas- physical therapy, movement, social navigation and much more. 

“For children who have movement challenges or the weakness of one limb, we use Smart glove — a wearable device which helps them operate a virtual keyboard. Body vests come in handy for children who have gravitational insecurity,” she says.

Challenges, and the way forward

As is the case with any new technology, hesitation, and even resistance to a certain extent isn’t far away when it comes to assistive technology as well. This especially, for technology or devices that focus on learning and communication.

“While some parents are instantly enthusiastic, there is a section that wants to avoid gadgets or apps for communication and are hesitant to introduce it to their children in the fear that they might be glued to it. Parents believe that this might reduce social interaction even further,” said Radha Nandhakumar, founder and managing trustee, Gurukulam, an integrated centre for children with special needs.

While she says that assistive technology applications like Avaz can facilitate communication, she stresses on the need for effectively using them and the importance of more awareness in this regard. “Any assistive technology for communication in particular, should be used judiciously and only to facilitate, not replace the natural development process,” Ms. Radha adds.

A Senior Occupational Therapist, and President, Tamil Nadu Occupational Therapists Association, V. Vanchinathan highlights another important aspect of assistive devices and technology- customisation. “Any adaptive device has to first be customised according to the needs of the individual. Every individual’s physical and mental abilities will be different- and a one-size fits all approach cannot be taken with regard to any device or technology for a range of disabilities,” he says.

He further stresses on the importance of going by an evaluation and recommendations of an occupational therapist. “They play a vital role in the evaluation of the individual and the environment they are in. Individuals should check with certified occupational therapists, who will be able to guide them on how to customise assistive devices or technology to their requirements with regard to the design and materials used,” he added. 

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in

Comments

Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.