Making Every Voice Heard

Posted By: Rise Team|Dated: October 5, 2012

We’re combing the country to find examples of intelligent, scalable innovation – and we’re going to pick 20 of the best to be featured here, and on the pages of Tehelka. These are some of the most compelling and untold stories of our time – and they reflect another truth; that spirit and determination can master any challenge.

This article was originally published here.


AN ENGINEER from IIT-Madras, Ajit Narayanan, 31, had worked with American Megatrends before returning to India where he founded Invention Labs and returned to a passion he had encountered while at his alma mater: developing communication devices for the disabled.

THE CHALLENGE

AN ESTIMATED 10 million people in India have speech impediments — those afflicted by autism, cerebral palsy, etc. — limiting not just their physical functioning but the core of all human engagement, communication. Yet, most autistic children are often bright, aware and equipped to learn and contribute effectively, if barriers to communication are stripped away. Autism, for instance, is a neural disorder impairing social and communication abilities significantly. Affected children or adults are often unable to string together complete sentences or express feelings and desires and moods openly. Those that can still take an inordinate amount of time to do so, making learning especially difficult.

THE IDEA

AJIT NARAYANAN’S Invention Labs partnered with Vidya Sagar (previously the Spastics Society of India) in Chennai to understand the needs and challenges of those with speech impediments. They also studied the available aids. Two key challenges emerged: cost and language. The devices available cost anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000, making them out of reach of anyone but the affluent. Second, they were available to English-speaking users only.

Narayanan and his team spent two years developing prototypes, working closely with students and teachers on a tablet-style device that they named Avaz, a portable, battery-operated gadget that constructs messages from rough muscle movements. Those messages are then converted into speech. The tablet is equipped with a touchscreen and sensors to detect body movements; these inputs then get converted into sentences, which the device speaks aloud. It uses a scanning technique to make these connections — the screen displays various options with a highlighter that moves between different options. When the highlighter is hovering on the option the child wishes to select, he or she can make the selection by making a strong muscle movement like shaking the head or touching the screen. Once the full sentence has been framed, it is converted into speech.

For more able users, the functionality includes being able to type full words, predictive text input via the touchscreen, and an image bank where users can click on pictures to communicate visually.

THE INNOVATOR

AN ENGINEER from IIT-Madras, Ajit Narayanan, 31, had worked with American Megatrends before returning to India where he founded Invention Labs and returned to a passion he had encountered while at his alma mater: developing communication devices for the disabled. With a Master’s in electrical engineering, he had already won a couple of prestigious prizes before Avaz, but the recognition for his work has propelled him into a select legion of innovators who have won the National Award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, along with MIT’s TR35 award for Innovator of the Year.

THE IMPACT

AS AVAZ GETS widely adopted, thanks to its relatively accessible cost ( 25,000), feedback has poured in. Innovation Labs has also partnered with the Cerebral Palsy Institute of Kolkata and the Spastics Society of Karnataka. Educators have found Avaz most effective for autistic students — its customisable visual templates addressed a critical discovery during the development process: that autistic children respond much better to visual cues than spoken ones. Avaz’s true impact is not as a device as much as a technology that can alter the landscape of special needs education.

THE WAY FORWARD

NARAYANAN HAS big plans for Avaz. There’s a software version available for those who don’t want the physical device but want to use its functionality on a PC. But the biggest and potentially most gamechanging innovation came with the development of the Avaz app for the iPad and Android, which promises to reinvent special needs education. Taking the genius of the app to devices the user may already own gives it great reach and accessibility.

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