• Wed. Jun 7th, 2023

Assistive technologies: towards communication, understanding, leisure, and independence


May 26, 2023

Be it finishing up his homework for the day, or accessing the personal computer lab in the college he attends, a uncomplicated, however nicely-believed-out device is what 14-year-old Madhav*, a student with muscular dystrophy utilizes. Considering the fact that he can not move his arms, Madhav accesses computer systems and other wise devices hands-no cost with the aid of ‘Mousewear’ strapped on his head. 

From electric wheelchairs and hearing aids to devices like ‘Mousewear’, there has been steady innovation, and an evolution of assistive technologies, to aid young children with a variety of disabilities focusing on understanding, communication, mobility, and most importantly- leisure.

The Globe Well being Organisation (WHO) defines “Assistive Technology” as an umbrella term covering systems and solutions connected to the delivery of assistive items and solutions aimed at preserving or enhancing an individual’s functioning or independence. 

According to estimates by WHO, two.five billion individuals globe more than want 1 or far more assistive devices. These numbers are anticipated to raise beyond three.five billion by 2050 provided a international ageing population and a rise in non-communicable ailments.

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

Game changer for communication

“For young children and young-adults with autism who are non-vocal, or even these who have restricted language abilities, an app like Avaz AAC is drastically supportive. Kids are in a position to communicate greater with this, and we in turn, get some insight into how considerably they know and have learnt,” she mentioned. 

A image and text-primarily based AAC app that empowers young children and adults with complicated communication demands to express themselves and understand, Avaz was developed by Invention Labs, a commence-up from IIT Madras. Through the pandemic when the use of electronic devices improved, parents whose young children and young-adults study at CanBridge went by way of comprehensive sessions with Akila Vaidyanathan, founder and Director, Amaze Charitable Trust, Coimbatore, on how they can facilitate the use of Avaz greater. 

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“Compared to yen years ago, we are in a position to do so considerably far more now owing to the technologies accessible. The concentrate is on creating understanding, communication, and leisure for young children with disabilities straightforward and intuitive — one thing technologies has played a large element in,” Ms. Kavitha adds. 

When it comes to communication in distinct, there’s a lot of emphasis on independence and what assistive technologies can do for the identical. Recently, as a element of the Worldwide Accessibility Awareness Day, Alexa, an A.I. service created by Amazon and Avaz, came with each other to highlight how young children on the autism spectrum can use their tech. 

A non-verbal youngster on the autism spectrum, Rudransh, a six-year-old boy communicates to his family members by way of non-verbal gestures and prompts them to use the Alexa Device to play a song. After he began working with Avaz, his parents utilised the app to audio record and pre-system Alexa commands to play his favourite songs- enabling him to independently access the device. 

Assistive technologies: homegrown and far more

A go to to Chennai’s pretty personal Museum of Possibilities is a clearly shows how far assistive technologies has come more than the years, and the sheer quantity of devices accessible in the marketplace — particularly these that are homegrown. 

Vidyasagar, an organisation operating with and for persons with disabilities, which collaborated with the Tamil Nadu Government towards setting up the museum, has for lengthy been a pioneer when it comes to assistive technologies- particularly in their operate with young children who have a variety of disabilities. 

“As a parent or as a qualified, we operate with the aim of creating young children and young adults as independent as doable. We are in an era with immense access to assistive technologies- and at Vidyasagar, we bring this in as early as doable. With the aid of a battery or even a little switch, the toys that young children commence to play with can be created accessible, and we then operate on assisting them use technologies to access rhymes and songs on line,” mentioned Kalpana Rao, principal, Day Care Centre, Vidyasagar. 

In their operate more than the years, Vidyasagar hasn’t stopped at merely guaranteeing the availability of accessible and very affordable technologies and devices for young children. The organisation has developed their personal switch – VINNER VBosS – a plug and play USB device, programmed to allow the left click of a mouse. This is aimed to aid individuals with restricted motor abilities who have a issue with accessing a keyboard or a mouse, and can be attached to a personal computer, tablet or any wise device. 

For young children, apps such as Avaz, and Study Please Plus which facilitate communication by way of Text-to-Speech, are introduced by means of laptops or bigger wise devices in schools, As they develop older, wise phones come into the image.

At schools that exclusively cater to young children with unique demands, there is no dearth of technologies like this. An early innovation in the field of assistive technologies and one thing that continues to be of utmost value – screen readers, as nicely as audio recordings, tactile images and far more are favoured by students at the Nethrodaya Totally free Residential Larger Secondary College for students who are visually impaired. 

The school’s founder C. Govindakrishnan says, there is a complete dimension to assistive technologies for the visually-impaired which is generally ignored. “There is a specific ‘’traditional’ tag provided to persons who are visually impaired and we are anticipated to nonetheless only stick to working with Braille. When the globe has moved on by leaps and bounds technologically, it is only fair that we be provided a opportunity to discover the identical by way of assistive technologies accessible for us,” he says. 

