Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur have developed technologies that will enable people with disabilities enjoy the digital world, says Indrani Roy.
Communication barrier affects people with disabilities the most,” feels Anupam Basu, chairman and head, Center for Educational Technology and professor, department of computer science and engineering at IIT-Kharagpur.
A technocrat who feels it is essential to remove the digital obstacles that dog the path of the physically-challenged, Basu is busy inventing methods to end digital divide of any sort.
Under his aegis, researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur have developed technologies that will enable people with disabilities enjoy the digital world.
In an informal discussion with rediff.com’s Indrani Roy, Basu talked about the aims of IIT-Kgp’s Communication Empowerment Laboratory and explained how as a director of the Kolkata-based Society for Natural Language Technology Research, he is fine-tuning the technology derived from IIT-Kgp for practical purposes.
Aims of the Communication Empowerment Lab
The CEL was founded with the objective of developing technology that will meet the communication and educational needs of the differently-abled.
CEL is dedicated to develop technology to
- enable education and communication of the visually impaired with the help of The Sparsha Transliteration System
- enable education and communication of children with neuro-motor disorders (such as cerebral palsy) and speech impairment through tools like Sanyog and Akashvani
On the collaboration between IIT-Kgp and Society for Natural Language Technology Research
Though the research on Sparsha, Sanyog etc took place at IIT-Kgp, the task of improving and refining the systems that were born in the Kgp lab was taken up by SNLTR.
“IIT-Kgp is the best place for research and for running pilots,” Basu told rediff.com, “But for routine improvements and refinements, one has to bank on SNLTR.”
The informal transfer of technology from IIT-Kgp to SNLTR is in the process and the formalities are expected to be over soon, he informed.
The Sparsha Transliteration System
Developed by CEL, this system can accept several Indian language texts (such as Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, Oriya, Kannada, Manipuri) as input and convert it into Braille.
“The software can take any Unicode-compliant Indian language text as input and can convert it to Braille and thus facilitates the production of Braille textbooks,” Basu told rediff.com at the SNLTR office in Rajarhat on Monday.
Sparsha can support almost all commonly used Braille printers or embossers to take out the hard copy in Braille.
Sparsha integrates regular keyboards with audio feedback to enable sightless people type in through regular personal computers.
At present, it is also being integrated with a text-to-speech system to provide screen reading and file reading facility.
IIT-Kgp and SNLTR have jointly developed the Baishakhi keyboard using which one can type in Bengali.
Moreover, it can be used for typing in Assamese, Oriya and Manipuri languages as well.
SNLTR and IIT-Kgp have also developed a speech-enabled keyboard that can aid the visually impaired students to write their examinations without writers.
“While typing on these keyboards, the students can listen to what they are writing through headphones, thus getting a chance to rectify and edit,” Basu told rediff.com.
Basu is currently associated with a project to develop a light-weight web browser.
Sponsored by ministry of communication and information technology, Government of India, and IIT Kharagpur, the browser with special features can be easily accessible by the visually impaired people.
This is a communication device (presently based on personal computers) developed by IIT-Kgp and SNLTR with the help of which specially-abled children can get to interact.
“A large number of children in India suffer from cerebral palsy. Though cognitively capable, they are deprived of access to the modern tools of communication,” Basu told rediff.com.
“They cannot use the traditional modes of communication (namely spoken and written languages) because of their physical disability,” he added.
Sanyog allows selection of icons (communicating concepts) through special indigenous access devices instead of mouse (most of these children cannot use the mouse because of motor disorders).
The system then automatically forms sentences and even spells them out through the personal computers in which it is installed.
The system is available for Bengali, Hindi and English languages at present, Basu told rediff.com.
An award-winning effort
Sanyog was very well accepted and was honoured with the Da-Vinci Award by the Engineering Society of Detroit and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Michigan for its uniqueness in 2002.
Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy has been closely associated with its development and the funding has been provided by Media Lab Asia.
Akash Vani, another fascinating innovation
Another innovation that Basu and his team have been nurturing for the last few years is Akash Vani.
It’s a tablet-based communication system to aid the physically-challenged.
“With these products, we want to propagate the cause of inclusive education,” Basu told rediff.com.
“Our motto is to develop technologies that will smoothen the path of the physically challenged population.
"Technology which can't help people with disabilities is a total flop," Basu said.
Costs of the products
Special Sparsha-integrated regular keyboards cost Rs 600 and keyboards with audio feedback are priced at Rs 2,000.
Sparsha and Sanyog software systems are priced at Rs 10,000, including training sessions that are necessary for the buyers/users.
“All these products are available at our SNLTR office,” Basu said, “The rates can be altered for bulk purchases.”
Marketing of these products
“People who know about our products approach us.
“We have written to many universities of West Bengal but so far have received positive response only from Visva Bharati,” Basu told rediff.com.
“We deliver the products through a society -- the Association for Supporting Marginalized Aspirations."
Plans for the future
“We plan to put forth a proposal to the ministry of Information Technology so that we can reach out to the maximum number of people,” Basu said.
“We plan to conduct workshops and seminars on our innovations in association with government and non-government organisations.
“It’s not easy for us to come up with a ‘business model’ in this case," Basu added.