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The power of words
Arun Mehta helps a child on the computer

Should the computer system that globally renowned physicist Stephen Hawking uses to communicate with the world ever fail, software engineer Arun Mehta expects he'll get a call. Hawking — handicapped for decades by a type of motor neuron disease — uses a computer to “talk” through a voice synthesiser.

When Hawking’s aides began scouting for a backup software, Mehta who studied at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, before obtaining an MS from the US and a doctorate in computer science from Germany, volunteered. In about two years, Mehta produced software that will allow Hawking to type out entire words and sentences with a single button, instead of the full range of buttons on a keyboard.

Mehta has spent the past five years trying to get physically challenged people to begin using computers. He’s taught computer programming skills to blind students in New Delhi — equipping some students with the expertise that would allow them to generate audio-visual content for the blind.

He’s now trying to introduce computers to autistic people. “This is an untapped market — the number of physically challenged people who have the potential to use a computer for a specific purpose with training is very large. I would suspect it runs into tens of millions,” Mehta told KnowHow. The number of people with severe visual impairment is estimated to be 30 million.

Computers could benefit others with disabilities too — for instance, spastic children who’ve been denied conventional school education because they could not speak or write well enough for the teacher to understand. “That gap could be filled by software that allows a three-year old to learn to read and write and use the text-to-speech capability to speak,” Mehta said.

Encouraged by an interactive session in Dehra Dun last year, Mehta hopes to conduct a series of computer workshops for autistic children in New Delhi and Uttaranchal in the coming months.

“We’re exploring how autistic children can interact with computers,” said Saswati Singh, founder director of Inspiration, a non-government organisation in New Delhi engaged in working with people with intellectual disabilities.

“Our observations so far are encouraging,” Singh told KnowHow. Autistic children typically have problems in communication and social interaction. “But they appear to interact better with computers than with people. One 14-year-old girl with autism demonstrated this when she typed out a message that she had been unable to articulate verbally.

But the session in Dehra Dun — captured in a film A is for autism… M is for mouse by filmmaker Juliet Reynolds — has also revealed obstacles. Autistic children can display hypersensitive responses to stimuli and some participants appeared uncomfortable with the glare of the computer.

“We’ll need to address such obstacles through research,” said Mehta. While the typical software companies rake in their dollars through standard software — exploiting India’s software skills and the low cost — Mehta has avoided that path. “That kind of work gets terribly boring,” he said.

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