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Students at the college are introduced to computer systems from main college alongside Braille, and develop into familiar as they develop older with screen reader apps. “In the final couple of years, I’ve noticed students favor audio recordings of lectures or even their books, which are study out and recorded by volunteers to working with a screen reader. The Tamil Nadu Government’s video lessons primarily based on their textbooks which are accessible on line as well are immensely useful,” Mr. Govindakrishnan explains.

The truth is, students have been embracing technologies more rapidly than ever, particularly soon after the pandemic exactly where there was an upswing in the use of electronic devices owing to the closure of schools.

“While we insist on working with computer systems or laptops more than smartphones for young students, as they develop older, smartphones come to be exceptionally helpful to access tech like this,” he adds. A employees member at his college says that for students, there is no dearth of selections when it comes to screen reader apps. “There are more than one hundred apps that students can use- the most preferred ones amongst these becoming JAWS (Job Access with Speech), and NVDA (Non Visual Desktop Access).”


Innovations may well be aplenty, but straightforward are these to access, particularly in mainstream schools?

With ‘Mouseware’, Pravin Kumar, CEO, Dextroware, a commence-up in IIT Madras underscores how critical it is for each the parent and college neighborhood to be conscious of such assistive devices and assure young children have access to them. A head-wearable device, Mouseware has a little sensor box which is mounted on the head of the user who will then be in a position to manage a personal computer or smartphone with head movements. The clicks can be completed by way of a foot-operated switch, or other switches which can be customise ddepending on the user’s physical capability.  

“The presence of a device like this in the personal computer lab of a mainstream college for instance, will be of wonderful aid to students with disabilities studying there. We want to go beyond ramps and make understanding spaces accessible for all young children,” he adds.

Although there is immense concentrate on understanding and communication for young children with physical and intellectual disabilities, assistive technologies that facilitates leisure is equally, if not far more critical, professionals say. 

Assistive technologies for leisure

For neurodivergent young children and young adults who are resistant to go out to public spaces which consist of parks, film theatres or the beach, VR and AR devices are proving to be exceptionally helpful. They are encouraged to expertise stimulations of these spaces various occasions, till they are comfy with the thought of going to the actual space. 

“Virtual and Augmented Reality aids us address many sensory challenges that young children may well face. What we perceive as exceptionally typical and standard, may well bother them and in this circumstance, these simulations come in handy,” mentioned Durga Priya, Head of Therapy, Mirra Charitable Trust.

From working with an XBox 360 which has games that young children with restricted movement can participate in and get pleasure from, to working with songs and games especially created for young children in her sessions, Ms. Durga mentioned that young children take to the visual element that these technologies have which tends to make it straightforward for them to comply with and have an understanding of. Operating with neurodiverse folks, Ms Durga mentioned that there are a variety of assistive technologies that aid address unique regions- physical therapy, movement, social navigation and considerably far more. 

“For young children who have movement challenges or the weakness of 1 limb, we use Smart glove — a wearable device which aids them operate a virtual keyboard. Physique vests come in handy for young children who have gravitational insecurity,” she says.

Challenges, and the way forward

As is the case with any new technologies, hesitation, and even resistance to a specific extent is not far away when it comes to assistive technologies as nicely. This particularly, for technologies or devices that concentrate on understanding and communication.

“While some parents are immediately enthusiastic, there is a section that desires to stay away from gadgets or apps for communication and are hesitant to introduce it to their young children in the worry that they may well be glued to it. Parents think that this may well lower social interaction even additional,” mentioned Radha Nandhakumar, founder and managing trustee, Gurukulam, an integrated centre for young children with unique demands.

Although she says that assistive technologies applications like Avaz can facilitate communication, she stresses on the want for successfully working with them and the value of far more awareness in this regard. “Any assistive technologies for communication in distinct, really should be utilised judiciously and only to facilitate, not replace the all-natural improvement course of action,” Ms. Radha adds.

A Senior Occupational Therapist, and President, Tamil Nadu Occupational Therapists Association, V. Vanchinathan highlights yet another critical aspect of assistive devices and technologies- customisation. “Any adaptive device has to 1st be customised according to the demands of the person. Each individual’s physical and mental skills will be unique- and a 1-size fits all strategy can not be taken with regard to any device or technologies for a variety of disabilities,” he says.

He additional stresses on the value of going by an evaluation and suggestions of an occupational therapist. “They play a essential part in the evaluation of the person and the atmosphere they are in. Men and women really should verify with certified occupational therapists, who will be in a position to guide them on how to customise assistive devices or technologies to their needs with regard to the style and supplies utilised,” he added. 

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